From Company Town to Rebel City: Richmond, California Shows How Progressives Can Win

Shaun Richman January 11, 2017

Steve Early's new book is an intimate, warts-and-all look at how a small band of activists fought for and won a slightly better world at home. (Richmond Progressive Alliance/ Facebook)

Rebel cities have long been lab­o­ra­to­ries for pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy exper­i­men­ta­tion. Specif­i­cal­ly, the small Bay Area city of Rich­mond, Cal­i­for­nia has stood out for its bold­ness. It’s now the sub­ject of a new book by Steve Ear­ly, Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City, set to be released next Tues­day by Bea­con Press.

A long-time labor activist and fre­quent writer for In These Times, Ear­ly moved to Rich­mond five years ago. After thir­ty-two Boston-area win­ters,” the placid weath­er was more of a draw than the city’s vibrant urban reform move­ment, Ear­ly writes. But, nat­u­ral­ly, he soon got involved and began tak­ing notes, even­tu­al­ly pro­duc­ing a live­ly read — an inti­mate, warts-and-all look at how a small band of activists fought for and won a slight­ly bet­ter world at home. His book is a ray of hope for any­one won­der­ing how to sur­vive, and pos­si­bly even thrive, under Don­ald Trump and a hos­tile, Repub­li­can Congress.

Tak­ing on Chevron

Rich­mond was once home to fac­to­ries that built war­ships and auto­mo­biles. Today, what’s left of local indus­try is a giant oil refin­ery owned by the glob­al super­pow­er, Chevron. The dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of Rich­mond pro­duced the usu­al urban prob­lems: white flight, declin­ing tax rev­enue, a cor­rupt gov­ern­ment and a police force that behaved like an occu­py­ing army.

In 2004, an unlike­ly group of Greens, Lati­nos, pro­gres­sive Democ­rats, African Amer­i­cans, and free spir­its” formed the Rich­mond Pro­gres­sive Alliance (RPA), and began to orga­nize around envi­ron­men­tal and good gov­ern­ment caus­es. It grew into a polit­i­cal machine.

Par­ty labels don’t appear on Rich­mond city bal­lots and all city coun­cil seats are elect­ed on a city­wide basis — a struc­ture that’s advan­ta­geous for insur­gent minor­i­ty efforts to gain rep­re­sen­ta­tion and build a rep­u­ta­tion in government.

In its first elec­tion, the RPA man­aged to win a city coun­cil seat for Gayle McLaugh­lin, a Green. As coun­cil­woman, McLaugh­lin cham­pi­oned city parks and pushed for more envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion of the refin­ery. Two years lat­er, she was elect­ed mayor.

McLaugh­lin hired a good gov­ern­ment city man­ag­er, who straight­ened out the city’s books, as well as a new police chief who retrained the city’s force to empha­size com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions and de-escalation.

The alliance also fought to make Chevron pay its fair share in tax­es, even­tu­al­ly extract­ing an addi­tion­al $114 mil­lion from the com­pa­ny. It helped nego­ti­ate a sep­a­rate $90 mil­lion pay­out, along with new safe­ty reg­u­la­tions and invest­ments for the plant. In turn, that mon­ey was invest­ed in parks, in youth jobs pro­grams and in expand­ing the city’s work­force and services.

In spite of such suc­cess­es, the RPA found itself under reg­u­lar attack. Its mem­bers skewed old­er and whiter than Richmond’s diverse pop­u­la­tion. Machine Democ­rats exploit­ed this fact by run­ning African-Amer­i­can oppo­nents against RPA-sup­port­ed can­di­dates. These hacks were rou­tine­ly endorsed by state Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers like Dianne Fein­stein, out of par­ty loy­al­ty. In a dynam­ic famil­iar to any­one who labors in urban union pol­i­tics, the build­ing trades and police and fire unions also opposed the pro­gres­sive alliance.

Final­ly, and least sur­pris­ing­ly, Chevron spent $3.1 mil­lion in an unsuc­cess­ful effort to defeat the RPA slate in 2014. To put that in per­spec­tive, that’s more mon­ey than the com­pa­ny spent on every con­gres­sion­al race in the coun­try for two cycles — combined!

From protest to policy-making

Rich­mond pro­gres­sives also faced intense oppo­si­tion from pow­er­ful real estate inter­ests. The city made nation­al head­lines with its Rich­mond Cares” plan to use its pow­ers of emi­nent domain to help home­own­ers whose loans exceed­ed the val­ues of their homes in the wake of the mort­gage cri­sis and Great Reces­sion that fol­lowed. The bank­ing and real estate indus­tries,” writes Ear­ly, want­ed to stran­gle Rich­mond Cares in the cra­dle before it could become a mod­el and prece­dent for oth­er cities.”

Cor­po­rate inter­ests sued to block imple­men­ta­tion, and inun­dat­ed the local air­waves with broad­sides against the may­or and pro­gres­sive coun­cilmem­bers. In essence, the banks threat­ened a cap­i­tal strike, warn­ing that lend­ing for new home buy­ers will dry up, home val­ues will decline, and neigh­bor­hoods will be hurt,” Ear­ly writes. Ulti­mate­ly, the mort­gage indus­try suc­cess­ful­ly lob­bied Con­gress to pre­vent the use of emi­nent domain to rene­go­ti­ate pri­vate mort­gages. Such a bill was signed into law by Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma in late 2014.

Efforts to pro­vide relief for Rich­mond renters were more suc­cess­ful, although no less con­test­ed. Locat­ed just 17 miles from San Fran­cis­co and con­nect­ed by a train line, Rich­mond has seen an influx of new res­i­dents priced out of more expen­sive cities to its south. New­com­ers were soon pric­ing out long­time Rich­mond res­i­dents, as rents were raised by hun­dreds of dol­lars a month, with no warn­ing. Evic­tions spiked.

In July 2015, the city passed a pack­age of rent con­trol mea­sures. They estab­lished a rent con­trol board, capped annu­al rent increas­es to the fed­er­al infla­tion rate and estab­lished a just cause stan­dard for evic­tions. The Cal­i­for­nia land­lord lob­by respond­ed by pay­ing can­vassers to mis­lead sev­er­al thou­sand Rich­mond vot­ers into forc­ing a ref­er­en­dum on the law. Although Early’s book went to press before the Novem­ber elec­tion, the hap­py post­script is that Richmond’s rent con­trol law was one of the many pro­gres­sive bal­lot ques­tions that won.

The rent con­trol bat­tle exposed a deep­en­ing rift between the RPA and the new may­or, Tom Butt. Butt, who the alliance backed at the end of McLaughlin’s two terms, favored a sup­ply side” solu­tion to the city’s hous­ing crunch and bit­ter­ly walked out on the council’s rent vote. 

This kind of polit­i­cal grow­ing pains is being expe­ri­enced in almost every city where pro­gres­sive coali­tions have won more pow­er in city hall. In the tran­si­tion from protest to pol­i­cy-mak­ing, alliances con­tend with the ris­ing expec­ta­tions of Left vot­ers, on the one hand, and the dawn­ing real­i­ty, on the oth­er hand, that lib­er­al allies may only be along for part of the ride.

Showed what a lit­tle group of peo­ple could accomplish”

Appro­pri­ate­ly, Refin­ery Town includes a fore­word by Bernie Sanders. Before he became the de fac­to oppo­si­tion leader against Trump, Sanders gave hope to a belea­guered and much tinier Left dur­ing the Ronald Rea­gan years, as may­or of the small Ver­mont city of Burling­ton. He’s now work­ing with Our Rev­o­lu­tion, the new nation­al orga­ni­za­tion that spun off from Sanders’ recent run for the pres­i­den­cy, and is focused on the recruit­ment and train­ing of local activists for down-bal­lot races.

Com­mu­ni­ty activists who are just start­ing out could find exam­ples like Rich­mond a bit daunt­ing, which makes inti­mate, con­tem­po­rary his­to­ries like Refin­ery Town so valu­able. The first step, of course, is to find each oth­er. The activists who would go on to form the Rich­mond Pro­gres­sive Alliance first coa­lesced around a suc­cess­ful effort to block con­struc­tion of an oil-fueled munic­i­pal pow­er plant next to the Chevron refinery.

The next project they worked on was a year-long cam­paign to stop the police from harass­ing Lati­no day labor­ers at their morn­ing meet­up spot out­side a local Home Depot. This cam­paign was also a suc­cess, and led to the cre­ation of a day labor­er asso­ci­a­tion to improve safe­ty and work­ers’ wages.

Orga­niz­ing around these dis­crete winnable issues showed what a lit­tle group of peo­ple could accom­plish,” Ear­ly writes one founder recalled, and inspired the shift into elec­toral work.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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