The Progressive City on the Bay (And It’s Not Berkeley or S.F.)

An interview with the mayor of Richmond--a Green Party member who has been making corporations furious.

Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin helped develop the Richmond Progressive Alliance—which includes Democrats, Greens, and Independents—to take electoral politics in Richmond in a new direction. (

When we sat down to talk with 60-year old Gayle McLaugh­lin, the may­or of Rich­mond, Calif., she had just been through a sum­mer media whirl­wind. Pol­i­cy inno­va­tion and polit­i­cal con­tro­ver­sies land­ed McLaugh­lin and her East Bay city of 100,000 on the front page of The New York Times, on MSNBC with Rachel Mad­dow and Chris Hayes, and on Democ­ra­cy Now with Juan González and Amy Good­man. Even Fox News recent­ly host­ed a debate between two Rich­mond city coun­cil mem­bers about the mer­its of a new ban the box” ordi­nance passed to ease the re-entry of for­mer pris­on­ers into the community.

There really are multiple goals here in Richmond: achieving peace, community stability, economic justice, and greater democratic participation--and making it clear that we’re not a company town anymore.

The nation­al media’s redis­cov­ery of Rich­mond began last fall when the Times informed an unsus­pect­ing world that McLaughlin’s small, blue-col­lar city best known for its Chevron refin­ery has become the unlike­ly van­guard for anti­cor­po­rate, left-wing activism in recent years, hav­ing seized the man­tle from places like Berke­ley, just south of here, or San Fran­cis­co, across the Bay.”

Since 2007, Rich­mond has approved a busi­ness tax increase and defeat­ed a casi­no devel­op­ment scheme; opposed Immi­gra­tion & Cus­toms Enforce­ment raids in the city and cre­at­ed a munic­i­pal ID card to aid the undoc­u­ment­ed; sought fair prop­er­ty tax­a­tion of Chevron and sued the giant oil com­pa­ny over the dam­age done by a huge refin­ery fire and explo­sion last year; and sup­port­ed com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing” ini­tia­tives intro­duced by Rich­mond Police Chief Chris Mag­nus, which have helped reduce violence.

In 2012, Rich­mond pro­gres­sives failed to win vot­er approval for a pen­ny-per-ounce tax on sug­ary drinks, a pub­lic health mea­sure bit­ter­ly opposed by the bev­er­age indus­try. And since Rich­mond became the first city in the coun­try to threat­en the use of emi­nent domain to avert fore­clo­sures, major banks have sued to block the plan and some investors have shunned the city’s munic­i­pal bonds. Home own­ers with­out mort­gage prob­lems have been flood­ed with bank­ing-indus­try fund­ed mail­ers claim­ing that their prop­er­ty val­ues will be adverse­ly affect­ed. At a Sept. 10 meet­ing attend­ed by 300 peo­ple, the city coun­cil vot­ed, by a 4 to 3 mar­gin, to resist these pres­sures and pur­sue McLaughlin’s anti-fore­clo­sure ini­tia­tive. (Actu­al use of the city’s emi­nent domain pow­ers will require five coun­cil mem­ber votes.)

While the out­come of the anti-fore­clo­sure fight has yet to be decid­ed, the city’s expand­ed bike lanes, urban gar­den net­work, pub­lic art dis­plays and work­er co-op ini­tia­tives are all flour­ish­ing. On August 3, a crowd of 2,500, joined by McLaugh­lin, marched to the Chevron refin­ery gates in the largest envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice protest in Richmond’s history.

We asked McLaugh­lin about her own back­ground and the recent changes in a city bet­ter known, in the past, for its prob­lems with drugs, crime, gangs and indus­tri­al pollution.

How did you first get involved in politics?

McLaugh­lin: I was born into a work­ing-class fam­i­ly; my dad was a union car­pen­ter and my mom worked in fac­to­ries and as a house­wife. Most of the work that I had done pri­or to com­ing to Rich­mond [in 2000] was for caus­es that had a nation­al and inter­na­tion­al focus. I was involved in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment and cam­paigns against racism and sex­ism and for edu­ca­tion and jobs. I decid­ed once I moved here that it was time to put down roots and get involved in local work.

You’ve accom­plished a lot in 12 years, includ­ing win­ning three con­sec­u­tive elec­tions (one for city coun­cil and two for may­or). How did that happen?

It all came from the grass­roots. In 2003, many of us came togeth­er to form the Rich­mond Pro­gres­sive Alliance, an orga­ni­za­tion of peo­ple with var­i­ous polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions — Democ­rats, Greens, Inde­pen­dents. By run­ning pro­gres­sive can­di­dates, like myself and Coun­cil Mem­ber Jovan­ka Beck­les, and get­ting some of us elect­ed, we’ve tak­en elec­toral pol­i­tics in Rich­mond in a new and dif­fer­ent direc­tion. We’ve done this elec­toral work — with­out any cor­po­rate mon­ey — along­side a strong pro­gres­sive move­ment of com­mit­ted activists. Togeth­er, we’ve become a fight­ing force for real polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic change in our city.

What form of munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment does Rich­mond have?

Rich­mond has a city council/​city man­ag­er style of gov­ern­ment. That means the city coun­cil as a whole, includ­ing the may­or, makes pol­i­cy, but we hire a pro­fes­sion­al man­ag­er who imple­ments all our admin­is­tra­tive and pol­i­cy deci­sions. The may­or has the pow­er to appoint peo­ple to com­mis­sions and boards, with the con­cur­rence of the coun­cil major­i­ty, which is impor­tant because we have the voice of the pro­gres­sive move­ment rep­re­sent­ed through those struc­tures as well. Being may­or is tech­ni­cal­ly not a full-time job, but clear­ly is one if you want to do it right. I have only two full-time (and one two-third-time) staff mem­bers, so I real­ly am work­ing day and night to make sure the com­mu­ni­ty under­stands they have a may­or who stands with them.

In 2010, Chevron spent heav­i­ly on mail­ers and ads that they hoped would defeat your bid for re-elec­tion. Last year, pro­gres­sives were out­spent 50 to 1 in local elec­tions, and two RPA can­di­dates lost their races for city coun­cil seats after being smeared by Big Oil and Big Soda. How do pro­gres­sive pub­lic offi­cials like your­self or ones run­ning any­where else over­come this cor­po­rate spend­ing advantage?

We do it by reach­ing out, door-to-door and one-on-one, to fel­low com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. Precinct walk­ing is the way we have won all our cam­paigns and the way that we have con­tin­ued to build a base. Hav­ing real rela­tion­ships with our neigh­bors gives us an advan­tage over Chevron, which has start­ed to rec­og­nize our suc­cess with door-to-door cam­paigns. They’ve actu­al­ly start­ed hir­ing peo­ple to go door to door, with lies and mis­in­for­ma­tion. But these aren’t authen­tic rela­tion­ships they’re build­ing. So while Chevron has a lot of mon­ey, we have val­ues, prin­ci­ples and bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the people.

You have an African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty, a Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty, and now many Asian immi­grants liv­ing in Rich­mond. Has it been a chal­lenge reach­ing out to so many dif­fer­ent con­stituen­cies in a major­i­ty non-white city?

We have beau­ti­ful diver­si­ty, peo­ple com­ing togeth­er from var­i­ous cul­tures and back­grounds. It’s been an incred­i­bly enrich­ing expe­ri­ence for me to work with all sec­tors of our com­mu­ni­ty. I think I’ve won all three of my cam­paigns because peo­ple see me as a reg­u­lar per­son, as some­one who real­ly cares. Richmond’s over­all demo­graph­ics makes our pro­gres­sive move­ment very spe­cial but, hope­ful­ly, also an exam­ple for how we could move for­ward in our country.

The sec­tor of the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty that some­times will side with old-guard politi­cians, who are tak­ing mon­ey from Chevron and not serv­ing our col­lec­tive inter­ests, still exists. But it is shrink­ing, and we have a younger African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty that is ris­ing up and tak­ing a stand against old-guard leaders.

Our com­mu­ni­ty is 39 per­cent Lati­no, and they have been very strong in sid­ing with pro­gres­sives. We have stood for immi­grants’ rights and been a lead­ing city in the area of immi­gra­tion reform, before it even reached the nation­al stage. And we have a munic­i­pal ID that’s going to be rolled out pret­ty soon for every­one, includ­ing immigrants.

What about orga­nized labor — how have local unions relat­ed to the Rich­mond Pro­gres­sive Alliance? 

Labor unions are very much a part of the solu­tion. We’ve always got­ten the sup­port of the main union here in the city, which is Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union Local 1021. And we do have some unions rep­re­sent­ed on the RPA steer­ing committee.

There are some unions that are more con­ser­v­a­tive and more nar­row­ly focused, rather than look­ing at the big pic­ture. The build­ing trades Coun­cil [FC], for exam­ple, sup­port­ed build­ing a casi­no at Point Molate [on the Rich­mond shore­line] because the devel­op­er promised them all kinds of jobs. Well, our point of view was that what­ev­er you build at Point Molate is going to cre­ate a lot of jobs. And we’re for good, healthy sus­tain­able devel­op­ment that ben­e­fits the whole com­mu­ni­ty rather than takes advan­tage of poor peo­ple by pick­ing their pockets.

Relo­ca­tion of Lawrence Berke­ley Lab facil­i­ties to Rich­mond was a project we strong­ly sup­port­ed. We got them to agree that our city was a pre­ferred loca­tion to expand their lab, and now there will be a lot of build­ing trades and oth­er jobs there. That was an oppor­tu­ni­ty for us to unite with build­ing trades, which haven’t always sup­port­ed the RPA. “

Unions have a strong role to play in build­ing a bet­ter soci­ety, clear­ly, as does the com­mu­ni­ty. So hav­ing local unions join with com­mu­ni­ty efforts to build a pro­gres­sive move­ment is def­i­nite­ly essential.

Can you explain the city’s anti-fore­clo­sure initiative?

Rich­mond had 900-plus fore­clo­sures last year. We face the same lev­el of fore­clo­sures going for­ward unless we step in, as a city, and do what the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment hasn’t been will­ing or able to do and what the banks don’t want to do.

Under our mort­gage reduc­tion pro­gram, we would be help­ing peo­ple who are under­wa­ter — who have mort­gages high­er than the cur­rent val­ue of their home. The city will pur­chase these loans at fair mar­ket val­ue from the banks and reset the mort­gages in line with the homes’ cur­rent val­ue. [Then we’ll] put these refi­nanced loans, with low­er mort­gage pay­ments, into the hands of our home­own­ers. That way, they can con­tin­ue to stay in our com­mu­ni­ty and our neigh­bor­hoods will remain sta­ble. They can avoid going into default, expe­ri­enc­ing fore­clo­sure and evic­tion, and hav­ing to walk away from their home.

If lenders don’t coop­er­ate, we have stat­ed quite clear­ly that we have the option of acquir­ing the prop­er­ties through emi­nent domain, again pay­ing fair mar­ket val­ue. So the banks are not too hap­py and some are now suing us. But we’re mov­ing for­ward and I think we’ll win in court. We’ve had many lawyers review this pro­gram and [they say] it is legal­ly sound. I think the banks are against this because they want to main­tain their con­trol and don’t want a city like Rich­mond to uti­lize local power.

Does Rich­mond have part­ners in this endeavor?

This is a bat­tle and we’re wag­ing it with won­der­ful com­mu­ni­ty allies, the Alliance of Cal­i­for­ni­ans for Com­mu­ni­ty Empow­er­ment (ACCE) and Mort­gage Res­o­lu­tion Part­ners (MRP), the pri­vate com­pa­ny that actu­al­ly brought this idea to us and will cov­er any legal costs incurred by the city.

The city has a for­mal agree­ment with MRP that they will pro­vide the fund­ing and tech­ni­cal assis­tance in pur­chas­ing these mort­gages. It will not cost the city of Rich­mond or its tax­pay­ers one pen­ny. We’re doing this on behalf of our home­own­ers to pre­vent blight­ed neighborhoods.

It’s an over­all pub­lic ben­e­fit, which is why emi­nent domain is some­thing we feel strong­ly we can use legally.

You’ve got 17 months left to go before being termed out as may­or. What do you hope to accom­plish in the remain­der of your sec­ond term?

Reduc­tion of crime is real­ly one of the key accom­plish­ments of our joint efforts with the com­mu­ni­ty since pro­gres­sives won office. Rich­mond, when I first got involved here, had an incred­i­bly high crime rate. Even in 2007, we had 47 homi­cides. Last year, we had 18. I want to con­tin­ue to reduce crime because obvi­ous­ly 18 homi­cides is 18 too many.

I want to con­tin­ue with envi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives. We were num­ber one in the Bay Area for solar installed per capi­ta in 2010. We have a solar instal­la­tion co-op that’s being formed right now and an award win­ning green job train­ing pro­gram. So work­er-owned co-ops are anoth­er effort that I want to see con­tin­ued in the city. I would say get­ting our down­town revi­tal­ized more, pro­mot­ing the arts and pro­mot­ing fur­ther job train­ing are all priorities

There real­ly are mul­ti­ple goals here in Rich­mond: achiev­ing peace, com­mu­ni­ty sta­bil­i­ty, eco­nom­ic jus­tice, and greater demo­c­ra­t­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion – and mak­ing it clear that we’re not a com­pa­ny town any­more. Chevron ran this city for decades. But just because pre­vi­ous city coun­cils were bought off by their mon­ey doesn’t mean an engaged com­mu­ni­ty with hon­est elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives can’t chart out a whole new course. And that’s what we’ve been doing.

Steve Ear­ly and Suzanne Gor­don are jour­nal­ists who moved to Rich­mond, Calif. last year. They are cur­rent­ly work­ing on a book about the city’s his­to­ry and recent polit­i­cal evo­lu­tion. Both belong to the Rich­mond Pro­gres­sive Alliance. They can be reached at: Lsup­port aol​.com.
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