The Dilemmas of Progressive Electoral Politics

A review of Refinery Town:  Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, by Steve Early, Forward by Senator Bernie Sanders, Beacon Press, 2016.

In the otherwise bleak landscape of American politics, a few oases exist.  One of the most hopeful is the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a now almost 15-year old electoral effort in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond.  In Refinery Town, activist-author and recently-arrived Richmond resident Steve Early tells its story.  It is a tale well-told, and a good antidote for the despair that now runs rampant among many American progressives.

RPA was built by people on the left.  In its politics, it departed from much of what has been the more mainstream progressivism:

+ It is multi-issue, not single issue.

+ It raises money from individuals and organizations like unions; it isn’t foundation dependent, and it accepts no funds from corporations.

+ It is multi-ethnic and racial; its members are young and old, and they come from a variety of backgrounds: environmental groups, unions, interest and “identity” organizations, senior clubs and more; it is thus forced to deal with ‘contradictions among the people’ in its internal deliberations, candidate selection and policy formulations.

+ Its focus is on economic justice and environment issues, not identify politics.

+ While its focus is electoral, it joins issue campaign coalitions with a variety of organizations, including the Saul Alinsky/Fred Ross-tradition Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) (heir to ACORN) and the Alinsky-tradition Contra Costa [county] Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO), a local affiliate of the PICO National Network, unions (particularly the Steel Workers local at Chevron and public employee unions like AFSCME and SEIU, interest and constituency organizations (environment, human rights, GLBTQ), and others—thus giving it a more-than-election time relationship with organizations whose members include the voters it wants to reach.

As well, Early describes the transformation of what was a Chevron company town to one that now talks back to its patron, and forces it to become more accountable—particularly on local tax, pollution/health and safety issues that in past uncontested Chevron formulations denied resources to the city and threatened the well-being of both residents and workers.

Because he is a member of RPA, Early is also able to give an insider’s view of an important change in the composition of the organization’s leadership—from older to mixed young-and-old, from “Anglo” to multi-ethnic and racial, and from left politicos to a more eclectic body whose roots are in a variety of experiences and left-of-center points of view.

He further illuminates a major internal debate that took place over the character of refinerytownthe organization, and its successful transition to an age and racial/ethnic mix and a variety of progressive backgrounds.  I will deal later with both.

These, and other strengths, are all present in Early’s book.  He successfully combines lively anecdotes, easy to read narrative, skillful analysis of often-complex issues, portraits of local leaders including the engaging Green Party former Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and commentary that places RPA in the larger context of American society and politics.  A lot is packed in these pages.  The importance of the book for these times is attested to by a Bernie Sanders foreward, and “blurbs” from such progressive and left notables as Immanuel Ness, Larry Cohen, Robert Reich, Annie Leonard and Kshama Sawant.

The politics of RPA’s growing influence and displacement of the city’s old guard is another of Early’s themes.  An older African-American community leadership made its accommodation with Chevron, and was the beneficiary of its plantation economy paternalism:  money for community-based nonprofits, and for black politicians who had the view, epitomized by veteran council member Nat Bates, that Richmond should be thankful for Chevron’s presence and not challenge any of its prerogatives.

The ins-and-outs of electoral politics, and the bitterness of the conflict among politicians, are told in a lively and often entertaining manner.  When Bates runs for mayor, and no likely centrist emerges to oppose him, RPA leader Mike Parker reluctantly decides to challenge him.  At the last minute, veteran council member Tom Butt—who RPA had earlier urged to run—decides that Parker isn’t electable and enters the race.  An agonizing internal discussion in RPA leads to the conclusion that Parker should withdraw.  The story of the campaign is, itself, worth the price of the book.

Early deals with the broad range of issues that are part of RPA’s agenda, including environment, taxation and public services, immigration, public health (a defeated soda tax campaign), the loss of a nearby public hospital, poverty and more, and, of course, the arrogance and power of Chevron. In this review, I want to focus on affordable housing and police, and RPA’s internal governance discussion, and comment on some strategic questions that, from my perspective, are unfortunately not part of the book.

That Chevron arrogance and power, by the way, had an interesting positive to it:  RPA could make the environment a mass-based issue because Chevron was shitting on everybody, without regard to race, ethnicity, class, age or gender.

Urban Policing

Fifteen years ago, Richmond had one of the highest rates of violence, including homicide, in the country. It was overwhelmingly in the city’s black community, and involved drugs and gangs. The police department that was supposed to deal with crime was, itself, corrupt. Even before RPA’s arrival on the scene, urban reformers in Richmond were trying to get a handle on the problem.

Enter America’s most unlikely urban police chief, Chris Magnus, “a fair-haired Midwesterner,” gay and openly married, son of a university professor father and piano teacher mother, and most recently chief in lily-white Fargo, North Dakota. Magnus turned the department around, demonstrating what administrative leadership in a public agency, backed by elected and appointed public officials and an engaged citizenry, can do.  He weeded out the worst of the cops; put the entire force through intensive technical policing and cultural awareness training; moved his officers from their cars and headquarters onto the streets and bicycles, and more generally implemented a full program of “community policing” that went far beyond the slogan (as Magnus put it, “If you’re really committed to community policing, you have to make structural changes within your organization.”).  He choose to live in a modest Richmond neighborhood, and made himself available to whomever it was in the community who wanted to talk with him.

Magnus bucked heads with the police union. Early presents the dilemma facing pro-labor liberals, progressives and leftists:  police, firefighter, correctional officer, building trades and other unions have been bastions of resistance to reform and to hiring minorities and women. Too often, the good old boys like what they’ve got and want to keep it that way. RPA dealt with the problem too, taking a clear stand for reform.  In so doing, they on occasion also had to oppose the city’s black political establishment, including its captive local branch of the NAACP.  RPA was among those instrumental in providing a political vehicle for a new generation of minority activists, some of whom are now elected members of the city council, and others leaders of RPA itself.

Magnus choose Operation Ceasefire as his vehicle to de-militarize the gangs and refocus their energies on peaceful activities.  Unfortunately, there are two ceasefire programs in the country, and Early doesn’t tell us which one Magnus used. No matter:  urban police reformers need to read David M. Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot: One man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in inner-city America. I think Magnus used this one. Thompson is worth quoting at some length because he is not “left” in any usual sense of the word:

[Ceasefire is] still not welcome in some quarters.  It’s too soft for some, too hard for others.  This is a variation on the theme of enforcement vs. social services, but with philosophical roots.  There’s the camp that believes in individual accountability, thinks crime is about bad character and bad choices, society has to take a stand about right and wrong.  There’s that in what we do—We’ll stop you if you make us—but it’s not just that.  It means that it doesn’t work to say, any longer, Those are terrible people, hold them accountable, lock them up.  There’s the camp that believes in social accountability, thinks crime is about history and neglect and oppression, society has to take a stand about what it has done to troubled communities.  There’s that in what we do—We’ll help you if you let us—but it’s not just that.  It means it doesn’t work to say, any longer, Those people are victims, they’re not responsible, they need programs, support.

The old duality is simple, and it may be comforting, but it’s wrong.  We need to find a new, more complicated logic, and we have.  It’s a logic that says no amount of law enforcement will ever work, that law enforcement as we’ve been practicing it is part of the problem.  It’s a logic that says no amount of traditional social investment will ever work, that the programs don’t help very much, that treating people doing terrible things as “clients” is part of the problem.  It’s a logic that says, someone can be doing terrible things and still be a victim; someone can have done wrong and still deserve help; someone can have been the victim of history and neglect and it’s still right to demand that they stop hurting people.  Not even remotely radical ideas:  a good parent says, all the time, You’ve broken the rules, and I’m going to do something about it, and I love you and of course I will continue to care for you and hold you close.  But radical when it comes to talking about crime, where commitment to accountability seems to crowd out room for caring, and commitment to caring seems to crowd out room for accountability.

The long and short of it is that violence dramatically declined in Richmond, and even some of his bitterly critical initial opponents have come around to give credit to Magnus for his program. He has since moved on to the larger police department in Tucson, AZ.  But before he left, the dramatic decline in violence suffered a reversal, a warning that reform at the local level takes place in a context beyond its control.

Gentrification and Affordable Housing

For a brief period, Richmond became a livable city that was below the region’s radar.  Thus it was both affordable and a nice place to be.  And there was the bonus of a 40-minute BART (rapid transit) commute to San Francisco’s Civic Center and downtown.  Low-income service industry workers, artists, a shrinking but still substantial African-American community (devastated by the housing speculation crash of 2007-09), newcomer Latinos, a more substantial working class in good union jobs, and a professional middle class all lived there.  It was too good to last.

Early takes us through the crisis in affordable housing that now plagues the greater San Francisco Bay Area.  The dramatic growth of hi-tech, from Santa Clara County’s Silicon Valley (45 minutes south of San Francisco) to San Francisco itself, resulted in skyrocketing home purchase and rental costs.  In San Francisco, a $600,000 single-family home that doesn’t require massive repair is considered a bargain, and a two-bedroom rental at $3,500 is a pretty good deal too.  (Median one-bedroom units are now $3,590; two bedrooms, $4,870.) The resulting “market forces” make it necessary for low-to-middle income renters, unless they’re fortunate enough to qualify for and find subsidized housing, to look elsewhere.

What happened in San Francisco then spread across the bay to Oakland.  No place is immune; I know people who leave their homes in Tracy at 4:00 a.m. to beat rush-hour traffic, drive an hour to their jobs, sleep in their cars until the beginning of their work day, and don’t get home until 7:00 p.m. or later.

Finally, it caught up with Richmond.  Over the last five years, home purchase prices almost tripled.  Affordable rental housing is a thing of the past.  Tenants whose landlords were interested in short-term maximization of profit experienced $600 and up a month rent increases.  (A two-bedroom unit that cost $1100 a month in 2012 now rents for $2000.)

Compounding the affordability problem is the shrinkage of federal funding to build affordable units or subsidize rentals in market housing.  This is a national crisis, not simply a Bay Area one.

All this is noted by Early. The book provides a context for the Richmond housing fight, making it more understandable.

San Francisco has strong rent control, but it is limited in what it can do, and is sometimes unfair to small landlords in its implementation. State law preempts what local rent control law can do. When a unit is vacated, it can seek market rate, and only returns to control after a new tenant moves in at the current market price. New construction is exempt (a book typo incorrectly says the law only applies to newer housing—the reverse is true); owner “move-ins” are exempt as well. Smaller landlords decide to get out of the business, leading to greater concentration of rental housing ownership, and more power for corporate owners. Landlords interested in making a buck have strong incentives to push long-term tenants out of their units, and they are ingenious at doing so. Their tactics range from buying people out of their apartments to intimidation. Foreign investors living in politically volatile countries see the housing market as a safe haven for their dollars. High land costs make it impossible to build affordable housing without subsidies to do so, and few are available. Negotiated “offsets”—the builder sets aside some units for below-market rental or puts money into a city-administered fund for affordable housing construction—in exchange for building permits and planning commission approval are insufficient to balance the loss of affordable places to live.  All these are likely to soon make their appearance in Richmond.

Absent in the Richmond discussion is a strategy of nonviolent direct action:  rent strikes, public shaming of unscrupulous landlords, disruption of business as usual at owner’s places of work or business, places of worship, social gatherings and wherever else leverage might be found, and, perhaps most likely to provide relief, efforts to negotiate housing subsidy funding from the region’s major corporations with mass action against them in the absence of agreements.

The obvious source of the region’s housing problem is the booming hi-tech and genetic engineering industries. Shouldn’t Twitter, Salesforce, Apple, Google, Yelp, Genentech and others be making substantial contributions to a regional housing affordability fund? But successful nonviolent direct action against them should negotiations fail to be productive requires thousands, if not tens of thousands in the streets. No such movement now exists in the Bay Area or elsewhere. Can a campaign create it?  Might RPA be the catalyst for it?

In the low-to-moderate income neighborhoods that are most heavily hit by rent increases, direct action might be especially effective. I know that from my experience as a community organizer in San Francisco’s Mission District in the mid-1960s to early-1970s. Mission Coalition Organization (MCO) created an atmosphere inhospitable to investment.  It put some landlords out of business. It made others think twice, and decide against, jacking up their rents. (For details, see my A Community Organizer’s Tale:  People and Power in San Francisco.)

Governance and Composition

RPA’s founders viewed it as a cadre organization:  a disciplined body of organizer-leaders who mobilized the Richmond electorate in support of candidates they supported and from whom they demanded accountability, and in support of issue campaigns they endorsed or led.  In this they were not unlike Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose minister-leaders were chosen by a self-perpetuating internal nominating process, and who mobilized through the mass-based black churches of the south.  In one election, RPA’s steering committee simply announced an endorsement to a membership meeting. Rumblings from the membership broadened both how the organization’s leadership is selected, and the role of the membership selecting candidates for public office—members now must endorse leadership recommendations.

Early considers these “democratic” rumblings. Perhaps this characterization is unfair. Is it more “democratic” for an activist membership numbering at the maximum in the few hundreds to make decisions, or for a self-selected cadre that is regularly touching base with its constituency and the voluntary associations comprising it to make decisions and let the chips fall where they may when their nominees or issues face the acid test of wider public support at election time?

After serious internal discussions, the organization transformed itself from its cadre form and a body of older, left activists to an internally democratic membership organization that is increasingly representative of Richmond’s demography—no small feat.  Its voter education and other accomplishments deserve notice as well.  Early provides it.

At times, Early is guilty of overreach in his aspirations for RPA.  The creation of community, for example, requires a vast shift of Americans from consumerism and its culture to participation in civic life and a very different culture.  That, in turn, requires the renewal of civil society’s unions, congregations, interest groups and other voluntary associations.  Neither participatory budgeting and other government reforms nor “greater personal connection to voters” are a substitute for a vital civil society, which I believe is the necessary underpinning of a democratic society.  None of which is to underestimate RPA’s importance.

From my perspective, the missing piece of the RPA representativeness puzzle is an annual or bi-annual convention that might gather a couple of thousand representative delegates from newly-formed RPA house meetings to supportive congregations and unions (and with everything in between) to adopt a platform, endorse candidates and elect RPA’s leadership.  Such a gathering would provide a base of support and legitimacy that would make RPA’s claim to be the voice of the people uncontestable.

When I was a boy growing up in San Francisco, come election time I knew how my parents would vote:  according to the recommendations of the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) Political Action Committee “slate card”.  No matter what the amount of money spent by the adversaries of those recommendations, or the editorial recommendations of the several daily newspapers, the word of this then-left union was enough.  And my father wasn’t even a member!

RPA offers the possibility of that kind of alternative to big money.  Its multi-issue character, growing record of public integrity, attention to diversifying its membership and leadership all bode well.  The road ahead will have many pot-holes.  We should wish RPA well in avoiding them.


Early takes us on an important digression—a look at the limits of urban reform in a hostile state government environment.  Specially, he looks at the battles between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, the former a progressive Democrat, the latter a corporate Democrat.  He notes, “Amid continuing academic and journalistic celebration of municipal innovation and mayoral leadership, the Cuomo-de Blasio rift provides a good reality check on the constraints faced by elected leaders in cities large and small.”  He’s right.  For Richmond, the situation is even worse because it doesn’t even control its schools (they’re part of a larger school district) or its public health delivery system. And the problem in the Trump era will expand exponentially!

The book’s epilogue vividly portrays the financial squeeze Richmond faces, and the dilemmas faced by reformers who want to preserve and extend public services, pay adequate wages and benefits to their employees, and implement progressive taxes. Whether RPA can wend its way through these contradictions remains to be seen.  In the meantime, Early properly warns, “[A]s RPA’s experience in Richmond demonstrates, even successful electoral work conducted at the local level over many years does not by itself build year-round, multi-issue political organization.  That takes an unconventional approach to politics, before, during, and after any election.”


In the interest of transparency, I should note that both Steve Early and RPA leader Mike Parker are friends.