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In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control

Photo by Phil Roeder | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Phil Roeder | CC BY 2.0

In June, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wound up his presidential primary campaign by urging his supporters to run for office themselves.

About 20,000 volunteered to do so–in this election cycle or future ones. And, since then, the Sanders-inspired organization known as Our Revolution (OR) has endorsed about 100 like-minded candidates across the country. They include Sanders fans running for seats in Congress and state legislatures, on city councils and local school boards, and mayoral positions.

In Richmond, the scene of an epic electoral battle between local progressives and Chevron-backed candidates in 2014, two would-be city councilors are getting OR fund-raising and publicity help (including a photo op with Sanders during his visit to San Francisco last weekend). Melvin Willis and Ben Choi are leaders of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a force for change in their majority minority city of 110,000 for the last 13 years. During that time, RPA candidates have won eight mayoral or council races while losing only six local contests. Two of those initially unsuccessful candidates now serve on the city council after getting elected on their second or third attempt.

Unlike most first-time candidates, Willis and Choi have the benefit of existing political infrastructure of the sort OR hopes to foster in more cities and states. The RPA has a bustling downtown office and dues paying membership of several hundred; its most active volunteers publish a newspaper mailed several times a year to 30,000 Richmond residents and support a year-round program of multi-issue organizing. The group’s election campaign coordinators have a database of past progressive voters.

Like political insurgents elsewhere who identify more with Sanders personally than the Democratic Party, Willis and Choi are clashing with local Clintonites. In Richmond, leading Democrats, including Mayor Tom Butt and his longtime council rival, Nate Bates, are against rent control. As an organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), 25-year old Willis helped spearhead the effort to get a city council majority to approve rent regulation in 2015, before a California Apartment Association (CAA) petition drive triggered suspension of that local ordinance.
Rent control and the requirement of just cause for eviction are now on the Richmond ballot Nov. 8, in revised form. The CAA is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat this measure, along with pro-rent control referenda in nearby Alameda, Burlingame, San Mateo, and Mountain View.

Corporate Money Rejected

The field of nine Richmond candidates seeking three open seats on its city council is split 5 to 4 between foes and friends of rent control. Five contenders are past or present city councilors, with higher name recognition than the RPA hopefuls; one fellow African-American in the race, senior city councilor Nate Bates, is 60 years older than Willis! “Team Richmond 2016,” as the RPA calls its slate, is taking on three lawyers, a local businessman, and a neighborhood council leader who, despite being a rent control critic, is backed by six Democratic Party organizations and liberal state Assemblyman Tony Thurmond.

No one else in the officially “non-partisan” race, except Willis and Choi, refuses contributions from corporations or industry associations like the CAA—a stance that both RPA activists stress at every candidate forum. Their campaigns are using house parties to attract enough small donors, of the Sanders variety, so both candidates can fully utilize local public matching funds. In Richmond, that system provides a maximum of $25,000 to office seekers who can raise $30,000 in private contributions.

A graduate of Amherst College, Choi comes from a Korean immigrant family in Los Angeles; he works for Marin Clean Energy, a non-profit renewable energy provider responsible for reducing fossil fuel dependence among local utility users. The son of a single mother in Richmond, Willis has personally experienced both homelessness and low-wage work. He graduated from a local high school but opted to become a full-time community organizing, rather than pursue further education. Three years ago, in recognition of his tireless neighborhood canvassing for refinery safety, soda taxation, tenant and home-owner protection, plus a higher minimum wage, Willis received the prestigious Mario Savio Young Activist Award at UC-Berkeley.

Willis and Choi have both served on the city planning commission, a background they tout in candidate night debates about balanced development and housing affordability. They were appointed by Gayle McLaughin during her eight years as the city’s Green mayor. McLaughlin was termed out two years ago but now serves as a Richmond councilor and leading proponent of rent control. Prior to California’s Democratic primary in June, she broke with Green Party orthodoxy and urged her supporters to join her in voting for Sanders.

Killing The Golden Goose?

McLaughlin’s election night dream this Fall is a first-time ever RPA majority of four or more on the city’s 7-member council. That is not an outcome favored by her 72-year old successor in city hall, a native of Arkansas who appeared with Bill Clinton at a local pre-primary event for Hillary. A decade ago, Tom Butt welcomed the “Greens, Latinos, progressive Democrats, African-Americans, and free spirits” in the RPA as valuable political allies. In October, 2014, he joined McLaughlin on the stage with Sanders at a Richmond rally protesting Big Oil’s $3.1 million campaign to elect Chevron-friendly candidates rather than Butt and that year’s three-member RPA slate, which included McLaughlin.

Since then, Richmond’s left-liberal united front has fractured over rent control, reform of the city’s police commission, and various water-front development controversies. After ACCE organizers like Willis, concerned ministers, local unions, and the RPA pressed the University of California for concessions related to a proposed campus expansion in Richmond, Butt blamed them for “killing the golden goose” when that project was suspended due to stalled private sector fundraising and UC-B Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ sudden resignation this summer. When Richmond tenants got rowdy at a Sept. 13 city council meeting–where a 45-day moratorium on evictions failed to win a necessary super-majority vote–Butt accused the RPA of “riot and bullying.”

In email blasts to several thousand readers of his E-Forum, Butt now condemns the RPA for its “ideological purity” and raises the specter of “bloc voting” by progressive councilors who, in his view, have “almost no interest in economic development and job creation.” As he told me recently, “if they get a fourth member on the council, it would be an absolute disaster for Richmond and would make my life miserable.” In some past interviews, Butt has even hinted he might resign if his own council vote was rendered irrelevant.

On the campaign trail, Melvin Willis reminds voters that, “before the RPA, Richmond was a terrible and dangerous place.” The city council was dominated by “a voting bloc called the Chevron Five,” politicians bought and paid for by the city’s largest employer (an arrangement that some present-day RPA critics, although not Butt, had no problem with then).

Addressing a crowd at Richmond’s Washington elementary school on Sept. 28, Choi disputed the “perception of RPA as unyielding and uncompromising,” saying that neither he nor Willis “fit that stereotype.” In the closing days of their campaign, Choi and Willis are both counting on the RPA’s much-tested GOTV capacity—plus additional voter-turn out help from Our Revolution. They’re also getting strong support from pro-Sanders unions like the California Nurses Association, National Union of Healthcare Workers, and Amalgamated Transit Union, plus the Richmond branch of SEIU Local 1021, which represents city workers and whose international union favored Clinton.

The outcome of Richmond’s referendum on rent regulation will directly affect about 25,000 people in 9,000 residential units. If enough voters in those often lower-income households participate in the election, they may also favor the candidates most strongly identified with tenant protection. The coat-tail effect of a big pro-rent control vote could give the RPA its largest city council delegation ever—in an election year when its main adversary in the past, Chevron, has been laying low and avoiding the “independent expenditure” over-kill that back-fired against conservative Democrats running two years ago.

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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 Lsupport@aol.com

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