Richmond, California—a city of 110,000 people, most of whom are minorities— is located on beautiful bays and coves next to San Francisco. Hovering over Richmond is the giant Chevron oil refinery. For decades, the city’s residents had to breathe air polluted by Chevron, endure the costs of Chevron’s careless spills, and surrender to Chevron’s gross underpayment of local taxes.
Chevron’s political muscle—even though few of its employees lived in Richmond—made Richmond into an oppressive company town.
Until, that is, Chicago-born Gayle McLaughlin decided, after years of Midwestern activism, to set down roots in Richmond. There, McLaughlin found a few like-minded progressives and started the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). (Gayle had volunteered in the Green Party’s 2000 Presidential Campaign)
With very little money, but many long overdue proposals for the betterment of the city, the RPA went to work. They had three public assets—a set of progressive policy changes, support of a large silent majority of residents, and a dedicated core of thirty no-nonsense local champions for a just community.
RPA ran a slate of candidates for City Council in 2004, with some success. This was followed by a victory in 2006 that made McLaughlin mayor—a post she held until 2014 when she was termed out and then successfully ran for city council. RPA now controls five of the seven seats—overcoming the Chevron Company’s longtime political boosters.
The majority population knew which side the RPA was on and many would regularly join marches, demonstrations, and pickets to bolster their city council champions.
Gayle McLaughlin recently published her new, compelling book on Richmond, Winning Richmond: How a Progressive Alliance Won City Hall. Union organizer and activist, Steve Early, said,
“Blue-collar Richmond was once notorious for its street crime, gun violence, poverty, and pollution. During McLaughlin’s two terms as mayor, that city acquired a far different reputation—for battling Big Oil, Big Soda, Big Banks, and the landlord lobby…”
Because of McLaughlin and the RPA, Richmond has a higher minimum wage of $15 an hour, a police department that has curbed police misconduct, a major drop in serious street crime, an increase in Chevron’s tax payments, a decrease in toxic pollution by Chevron, and Solar Richmond, a program demonstrating a greener local economy, more energy self-reliance and jobs.
Chevron and their indentured political allies fought the RPA all the way. But when you run a door-to door, campaign for the city government—linked to protests demanding change from the outside— people can win.
RPA also moderated some of the horrible foreclosure actions by the banks after the 2008 Wall Street financial collapse of the economy on the backs of workers and taxpayers. The Alliance did lose the struggle to implement a small tax on obesity-generating sugary soda pop to a multi-million dollar campaign by that industry. In her new book—a must, must victory read for community activists who may be puffing on treadmills of continual defeat— Ms. McLaughlin declares: “If we could win a progressive agenda in Richmond under the money might of Chevron’s major oil refinery, it can be done anywhere!”
Gayle is now running for Lt. Governor of California as an independent to spread the RPA model of strategy and energy throughout the Golden State. Her agenda is similar to the Bernie Sanders agenda: full Medicare for all with free choice of doctor and hospital (much more efficient with better health outcomes); tuition free public colleges and universities; more progressive taxes on the pampered, coddled super-rich; a ban on corporations bankrolling their candidates; an oil severance tax; a major drive to solarize California and ban fracking; more affordable housing and many ways to give voice and power to the people to redress the power imbalance of the few deciding for the many.
She is standing up to a harshly rigged electoral barrier that prevents the chance for success of independent and third party candidates in California. But if she can get in the debates (as Green Party candidate Peter Camejo running for governor did in 2003), she can, at the least, get the peoples’ message across as a step toward future elections being less “selections” by the political oligarchy/plutocracy.
Gayle is not hesitant to take positions on foreign and military practices that form the American Empire and its boomerang on our political economy and public necessities.
The takeaway is it took only 30 committed members of the RPA to rouse the people into action and take over the City Council. This makes my point that less than one percent of committed citizens with majority public opinion support for their agenda can overcome the vested interests of the ruling classes (See my Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think).
If you’re still doubtful, convince yourself by obtaining Gayle McLaughlin’s Winning Richmond (Hardball Press) for your neighborhood library and book circle.