Communities Fight for Community Control Over Corporate Power
Portside Date:
Author: Mike Parker
Date of source:
Richmond Progessive Alliance

In Richmond California (current population 105,000) residents have used community organizing to take on Chevron, the 8th largest corporation in the world, which has long dominated their city. Residents through the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) have won a string of important battles since 2004. For the most part our successes have been the result of consistent organizing on a wide range of issues. Often it was David versus Goliath.

In the 2010 elections, the RPA faced an opposition actively endorsed by Chevron, the Chamber of Commerce, the Council of Industries, the building trades unions, the police and fire unions, the Central Labor Council, the Democratic Party, the main old-school African-American organizations, and the organization of Latino merchants. This grand coalition lost. In 2012 we came up short. Using its considerable resources Chevron has escalated its fight back but the community is not giving up.

There is much to be learned from the struggle. How do we take on corporate power in this country? The imbalance of power has been growing since the 1970"s. The Citizens United decision  took the already tilted playing field and jacked the corporate end up higher. At the same time, unions, a counterforce to corporate power, have grown smaller, weaker, and more confused about their mission. Under Democratic as well as Republican presidents, income inequality and the shift of political power toward the wealthy has grown.

Richmond is an Industrial town on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, north of Oakland and Berkeley. During World War II it grew from 30,000 to 130,000 as workers, particularly from the South, flooded in for jobs at the Kaiser Shipyards and other war industries. Following the war, the shoreline was filled with chemical plants, turning this prized land into an industrial dumping ground. As manufacturing declined much of the shoreline was left as toxic waste sites. Richmond could be a poster child for environmental racism. Thanks to the refinery, which regularly "flared", releasing carcinogens and other pollutants into the atmosphere, and other polluting industries local asthma rates were among the highest in the state.

As a result of the migration of workers from the South, by the late 40's and early 50's Richmond had a significant African-American population. By the 90's Richmond was well known for its racial tensions. African-Americans replaced whites in many city positions and in turn felt challenged by the growing Latino population. In the meantime whites continued to hold social power that resided in institutions like the banks, corporations, commercial operations, unions and most nonprofits. Violence gripped the city. In 2004, a national survey ranked Richmond as the most dangerous city in California and the 12th most dangerous in the US.

In the late 90's Richmond city government was run mainly by a clique based in the police and fire unions (led by Darrell Reese, a leader of the fire unions), a PAC in the African-American community, BMW, (originally named for its Black leaders Bates, McMillan, Washington and since renamed "Black Men and Women) and industrial and commercial interests. These groups ran the elections, the city staff, and pretty much called the shots in a corrupt city government. {"Two Charge Reese With Using Influence, Richmond's Top Black Political Group Was Intimidated Into Endorsing His' Pick For Supervisorial Candidate, Politicians Say," West County Times, January 20, 1998 ; McMillan later denounced the Republican Reese's control over BMW}

There were FBI investigations into city corruption. In 2001 the power broker Reese was convicted of income tax evasion. In 2003, due to mismanagement and cronyism, the city faced economic collapse with a $35 million dollar deficit necessitating layoffs of city workers and severe cutbacks in city services.

The corruption scandal, police brutality in the Latino community, financial chaos and a rising interest in "green" issues opened the way for the formation of the Richmond Progressive Alliance

Birth and Rise of RPA

The Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) formed in late 2003 from two groups. The Richmond Greens had started to work to decriminalize homelessness, stop police mistreatment of mostly Latino day-laborers, and take on a number of environmental issues including the toxic dumps on the shoreline. At the same time a group of Latino progressive Democrats had come together in response to a police beating on Cinco de Mayo in 2002.

Both groups recognized that the only way to make significant positive change in Richmond was to challenge the existing political power in the city. The two groups agreed to work together as the RPA supporting two candidates for City Council. Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party activist and Andres Soto, a Latino community activist in the Democratic Party.

Richmond city council elections are non-partisan, so the alliance of Greens and Democrats did not need to overcome any structural obstacles. Both could maintain their identities and work together and both needed outside support to successfully compete in the at-large City Council elections.

The widespread corruption and disastrous financial state of the city resulted in an electorate that was open to change. The activists were identified as community leaders, who led community struggles such as The March 4 Education, a 90 mile march from Richmond to Sacramento to demand financial support for the local schools.

An incumbent independent Councilman, Tom Butt, wrote at the time:

The Richmond Progressive Alliance has rallied a seemingly unlikely group of Greens, Latinos, progressive Democrats, African-Americans and free spirits into a new Richmond political coalition that supports civil rights, the environment, education, open government and quality of life issues that could give the old establishment a run for its money. It's the first Richmond coalition in memory united over ideals rather than power and personalities.

The campaigns were run as independent but mutually supportive organizations. Joint activities attracted well known progressives including Van Jones and Dennis Kucinich to speak at rallies. Soto who centered his campaign on police brutality was felt to have the best chance to win a council seat. As a result the Police and Fire Unions (led by Darrell Reese) the attack force for the corrupt network that ran the city, focused on defeating him, releasing well-timed, vicious "hit-piece" mailers:

"Richmond Police Officers are committed to our safety... Andres Soto is a radical that uses confrontational politics to challenge the rule of law... "

Green Party member McLaughlin who accepted no corporate contributions had little money for traditional campaign mailers and operations.  This did not fit the power brokers' image of a campaign--they largely ignored her campaign.

The hit pieces in the final days had an impact. Soto came in runner-up to the five elected council members. McLaughlin won largely on the strength of her articulating a principled approach to issues of the environment, Chevron's role, a vision of what Richmond could become, and an under-the-radar campaign by hard-working volunteers.

As an organization, the RPA went through a difficult period following the election. But its main cadre in coordination with its new city council member worked on a variety of community issues including the clean-up of toxic sites, defending the shoreline from development, opposing a regressive sales tax increase, and working with the Building Trades and environmental groups to end Chevron's "self-inspection," a tactic, which made it easier for Chevron to hire union-busting contractors.

The activists mobilized behind a serious proposal to address chronic violence in Richmond by working with those most associated with gun violence. This finally resulted in the creation of the Office of Neighborhood Safety. We had to fight for funding to put real people on the streets rather than making it into another social welfare agency. And the activists raised the issue of Chevron not paying its fair share of taxes. This last issue turned out to be the one that resonated with large segments of the population.

In the 2006 Election, Councilmember McLaughlin ran for mayor against the incumbent. Again she was not given a chance by the "professionals." The respect for Gayle's principled stands at the Council brought her new active campaign workers. She won with 37.5% of the vote thanks to an effective and hard-working grass-roots campaign and a split in the African-American dominated establishment which ran two African-American candidates. The national story--Richmond becoming the largest city with a Green Mayor--missed the real struggle that had taken place.

In Richmond, the mayor has little direct power over the city administration. But she is the public spokesperson for the city. (see sidebar) Gayle McLaughlin determined to use this power as effectively as possible. In addition to maintaining the heavy schedule of expected appearances at business functions and non-profit events, she also regularly spoke at movement events. One of her first actions as Mayor was to speak at a mass meeting of over 1000 people to support the end of cooperation with ICE raids in Richmond. She participated actively in mobilizations that demanded toxic land clean-up as well as anti-Chevron demonstrations. Her participation in community direct action struggles drew national attention.

In 2008, the RPA activists were part of a struggle against a Chevron expansion project designed to prepare the Refinery to handle dirtier crude oil likely resulting in more pollution in the surrounding community and more greenhouse gas emissions. The issue was hotly and widely debated. Thanks to the work of a coalition which included Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), West County Toxics Coalition, the RPA, and many others, Richmond residents began to understand the refining process, the composition of "heavier crude" and how politics really works. A majority of the City Council (the "Chevron 5") supported the project. The community mobilized strongly but could not stop the Council with its pro-Chevron majority from approving the project.

During the year, the activists turned to a second issue, taxation, and circulated a petition for a ballot measure to greatly increase Chevron's business tax to Richmond. The election that fall featured grass roots campaigns for two progressives for Council seats and a vote on the Tax-Chevron Measure T.

Once again Chevron stepped up its campaign contributions to Chevron-friendly candidates but did not organize their campaigns or get very involved in overall strategy. Chevron actively fought Measure T making the false claim that it would harm small businesses. In fact Measure T only raised business license fees on very large corporations with Chevron bearing the greatest increase. Passage of Measure T would not have increased fees for small businesses. In fact, the additional city services from additional monies would have benefitted small businesses. But the Chamber of Commerce lined up with Chevron, its biggest funder.

The Police and Fire unions took charge of the negative campaigning. Using tactics that had been successful for them in the past, they put out a vicious hate mailer essentially blaming immigrants from Mexico for the crime and violence in Richmond and linking this to the RPA. In the past, such last minute negative mailers worked. This time, however it backfired. They had put out their mailer earlier to reach the growing number of mail-voters. There was a very quick response in the community including a rally to denounce this hate and blatant attempt to pit sections of the Community against each other. Many groups and individuals were called on to denounce the mailer and most did.

When the results were in, Measure T passed with a 54% vote. One RPA Council candidate, Dr. Jeff Ritterman, won decisively and the other RPA Candidate, Jovanka Beckles, was the runner up. Incumbent progressive independent Tom Butt, won reelection and two of the three Chevron Five were defeated. (The Council was reduced from nine to seven members in this election.)

Following the 2008 election the RPA reorganized and started holding regular meetings again. With two RPA members on the City Council and some support from two other Councilmembers, the RPA was able to get substantially more done. City Council meetings became places where the community debated issues or watched debates on the local cable channel.

The Chevron expansion project continued to be significant issue. Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and the West Contra Costa County Toxics Coalition won a series of legal victories that invalidated the Environmental Impact Report that had been approved by the "Chevron Five" on the City Council. The courts found that the EIR failed to evaluate the impact of refining heavier, dirtier, more corrosive crude oil and had no specific plan for mitigating increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

At this point Chevron had several choices. It could have continued parts of the project that were not being challenged by the environmental groups and/or revised the EIR to bring it up to standards. Instead it chose to stop the construction project immediately, lay off 1300 workers while blaming the environmentalists and the RPA. The Building Trades unions became the hatchet men for Chevron although few of their members lived in Richmond. The reasons that Chevron followed this strategy are not clear. The best explanation is that Chevron's project was planned during the economic bubble, and that once the bubble burst Chevron was in no hurry to complete its expansion. The court decision offered Chevron a chance to postpone building new capacity and use that fact to help destroy its opposition.

The issue that dominated Richmond in 2009 and 2010 was a plan to build a Vegas-style casino in Richmond at Pt. Molate, a prized piece of property on the San Francisco Bay. The Council, which had taken control of the land from the US Navy in 2003, had entered into a deal with a developer to build an "Indian" casino. The developer's allies were the Building Trades and groups and churches in the poorer, mainly African-American areas that believed that the casino would provide desperately needed jobs. Progressives opposed the Casino on environmental grounds and because they believed that the promised jobs would not come to Richmond, but many social problems would.  Chevron was cool to the presence of a casino on adjacent property even if it did not like the anti-business character of the opposition.

With the shift in the political orientation of the Council, community mobilizations against the casino were enough to force it to put an advisory vote on the ballot for November 2010. This became the critical issue in the election.

Mayor McLaughlin ran for reelection strongly opposed to the casino and with a long list of positive developments that had taken place under her leadership.  Again the opposition was divided. The two candidates who ran against her were a white former Chamber of Commerce candidate and Nat Bates, a leader of the old-guard Black machine. Some believed that this was a deliberate strategy--that the white candidate would take votes away from McLaughlin and insure a Bates victory, reversing what happened four years earlier.

Once again the opposition ran a vicious campaign. The Police and Fire unions financed an investigation and publicized online, on billboards, and in leaflets personal information from McLaughlin' distant past, including that she had taken prescription drugs for depression, and had finished paying off her student loans.

"Card clubs" (limited casinos in the surrounding areas) worried about the competition from the proposed super casino, jumped into the campaign to finance mailers against it. They endorsed some of the Progressive candidates but probably did not have much impact on the progressive votes.

The Mayor won reelection. RPA candidate Jovanka Beckles, a Black Latina, won. election and Corky Booze, an African-American who had run unsuccessfully for Council for many years won, openly challenging the Black machine that had dominated local politics. Two more of the Chevron Five were defeated. The advisory vote on the casino was overwhelmingly against. The casino was dead although it would still take another year of bitter battle to get it into the grave.

With three RPA members, three members who regularly supported progressive issues and only one of the Chevron Five remaining, it looked like we had a Council that could move Richmond forward.

To some extent this was true. Almost immediately Booze made his peace with the old Black machine and became a Chevron man. But progressive issues could still usually get a majority vote. In 2011 the main issue was the regional competition for locating a new second campus for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Under the leadership of RPA Councilmember Jeff Ritterman, the Council, and much of the city mobilized to make the case for LBNL to select Richmond despite Richmond's reputation as a dangerous and undesirable location in the Bay Area. Not only would the large campus mean a lot of construction jobs but also considerable prestige for the city and the ability to attract related research and industry.

The campaign was successful and in 2012 LBNL announced that it had selected Richmond. The whole city celebrated.

Non-electoral campaigns Important

During this period the RPA also became involved in a number of community issues supporting "Operation Ceasefire," a national program to reduce gun violence in the City and "Safe Return" a local effort working to ease the reentry of previously incarcerated individuals back into Richmond by helping them get housing, find training or employment, and manage social issues that might arise. As part of this effort we moved a "Ban the Box" policy through the Council, requiring the City to remove the question about previous convictions from its application forms.

These programs contributed to a decrease in the violence and killing that Richmond had been noted for and fit in in well with the policies of the new Police Chief, Chris Magnus, who successfully shifted the department to a real community model of policing. The police department became responsive to community needs and the community came to the Chief's defense when his reorganization generated considerable resistance.

The RPA was also active in helping to get more access to recreational fields for Richmond youth activities. This helped to bring together the predominantly Latino soccer and predominantly Black football teams and supporters. We also succeeded in starting a program of municipal IDs for those who didn't have accepted picture identification, undocumented immigrants, homeless, seniors and others. The program was important to allow these folks to have ATM accounts so they could get out of the cash (and robbery) cycles, so they could send money home at much cheaper rates, and so that they could feel more at ease in reporting crime and asking for help from the police and other city agencies. RPA members also supported efforts to require law enforcement to distance itself from ICE detentions and deportations of undocumented individuals who had committed minor offenses.

Activists successfully opposed the driver's license checkpoints which targeted undocumented Latinos, arguing that police traffic activities should be used against drunk drivers.

The activist campaign for an increase in Chevron's business and utility taxes resulted in a settlement which brought in significantly more money to the general fund which helped enable Richmond to be one of the more fiscally sound California cities without major layoffs after the 2007 collapse.

RPA activists participated with others in actions to help reduce pollution from the refinery. We worked on new approaches to decreasing homelessness with a local non-profit, Saffron Strand {}. Native Americans and others within the RPA worked to support the increasingly visible Native American Community and helped win city support for the annual Powwow. We promoted and participated in local celebrations celebrating the cultural diversity of our city-- Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth. And we promoted the "One Richmond" idea that the diversity also united us.

We encouraged and worked with the groups reclaiming blighted areas. Some like ACCE worked on housing. Others like Urban Tilth worked on urban agriculture. Richmond paid considerable attention to the idea and expansion of public art. We supported those who promoted bicycles and bicycle lanes. The Mayor's office set up assistance for those who were interested in worker owned co-ops. In other words, we were part of creating an atmosphere of vision and experimentation in what a community could be even while dealing with the more mundane problems of street lights and potholes.

Parallel to this was the work of the new liberal city manager Bill Lindsay who did much to reform the city administration by bringing in competent people to staff city government and transparency to the government. The rising progressive movement provided space for Lindsay's reforms and in many cases created the pressure to move the reforms forward.

Keys to success

All our work was done with no corporate contributions and with an all-volunteer organization.

What were the keys to success?

RPA refuses to accept any corporate contributions. The candidates we work for cannot accept such contributions. Corporate domination is the prominent issue in every campaign. The decision was hard-fought. An organization needs money to send out mailings, print literature, pay for offices and phone lines. Turning back contributions was hard, but it earned trust. RPA politicians do not vote a certain way because they were bought. RPA is not just about elections. We are year-round activists in the community and actively support other community organizations, like those seeking to aid returning prisoners or undocumented workers who need municipal IDs, those fighting foreclosure, and those fighting for environmental safeguards like cleaning up toxic wastes or limiting greenhouse gases. We see ourselves as allies and help in the campaigns of various non-profits that are willing to challenge the corporate establishment. These include ACCE (previous California ACORN), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the local PICO community organizing affiliate, CCISCO, and others We strongly defend unions and pro-union policies, backing organizing drives, contract campaigns, and Project Labor Agreements. We get solid support from public employee and teacher unions and continually push against outsourcing good union jobs. We make door-to-door canvassing our primary election tool. We have made the most of the fact that the council is technically nonpartisan. We invite registered Democrats, Greens, and independents to join. We depend on volunteers committed to the RPA as an independent local movement. Some of our most active members will have nothing to do with the Democratic Party, while some strongly support liberal Democrats at the state and national level and believe that we must do so until there is something better. We understand that our model would face serious problems if or when we challenged for partisan offices. We have minimum core beliefs: unity against racism and the politics of division; democracy is about people, not corporations; respect for diversity. We paid attention to good local government. Particularly important was dealing with the violent character and reputation of the city. We actively supported the new Police Chief Magnus' changes in the police department to a community policing model., and defended him against the pushback interests and corrupt police who resisted the reforms. We paid attention to the range of local issues and encouraged progressives to serve on city commissions that covers a range including arts, planning, economic development, human rights, workforce training, police,


At the same time our limitations are severe.

The causes of the major problems facing Richmond are not located in Richmond. Unemployment and lack of decent jobs are the result of national economic policy, and globalization. National political forces are shredding the safety net and starving government programs that helped cities. This in turn increases the local pressures to give concessions to business to attract jobs. The resulting bidding wars taken as a whole further reduce desperately needed city funds which are transferred to business profits. Global warming and sea level rise which threaten our community-by-the-shore is not going to be solved locally. We nibble around the edges of the fundamental problems by paying attention to violence prevention programs, job training programs, more efficient community services, eliminating corruption, reducing institutional racism and ending preferential treatment for wealthier communities. We also join with broader movements which addressed the real problems. We enthusiastically built the campaign for the California Millionaires Tax. We endorse national campaigns against global warming. Council meetings are used to educate people about the growing inequality in America and the impact of inequality on every aspect of our quality of life. But there is the feeling we can do very little unless movement develops elsewhere in the state and nation.

One of our strengths is also our weakness. People take pride in the fact that we are an all-volunteer organization that operates without corporate contributions. But, the problem with volunteer organizations is that participation ebbs and flows. People might put in a lot of effort for a few weeks but they get drawn back by the many other pressures on them. This is made worse by the realization of the limits on our power described above. If they don't feel they are making a difference, why make the effort? They may sympathize with the RPA and be glad that someone is doing the work but feel that they are being more productive attending to family, or job, or something else. In addition, people need relief from the stress of continued conflict which is consciously promoted by the Chevron forces Chevron on the other hand pays staff, hires temporary workers, and pays big bucks for regular mailings and TV ads to bring its message to the community. For the people working these jobs for Chevron, it is just a job and they can go home afterward and relax. We are not as strong in the African-American Community as we need to be. Although African-Americans in Richmond are every much the victims of the institutional racism of the American economy, education, and justice system, much of the organized leadership had done well for itself through arrangements with Chevron, the Chamber of Commerce, and corrupt power brokers like Reese. The machine leadership works hard to isolate any African-Americans who spoke out against it. When Jovanka Beckles ran for Council, they spread the word that she was not a real African-American because she was born in Panama and could speak Spanish. Beckles, darker than most of her critics, pointed out that where slavers initially dumped their slaves did not change the reality of African heritage or the fact of slavery. Their relentless and sometimes vicious attacks ("not a real Black") on Beckles continued at Council meetings. During the sugary drinks war there were many younger Black leaders who spoke out against the soda companies. But the media accepted and magnified the claim that the Black community was united against the soda tax. And constant media repetition increased the number of people who accepted this framing of the issue

Role of unions

Official organized labor plays an important part in the RPA story. Much is negative: Despite the strong pro-labor position of the RPA and the RPA's strong support for the sunshine ordinance when Chevron was trying shift away from local union contractors, the Building Trades declared the RPA its main enemy. They took this position because RPA opposed the Chevron expansion project and the casino. In 2010 the Building Trades endorsed the former head of the Chamber of Commerce for mayor and opened an office to defeat Mayor McLaughlin. The Contra Costa Central Labor Council dominated by the Building Trades followed suit. The fact that labor council and building trades opposition didn't hurt us much is a sign of the weak link between much of official labor and its members.

At the same time, the public employee locals (SEIU, AFSCME, ATU) supported RPA candidates. This support was critical. Their financial contributions and endorsements were invaluable, as was their participation in our grassroots campaign. In the original 2004 campaign, the first victory,  the SEIU chapter of the city workers was especially prominent.   But clearly we need to win over the support of more of labor, working from the inside and outside simultaneously.

The liberal Democratic Party

Northern California is considered flaming liberal country. Richmond's Congressman George Miller is known as a "Liberal Lion." Wikipedia says Miller has one of the most liberal voting records in the House, and brings "a zest for political combat." Miller speaks regularly of income inequality, the unfair amount of power corporations have, and criticize Chevron about its policies which produced serious dangers to the community. But at election time Miller, along with the rest of the official Democratic organization, endorses Chevron's candidates.

Liberal Democrats make much of opposing the power of corporations in America, the unfair advantage that Citizens United gives to wealth in elections. One would think that in non-partisan races in Richmond, prominent liberal Democrats would cheer on the side that successfully fights corporate money by refusing to accept it. Yet Miller and the Democratic slate cards regularly endorse the candidates backed by Chevron through an "independent expenditure organization" that, in the last election, bought up all the billboards in the city and paid for most of the mailers. Other prominent liberals remained silent about the Richmond elections while lending their names and reputation to the Democratic Party.

Chevron fights back

Unlike previous elections, by 2010 Chevron did not underestimate RPA. Chevron was used to the City supporting its agenda and needed to fight costly delays as well as outright modification of their expansion plans. The composition of the Council had an impact on many issues including taxation and approval of their development plans. Chevron poured money into the 2010 campaign through significant donations to its front committees. Still, Chevron-supported candidates lost. At that point Chevron shifted strategy.

It was not enough to make money available to candidates who supported their program. They had to be managed better. No more over-the-top hit pieces (like the racist 2008 mailer, or the inappropriate personal 2010 attacks on the Mayor) They were so obviously vicious and untruthful, they generated a rebound to their target's advantage. No more allowing Chevron's support to be divided by multiple candidates. Chevron would pull out all stops for the 2012 campaign. They would hire a professional campaign management with liberal credentials.

Still the RPA had had many things going for it. We had recent successes which included bringing the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs to Richmond, instituting Municipal IDs, and a significant decline in violence,. The RPA was organized and consolidated. We ran the only Latino candidate whose name was known from the previous election as well as a candidate who had worked closely with virtually every community organization as a staff member of the Mayor.

We had also played an important part in blocking Chevron's appeal for a Property tax reduction. Chevron had used its deep pockets to lawyer up against the county (which had significantly less money to spend on lawyers) and appeal its property tax. In the first round Chevron got an $18 million dollar refund from an assessor's appeals panel. Notably one of the members of this panel was a leading member of the Richmond Black machine whose organization BAPAC depended on Chevron funding. When Chevron continued its march to deprive the County and City of legitimate property taxes the RPA fought back making sure that the public eye remained on the hearings by demonstrating before every meeting, having a significant, presence at the lengthy hearings, and bringing our side of the issue to the media. In the second round the assessor panel rejected Chevron's claim that it had overpaid its property taxes, and found instead that the corporation had underpaid its taxes by $25 million.

On August 6, a huge fire erupted at the Refinery producing a huge cloud of particulates and chemicals that swept over Richmond. About 15,000 people sought medical treatment. Almost immediately it was clear that the explosion and fire resulted from management errors. The community was angry. The RPA seemed to be in a good position to win the election.

But we lost. Our candidate, Eduardo Martinez, a teacher and one of the organizers of the 2004 March to Sacramento, was a close runner-up. Our other candidate, Marilyn Langlois, did more poorly than we expected. Our major issue in that election--the tax on sugary drinks (see sidebar) was defeated two to one. Tom Butt. the independent Councilmember we unofficially supported won.

Why we lost

1. We can't underestimate the power of money. We had always been outspent in Richmond campaigns but this was like no election before. We were outspent approximately 50 to 1, Chevron's $1.2 million and the $2.5 million spent by the soda companies was coordinated. Add to this the independent expenditure committee of the Police and Fire unions and the well-financed direct campaigns of the Chevron candidates. With this war chest Chevron's candidates bought every billboard in Richmond and flooded mailboxes with campaign materials. They hired unemployed to campaign and contributed to churches and other community institutions. These tactics proved to be effective campaign tools.

These tactics are effective in large part because most residents of Richmond do not regard the Council as important and do not follow council issues, or know or care who is on the council. As a result the immediate campaign presence can overwhelm all of the positive work done by the RPA or the City Council. Campaign workers were continually surprised by how little people knew about the candidates and the issues. It is easy for those of us heavily involved to forget how little attention is paid to city politics.  It is natural to overestimate the impact of our good works on subsequent elections and underestimate the impact of money to influence elections by manipulating name recognition and image (campaign mailings, notoriety) as well as endorsements by reference groups like newspapers, churches, and leaders

2. Negative Campaigning works. All the survey data shows that while people claim to be turned off by negative campaigning, it has a strong effect. Well financed campaigns have the advantage in negative campaigning since they can flood the city with repeated negative messages. The content of negative campaigning makes a big difference. It can have the effect of energizing active supporters even while turning away some voters. But if it does not go over-the-top, it can be very effective. In this case Chevron allocated $100,000 for campaign mailers against RPA candidates which, while either absurd or irrelevant, were not over-the-top and raised some questions rather than generating outrage. We were not able to respond to them effectively. They may have had some effect in in turning off voter support but just as important, they undermined active supporters' confidence and enthusiasm in spreading the word. You don't want to talk to your neighbors about the campaign if you don't know the answers to the latest charges.

3. The Chevron committee was able to use race politics effectively. Given Obama's reelection campaign, the African-American community was mobilized and sensitive to race. The Chevron committee painted the election as an issue of the Black community suffering with a large under-current of anti-Latino sentiment. The Latino community was not mobilized and traditionally has a lower turnout.

4. The campaign for the sugar tax was the dominant issue in the election and it did not carry us to victory and indeed Chevron and allies were able to effectively use it as part of their racial campaign. On the other hand we missed possibilities for making the Chevron fire the dominant issue. Given how much the playing field was weighted against us we did well coming within a few hundred votes of taking one of the seats.

What do we need to win?

Given the low salience of the election and the fact that the Chevron candidates had the advantage of initial name recognition, reference groups, and money to promote their names, progressives must successfully complete two key tasks:

1. We must base the campaign on personal contact with our door-to-door work and presence at events and on the streets. Our experience was where we did talk to people we did very well. The report backs on phone banks and door-to-door were always very positive. Indeed in the precincts that we did the most serious contact work, the sugary drink tax and our candidates won majorities. Personal contact gives us the chance to inoculate against negative campaigns and answer them. It's the one thing that Chevron can't easily match with its money. People at home can tell the difference between a neighbor who is volunteering and feels passionately about the issue, and a person who is knocking on doors as a temp job for a few bucks.

2. We must carefully relate to or shape the dominant political issue in the community. While platforms are important, particularly for defining and developing coalitions, most voters are influenced by only one or two issues. These issues make council races more meaningful for wider number of voters. In 2008 we had the campaigns to increase Chevron's business tax. In 2010 we fought to defeat the casino. Voters understood that who would be on the Council made a big difference on how these issues that they considered important, would turn out. The Sugar Tax did not do this for us.

Since the election Chevron has not let down its drive. It is under a heavy burden from the August 6, 2012 Fire. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation found that for a ten year period Chevron had disregarded the advice of its own experts and workers to replace the corroded pipe that failed. They found that the Refinery has thousands of "temporary" clamps (bands over leaking pipes) The Board put out an animated film on the fire which points shows how close things came to having 20 deaths in the plant and management's role . Cal OSHA cited the plant for numerous violations including 11 "willful" serious violations.

Chevron is responding actively to win political support for its goals and projects. It is appealing the citations. It has renewed appeals for property tax reductions. Also It has resubmitted a modified version of its expansion project and requires city approval of a new Environmental Impact Report in order to proceed.

At the same time it is heavily funding and staffing a new organization called "4Richmond" with a board made up mainly of the "who's-who" of Chevron sycophants from the Council of Industries, Chamber of Commerce, Black American Political Action Committee and Building Trades. It is increasing the amounts and visibility of its contributions to non-profits and inserting itself heavily into the activities of the local school district. (The more Richmond speaks out against Chevron-the more Chevron contributes--is there a lesson here?) Its contributions are significant for the organizations involved, but small (a few million) compared to what Chevron is demanding back from its property taxes (about $20 million per year) and insignificant compared to the profits of the corporation. $27 billion in 2011. In a normal year the sales of the Richmond refinery alone are $25-30 Billion. We believe that Chevron has also hired the same "liberal" campaign management and lobby firm, Barnes, Whitehurst, Mosher, Lauter that ran the soda company campaign to manage its political campaign leading up the next election.

With this kind of imbalance of forces the volunteers of RPA and other community groups face an uphill battle against the national corporate powers, deep pockets, and skilled hired guns.


Mike Parker is on the steering committee of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and is editor of its email newsletter.  He can be reached at Details on much of what is described here can be found on the RPA web site at  Back issues of the newsletter can be seen by clicking the archives link in the left column of the home page. Parker is also a founding member of Labor Notes Posted by Portside on September 10, 2013 - See more at:…

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