Andrew Young: Prophet of Urban Renewal or Big Oil’s Reverend for Rent?

In his remarkable six decade career in public life, 82-year old Andy Young has been many things to many people: civil rights movement minister and courageous ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Democratic Congressman from Georgia, U.S. emissary to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter, two-term mayor of Atlanta in the 1980s, and then leader of the National Council of Churches.

Last Monday night, he appeared before a largely African-American crowd at a “community dinner” in Richmond, CA. a blue-collar city of 100,000 that is 85% non-white. His visit was hosted by a recently created 501 (c) (4) organization known as “For Richmond,” which dispenses much-needed grants to local non-profits like the YMCA.

Young’s appearance showcased his own re-incarnation as a skilled, if not uncontroversial, friend of private enterprise, including some of the biggest firms in the world. The timing of his visit was not unrelated to Richmond’s upcoming municipal election.

In advance publicity for his well-attended event, our guest speaker was repeatedly identified as “Ambassador Young.” That particular White House-bestowed honorific went south in 1979 when Young’s laudable outreach to Palestinian critics of Israel led to his forced resignation by the Carter Administration. Instead of dwelling on old war stories about his “mobilization of the Third World in the interests of the United States of America,” Reverend Young craftily regaled his Richmond audience with colorful tales of economic revival in Atlanta, as engineered under his personal leadership.

On Nov. 4, Richmond voters face a stark choice between mayoral candidates who have conflicting ideas about how to sustain their own city’s much-publicized renaissance.  The two contenders to replace Gayle McLaughlin, who is termed out, even disagree on whether Richmond is better off eight years after the largest city in the country with a Green mayor first elected her. Both of McLaughlin’s would-be successors—city councilor Nat Bates, who is black, and Tom Butt, who is white—came together, like 1960s civil rights movement allies, to hear Reverend Young’s purely non-partisan reflections on creating “a global community of peace, prosperity, and inclusion.”

Lessons in Social Responsibility

Kyra Worthy, executive director of For Richmond, hailed Young’s speech as a “unique opportunity” to “learn how communities can economically flourish from the seeds of social responsibility.” In the printed program for the evening, Worthy thanked two major funding sources not always known for their corporate “social responsibility” on questions related to sugary drink taxation or refinery safety regulation. Both Coca Cola, headquartered in Atlanta and Chevron, based in nearby San Ramon, helped bring Young to Richmond.

As the city’s largest and, for nearly a century, most dominant employer, Chevron was clearly the senior partner in this joint venture. When For Richmond was launched, all of its $500,000 in start up money came from the energy giant, plus $100, 000 for grants distributed locally in 2013. As of a year ago, Chevron was still For Richmond’s only donor; the company’s other local philanthropy includes a pledge to spend $15.5 million on neighborhood programs and public schools over the next five years.

Meanwhile, down in Atlanta, the Andrew J. Young Foundation—very much a Clinton-style family affair– displays, with obvious pride, a familiar blue and white corporate logo on its website. Its CFO confirmed to me that Chevron provided $550,000 in funding last year, making it a very singular “sustaining sponsor.” That’s a category of corporate largesse far more generous than mere “sponsors” like Lockheed Martin, Delta Airlines, Honda, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Georgia Power, AT&T and others similarly situated on the Fortune 500 list.

In the Young Foundation’s 2011 IRS filing—the only one available on its website—the former ambassador’s charity reported salaries, administrative costs, and other expenses three times greater than its total gifts and grants. Chevron’s well-timed donation was clearly a big boost to the foundation’s fuzzy bottom line and possibly under-served beneficiaries?

Not surprisingly, Reverend Young’s rambling after-dinner speech stressed themes dear to the heart of his major donor. In fact, our distinguished visitor from Atlanta deftly reinforced the campaign messaging of Nat Bates, Richmond’s leading beneficiary of record-breaking election spending by Chevron.

Bates vs. Butt

Bates is the 83-year old conservative Democrat who is trying replace McLaughlin by tarring her (and Butt by association) as too hostile to new business. Bates and three city council candidates backed by Chevron have been aided by $3 million in oil industry PAC money, making their own local fundraising almost unnecessary. (For details,

In his campaign for mayor, Arkansas-born Butt has questioned the  mindset of city council colleagues like Bates, whose first priority has always been “to take care of Chevron and developers and the industrial community.” As Butt explained to The Chronicle’s Chip Johnson in August, this “was Richmond’s version of the trickle-down theory.” He argues instead that, “the reason businesses come to a city is not because the council kisses their ass. They’re looking for amenities and quality of life because that’s what their employees want….And that’s what I’ve tried to do—make Richmond a place where people want to live.”

Yet, much like Nat Bates in recent mayoral debates, Young touted the virtues of tax breaks and incentives to attract foreign capital, with  any job-creating potential. “If Asian economies want to grow, what better place to create a business, educate your children or invest your money right here?” he asked his Richmond crowd. When he was mayor of Atlanta, he reported, would-be investors from Germany, Holland, Japan, and other countries were told that, if they had any problems setting up shop, they should call him personally. “You don’t have to worry about the city council or bureaucrats,” he assured them.

“We’re not going to be able to raise taxes. People are paying enough in taxes,” he asserted on Monday night. “You can’t do it [economic development] with government money. It’s got to be private-public partnerships.”

Who’s Selling Us Out?

In recent years, Young’s own lucrative partnering with global business has sometimes tarnished his reputation as an esteemed elder in the African-American community. As Bruce Dixon, editor of the Black Agenda Report, noted last year, one of “Young’s first big clients was Nike…Amid mounting public outrage over labor practices in its global sweatshop empire, Young ‘toured’ some of Nike’s Asian factories and produced a glowing whitewash report depicting happy and contented Nike workers sitting on porches strumming guitars.”

Then, there was Young’s short-lived stint as the chairperson of “Working Families for Wal-Mart.” On National Public Radio, Young claimed that this was “a citizen organization, though it’s funded in part by Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart suppliers.”  This was definitely not a group devoted to improving the lot of retail store employees, lacking job rights or benefits. Instead, Young defended their low-wage employer’s role in “generating new wealth.” He even insisted that Wal-Mart’s “pluses outweigh the minuses” in the area of health insurance (which remains unaffordable to many and was recently terminated for 30,000 part-timers).

Young was mainly deployed as a leading advocate of Wal-Mart’s urban expansion. His management-financed gig ended abruptly after he was interviewed, rather disastrously, by the Los Angeles Sentinal. In that widely-read African-American weekly, Young downplayed the negative economic of Wal-Mart on smaller, independent businesses located in older downtown locations and operated by immigrants.

“You see those are the people who have been overcharging us,” he told Sentinal readers. “And they sold us out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First, it was Jews, then it was Koreans, and now it’s Arabs.” (For more on Young’s tawdry work for Wal-Mart, see: Andrew Young: a Shameless Son.)

Young’s only verbal gaffe in northern California this week was relatively minor and only reported by Tom Butt.  At a private reception before his public talk, Young related how, under his leadership, concerned citizens of Atlanta had forged a “progressive alliance” to revitalize the city in the 1980s.  From Chevron’s standpoint, that was very off-message—and careless phrasing not repeated in Young’s post-dinner speech. In Richmond, a local Progressive Alliance has been challenging Big Oil’s agenda for the past decade. That RPA is now running city council candidates, including McLaughlin, who may prove difficult (or, at least, very costly) to defeat. They are closely aligned with Butt in his race against Bates.

Writing last year about Young’s not-so-distinguished service as a “high priced lobbyist, fixer and go-between for multinational capital,” Bruce Dixon noted that the former ambassador was “due for a rest.” The black journalist expressed the hope that “that he goes somewhere and sits down, before he can do any more damage.” Young was sitting down all right, as he addressed his attentive crowd of three hundred in Richmond last Monday night, before slowly shuffling off the stage. But Young sure wasn’t resting on his laurels as a pitchman for corporate America and, by implication on this occasion, its African-American candidate for mayor of Richmond.

Steve Early is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and a supporter of Tom Butt for mayor of Richmond. He is the author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress and other books. Early is currently working on a book about politics and public policy controversies in Richmond. He can be reached at


Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at