Last week, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin stood before a bank of television cameras in the plaza of Richmond's newly renovated civic center to respond to something that has become a civic tradition — ruthless political mudslinging by the city's police and fire unions.
The unions had dug up a 2003 bankruptcy filing in which McLaughlin sought to be discharged of $100,000 in student loans. In the filing, McLaughlin claimed she was unable to make payments because "serious psychiatric disabilities" prevented her from working full time. She also said that she received disability payments and that she had been prescribed various medications to cope with sleeplessness, seizures, and depression. McLaughlin later told reporters that she was hospitalized twice in 1999.
Through a political action committee called Richmond First, the two public safety unions paid a researcher $15,000 to find the document and then disseminated its contents through a web site, a thirty-second television ad, and the unions' favorite weapon of choice — thousands of glossy mailers emblazoned with large, unflattering pictures of the mayor.
Surrounded by two Richmond councilmembers and a phalanx of her supporters, last week McLaughlin told reporters that the bankruptcy filing was unsuccessful and that she continues to pay off the student loan. She incurred the debt in the early 1990s while obtaining a bachelor's degree in psychology and later working to get her master's, which she did not receive. She also admitted, without giving specifics, that in the 1990s she had overcome personal adversities that included depression, debilitating illnesses, family deaths, and being the target of a series of crimes.
"My health and personal finances suffered as a result," she said. "But that is all in the past. I believe my past challenges have strengthened me and made me a wiser and more compassionate woman, leader, and public servant."
Police union representative Joey Schlemmer said it was the union's duty to expose McLaughlin's personal financial struggles. "The public scrutinizes public officials before casting their vote," he said. "These are public documents and this is to inform the public. The people should be able to make a decision for themselves."
The unions' political attack came during the last month of a tough mayoral campaign. The 58-year-old McLaughlin is facing two challengers who come from the ranks of the city's old guard. The public safety unions have endorsed Councilman Nat Bates, a retired probation officer. The 78-year-old Bates was first elected to the council in 1967 and has served a total of 31 years with one 12-year hiatus from 1983 to 1995. The other challenger is John "Z" Ziesenhenne, the CEO of M.A. Hayes Insurance Company. Ziesenhenne served on the city council from 1982 to 1993. He has been an active member of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and has served on its board for many years. He is largely considered to be as pro-Chevron as Bates, although Chevron itself has not yet publicly backed a candidate
No one has come forward to say that McLaughlin has demonstrated any mental instability during her six years on the council. Bates declined to comment on McLaughlin's behavior, saying that would be inappropriate and that it's better for voters to make their decision based on the issues and differences between the three mayoral candidates
However, McLaughlin ally Councilman Tom Butt, who has served on the council since 1995, said he has never seen any sign of instability in McLaughlin's performance. Butt said McLaughlin is always well prepared for council meetings and argues effectively for her issues. "She is fair-minded, even-handed, and is willing to compromise when necessary," Butt said. "She's been a good council member and a good mayor. In fact, if somebody told me that one of the councilmembers had a history of mental illness and I had to guess which one it was, Gayle would be way down on the list."
For Richmond's political left, McLaughlin has been a breath of fresh air. She has championed a progressive agenda and given voice to political perspectives that were traditionally squashed by the city's special interests — including, most notably, the public safety unions and Chevron. On the other hand, Richmond's old guard sees McLaughlin as an interloper who has upset long-standing business practices and challenged the primacy of the political block that has dominated city politics.
In the 1990s, the public safety unions held firm control over the city council through the aggressive campaign tactics of fire union president Darrell Reese, a retired fire captain, political boss, and convicted felon. Reese is often credited with making an art form of hit-piece mailers like the one directed against McLaughlin, which dominated city politics through the 1990s. Reese would send three glossy mailers attacking his political opponents at set intervals during the last weeks of a campaign. Reese's mailers were known for their ruthlessness, distortions of the facts, and resounding success.
It is ironic that it was the police and fire unions that attacked McLaughlin given the havoc they wreaked on the city's budget in past years. By 1993, Reese and the police and fire unions had gained control of city politics. Reese had been directly responsible for electing five of the city's nine councilmembers and they were as beholden to his political skills as they were afraid of his wrath. In 1997, he used his influence to promote Richmond native Isiah Turner to city manager. Turner was a questionable choice. Years earlier, when he was employed by the state of Washington, state auditors discovered that Turner had misused $22,000 of public funds — mostly on travel expenses. Turner quickly resigned and left Washington state under a veil of shame.