Richmond has come a long way from the grim 1990s — when a corrupt fire captain held the city council in his pocket, department heads treated their budgets like slush funds, and FBI raids at City Hall were hardly noticed in a city with violent crime and crushing poverty. And until just two years ago, the global energy giant Chevron also exerted an outsized influence on city politics. Recently, however, Richmond has enjoyed progressive change in its city government, which, in turn, has laid the foundation for what could be a thriving regional hub that is friendly to innovative businesses, pleasant to live in, and enjoyable to visit.
Richmond, in short, has regained its reputation for credibility and integrity. Crime has been steadily decreasing, civic buildings have been upgraded, and formerly crime-ridden city parks have been made safe and restful. Businesses are coming back to town, and earlier this year, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory selected Richmond's southern shoreline for its new second campus — a two million-square-foot facility that will bring revenue and prestige to a city used to being shunned.
And next month, Richmond voters will decide whether to continue on the path forged by the city's leadership or allow Chevron to regain its grip on the city. In fact, their choice is fundamentally between candidates backed by the oil giant, which is both one of the biggest polluters in the Bay Area and is Richmond's chief source of revenue — about one-third of the city's $124 million general fund — and The Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a grassroots organization of social progressives and activists who refuse all corporate contributions and say they put residents first.
For the past two years, the RPA has held sway on the council with three seats and with the backing of ally Councilman Tom Butt and sometimes the more unpredictable Councilman Jim Rogers. But with the departure of Councilman Jeff Ritterman, perhaps the most popular RPA member and the sponsor of this fall's controversial Measure N, also known as the Soda Tax, the council's balance of power could shift back to Chevron. Or, if the two RPA candidates win seats, it will assure that progressives will maintain their power in the city.
Richmond does not have council districts and instead elects councilmembers citywide. This November, voters will be selecting three councilmembers.
And Chevron is backing three of the race's eleven candidates: incumbent Councilman Nat Bates, former Councilman Gary Bell, and political neophyte Bea Roberson, a retired construction accountant. The RPA is fielding Marilyn Langlois, a former staffer in Mayor Gayle McLaughlin's office, and retired teacher Eduardo Martinez. Also running are longtime incumbent Butt, a good government advocate who often votes with the progressives, and 27-year-old Jael Myrick, a staffer for state Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who has positioned himself somewhere in the middle of Chevron and the RPA. "I think Chevron has to do a better job. Trying to avoid local taxes is despicable and disgusting, especially when they posted something like $7 billion in profits for the second quarter," Myrick said of the oil giant's attempts to lower its local property taxes. "And I think the RPA can be a bit more opened minded. Too often they think Chevron is doing wrong simply because it's Chevron."
Chevron has had little luck winning elections recently against RPA councilmembers who have openly challenged the refinery's environmental policies, community involvement, and profit-first business practices. In 2010, Chevron spent $900,000 to oust Mayor McLaughlin, an RPA member who has regularly criticized the oil giant. Not only did McLaughlin win re-election, but Chevron-friendly Councilwomen Maria Veramontes and Ludmyrna Lopez were swept off the council by RPA candidate Jovanka Beckles and Corky Booze, who was endorsed by McLaughlin, Butt, and Beckles, but has since inexplicably turned on all three.
This election cycle, Chevron is spending even more money to regain influence on the council. As of last week, the multinational company had contributed $1.2 million to Moving Forward, a political action committee that has attacked RPA candidates and purchased billboards, printed literature, and sent out mailers in support of Bates, Bell, and Roberson. In contrast, Langlois has a war chest of about $29,000.
Chevron has a keen interest in regaining influence over the Richmond City Council. A massive refinery fire on August 6 spewed pollution over the western portion of the county and has resulted in a criminal investigation that includes allegations that Chevron officials conspired to underreport the refinery's annual toxic emissions. Even with the alleged underreporting, the refinery released 16.7 tons of the cancer-causing toxin benzene into the atmosphere in 2010, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. And when the criminal investigations are completed, the Richmond City Council will have jurisdiction over some regulations and policies that will be imposed on the refinery. With a Chevron-friendly council, the city's actions could be much less rigorous.
Chevron also is pursuing a controversial hydrogen renewal project at the refinery, many facets of which will require council cooperation and approval. Chevron also announced this month that it will continue its years-long court battle to reduce its property tax by as much as $18 million, which, if successful, would have a huge impact on city and county services, including public safety and public school budgets.
Chevron has already started the time-honored Richmond practice of sending out hit-piece mailers — glossy, colorful fliers that deliver personal attacks to voters' doorsteps. The first campaign mailer attacked RPA candidate Marilyn Langlois for withholding her 2006-2007 federal taxes, an amount of $15,600, to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Langlois, a longtime peace activist, informed her congressional representatives that she was going to withhold the income taxes and why she was doing it. She has since paid the taxes with added penalties. "Most responses have been positive," Langlois said of the mailer. "A lot of people have said I acted with courage and conviction, but you can never tell how something like this will play in the election."
At least one of Chevron's candidates has had problems of his own. Former Councilman Gary Bell took his wife to Las Vegas at taxpayer expense during the eight-week lame duck period after he was voted off the council in 2004. According to city records, Bell charged nearly $3,000 to his city travel account for seminar materials, travel, hotel, and car rental.
Ostensibly, Bell was attending a seminar on affordable housing, but it is unclear how taxpayers benefitted from sending two de facto private citizens on a three-day trip to Las Vegas. The indiscretion is magnified because at the time, Richmond was gripped by the worst financial crisis in its history. Hundreds of city employees had been laid off and library branches and senior centers closed.
Bell said it was a long time ago and that the trip may have been arranged before the 2004 election. He said it wasn't an issue at the time and that it is possible the city may have lost registration fees if he canceled at the last minute. Bell also has been an outspoken critic of Chevron's attacks on Langlois, even though his name appeared on the hit-piece fliers. "I do not support this type of campaigning, and it is unfortunate Marilyn had to go through that kind of scrutiny," Bell said. "These types of things just distract from more important issues. They don't move us toward the common goal, the place where we all want and should be at."