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Electoral politics in Richmond, California is not for the faint-hearted, the thin-skinned, the overly pure, or those easily unsettled by last minute line-up changes. Late last week, on the eve of the filing deadline for city candidates, a longtime city council member not up for re-election this year decided to throw his hat into the ring for mayor.
Arkansas native Tom Butt, a 70-year-old architect, Vietnam veteran, and 41-year resident of Pt. Richmond seeks to replace Gayle McLaughlin, the well-known California Green and leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), who is subject to a two-term limit as mayor.
A liberal Democrat, Butt is not part of the RPA but frequently allies himself with its members on the city council. When RPA first emerged a decade ago, Butt applauded the fact that “a seemingly unlikely group of Greens, Latinos, progressive Democrats, African-Americans, and free spirits” could forge the “first Richmond coalition in memory united over ideals rather than power and personalities.”
Sadly but necessarily, his last minute entry into the race now has led RPA candidate Mike Parker, a free-spirited socialist and longtime labor activist, to announce his withdrawal from the mayoral contest to avoid a November election scenario in which “the progressive vote would likely be split.”
In Search of Unity
Butt’s sudden decision to run for mayor came eight months after RPA activists, including Parker and McLaughlin, originally urged him to join forces with them, in better-timed fashion. McLaughlin and Vice-Mayor Jovanka Beckles are currently running for two of four Richmond council seats up for grabs this year. A third member of their RPA-backed “Team Richmond” is retired teacher Eduardo Martinez, who was runner-up in the city’s last “non-partisan” council race two years ago.
The Progressives’ private overture to Butt last winter was motivated by the need to unify liberal and more left leaning voters in the face of an unfolding multi-million dollar push by Chevron, the city’s largest employer, to install a more compliant mayor in the post-McLaughin era. Although Richmond has been a Chevron-dominated refinery town for much of the last century, the city has, under McLaughlin, attracted national publicity for its progressive policy initiatives and enviro-friendliness.
In fact, since 1996, this largely non-white, working class city, with a population of 100,000, has been the largest U.S. municipality with a Green mayor. But, in both of McLaughlin’s successful mayoral campaigns after her initial city council victory in 2004, she never received more than a plurality of the vote, benefitting each time from competition between two business-backed candidates.
RPA’s Plan B
After Butt declined, at first, to run for mayor in tandem with the RPA’s 2014 council slate, he threw his support to fellow Democrat Charles Ramsey, president of the Contra Costa County School District Board. Ramsey seemed to him, at the time, to be the best bet for beating Chevron’s expected mayoral candidate, 82-year old Nat Bates, senior member of the Richmond council, a reliable business booster, and regular adversary of Butt and the RPA on key political issues.
After Ramsey raised more than $100,000 for his mayoral campaign (from building trades unions and unionized contractors), he suddenly pulled out of that race this summer, announcing his candidacy for the Richmond council instead. In the meantime, the RPA had to come up with a proposed replacement for McLaughlin. To the great benefit of its “Team Richmond,” the RPA tapped Parker, a community organizer and forceful critic of Chevron’s unsafe practices. A longtime auto union activist in Detroit, Parker retired from Chrysler and then became a community college teacher, helping young people in Contra Costa County become skilled industrial electricians and technicians.
Parker was an energetic and effective candidate. He spent the last five months canvassing door-to-door and recruiting volunteers in Richmond. He enlisted the many small, non-corporate donors necessary for RPA candidates to take full advantage of Richmond’s system of local public matching funds (capped at $25,000). He also racked up a series of helpful labor endorsements, including from Service Employees Local 1021 (which represents Richmond city hall employees), the California Nurses Association, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Amalgamated Transit Union, Communications Workers Local 9119, and others with members in Richmond.
Yet last week, despite all this grassroots work, Parker found himself hurriedly conferring with Butt and getting what RPA strategists hope will be sufficient commitments from him about campaign coordination and future council cooperation. In his withdrawal statement, Parker declared he was still going to be “an active part of ‘Team Richmond’” this fall.
He promised” to work very hard to continue the progress we have made in Richmond” by electing candidates “who represent a different kind of politics, based on organized people-power– not on corporate power.” He also reminded some in his own camp, who remain wary and resentful of Butt, about the overriding “need to challenge Chevron-backed candidates and those unwilling to stand up against Chevron when representing the community.”
A Master Extortionist?
A council member for 19 years, Butt graciously praised Parker’s decision to bow out. Echoing a favorite RPA campaign theme this year, Butt declared that “Richmond is better off in every way—safer, cleaner, healthier, quieter, and greener…We need to keep up this drive for excellence.” He also bemoaned the fact that Richmond’s “huge progress” was now “in danger of being undermined by contention between the extremes, both on the council and in the community”—political framing that does a disservice to the RPA and his more consistently left-leaning colleagues, McLaughlin and Beckles, both of whom now back him for mayor.
In an interview in April, when he was still disclaiming any mayoral ambitions, Butt struck a similar note about the need for more sensible centrism in Richmond. “It’s really almost a shame,” he told me, “that we don’t have any moderate, smart, capable people looking to run for the Council.”
Prior to Parker’s departure, the suddenly crowded mayor’s race was looking good to Nat Bates. The beneficiary of big corporate bucks four years ago, Bates lost in a 3-way mayoral race against McLaughlin, because a former Richmond Chamber of Commerce president also opposed her. Bates was positively gleeful about the prospect of a divided left-liberal field that would improve his chances this time around. (Management consultant Uche Uwahemu, a newcomer to Richmond politics, is also running for mayor but with little visibility or political base.)
In recent email blasts at his opposition, Bates was already conflating “the radical RPA”–which is “so hostile toward Chevron and businesses in general”–with his liberal nemesis, Butt, who is himself a local business owner. Bates accused Butt of being a “master extortionist” in recent negotiations with Chevron about the funding of a “community benefits agreement” necessary to secure city approval of a controversial refinery modernization plan. (That project was approved by a 5-to-0 council vote on July 29; Bates and Butt were both in favor but McLaughlin and Beckles abstained because they felt that greater Chevron concessions, financial or otherwise, could have been obtained.)
Dissing what it took to get $90 million for various city programs over the next ten years does not appear to be a winning strategy in a community well aware of Chevron’s “ability to pay” (and past underpayment of local property taxes). So at the Saturday opening of his campaign headquarters on Macdonald Avenue, Bates told his largely non-white crowd of 30 that Butt and two other council members, who worked out the final details of the Chevron deal, pushed their own environmental agenda and failed to “show respect” for the broader Richmond community. Declaring himself the representative of “all of Richmond, not one part of it,” Bates said the settlement with Chevron “had nothing to do with the best interests of all of Richmond.”
Bates’ own gathering was revealingly inclusive. Present to support his campaign was the notorious Mark Wassberg, a Richmond council meeting regular known for his vile homophobic slurs against Beckles, a black Latina who is Richmond’s first openly gay city official. In an editorial over the weekend, The San Francisco Chronicle criticized Wassberg by name and urged the entire “Richmond community to…shame those who would distract from the work of conducting the public’s business to broadcast their own hateful message.” There was no such community shunning or shaming of Wassberg at the Bates event on Saturday.
However, with three months to go before election day, there’s still ample time for the aged African-American Democrat to ditch such embarrassing baggage. With high-priced consultant help and multiple mass mailings, Bates will also be fine-tuning the pro-Chevron message he has been delivering so dutifully for years. And Richmond voters will most certainly be hearing more from him (and Big Oil’s “independent expenditure” committee) about the last-minute election compact between RPA and Butt, birds of a different feather forced to fly more closely together, for community benefit not funded by Chevron.
Steve Early lives in Richmond and belongs to its ten-year-old Progressive Alliance. He is the author of Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and is now writing a book about the emergence of progressive politics in Richmond. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)