Picture this: You’re elected to your city council, running on a platform of taking power back from the wealthiest corporations and returning it to working people. Then, at meeting after meeting, you’re asked to sit quietly as people stand up to say things like:
“There goes a girl, trying to be a man.”
And: “You’re just a little girl trying to be a boy, and don't even have the tools for it.”
And: “I’m going to keep coming up here and tell you how gays have no morality. ... You’re filth. You’re dirt.”
All of this because you’re not just an advocate for dignity and equality — you’re also the first out lesbian to ever hold the office.
Unfortunately, I don’t have to imagine it. I lived it as a Richmond city councilmember, day after day, since first elected in 2010. And not just from the people in the audience: Some of the hate came from my fellow councilmembers. They were more than happy to echo, ignore or excuse the bigotry from right next to me on the dais. My sexuality, my race, my heritage: nothing was off-limits.
If you’ve ever experienced a toxic workplace, you understand just how frustrating and helpless it can be. It’s even worse for Black women, who are subjected to a brutal false choice: We can stay silent and get pushed around, but if we ever push back, we’re stereotyped as an “angry Black woman.”
And sometimes I did push back. City council politics are unique — our meetings at 440 Civic Center Plaza are a world away from the plush carpets of D.C. think tanks and consulting firms. Every day, we deliberate on real issues that affect real people’s’ lives, and they can — and do — tell you to your face that they’re hurting. So it’s perhaps no surprise that tempers sometimes flared on both sides of the dais.
Nonetheless, I did my best to stay calm and effective, and to fight for the values that led voters to choose me in the first place.
As a woman, a lesbian, a dark-skinned black Latina, and an immigrant, I’ve been subjected to bigotry and hate my whole life. That part wasn’t a surprise. What did surprise me was in 2014, when my reform-minded colleagues on the council and I were targeted by a slate of candidates backed by Chevron, which spent over $3 million on billboards and mailers attacking us.
After all, Chevron boasts that “diversity and inclusion are cornerstones of our corporate values,” and sponsors floats at Pride every year. Chevron had the opportunity to put their money where their mouth was and stand against the bigotry I’d been facing for years — instead, they threw in their lot with the haters.
Now, that’s not the same as saying that Chevron is racist or homophobic. But it does mean that they’ll abandon their professed values of “diversity and inclusion” the minute that something threatens their bottom line. And as a longtime member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance — a grassroots organization dedicated to people-powered, corporate-free politics — I clearly posed a threat to Chevron’s ability to exploit the working people of Richmond in pursuit of profit. If dividing up Richmonders by gay and straight, Black and white and Brown, immigrant and native-born helped them continue to exploit and pollute, why would they lift a finger to stop it?
Fortunately, we out-organized Chevron and won. And we were able to collect an extra $114 million in taxes from Chevron, putting that money towards community services and a scholarship for every Richmond high school graduate to attend college. That’s not all: We raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, banned the box for city hiring, passed the first rent control laws in California in over thirty years, and more.
Now, I’m running for Assembly District 15 on a bold, progressive platform that puts people over profit. I’m calling for affordable social housing for all; a single-payer, Medicare for All healthcare system; fully funded public education from preschool through college; and more. I fully expect to be attacked with many of the same dog whistles and smears that have been deployed against me in the past: you’ll likely hear that I’m “angry,” or “lazy,” or “erratic,” or even all three. An avalanche of ads and mailers, funded by over half a million dollars of outside spending, will make sure that you hear these attacks every day between now and Election Day.
I believe that politics can be better than that. I believe that corporations and billionaires win when we let bigotry divide us. When we stand together in solidarity, we can defeat the forces of hatred and greed, and build a California that works for the many, not just the few.