Chevron spent $72 per voter to defeat these green candidates — and failed
By Heather Smith
5 Nov 2014 7:06 PM
At the headquarters for the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) Tuesday night, a man in a superhero mask made to look like the Chevron logo was capering around, handing play money to people and saying, “Vote for me!”
It might have been a depressing piece of political theater, but given how the election turned out, it wasn’t. By the end of the night, it was clear that the RPA’s entire slate of candidates had won by a landslide — despite Chevron’s funneling at least $3 million into defeating them (about $72 for each registered voter in the city).
RPA city council candidates Eduardo Martinez, Jovanka Beckles, and outgoing mayor Gayle McLaughlin all won, and RPA-endorsed candidate and city council member Tom Butt became the city’s new mayor. Butt’s election will free up a city council seat, which the RPA will try to fill with one of their own. If that happens, the group will have the four votes that will give them a majority on the council.
The campaigning continued right up until the end. Moving Forward, a political action committee funded primarily by Chevron, portrayed the RPA’s candidates as a group of commie troublemakers who couldn’t decide which they loved more, Cuba or Occupy Oakland. The morning of the election, a last-minute hit piece appeared in the Richmond Standard, a newspaper created by Sam Singer and Associates, a PR firm that often works with Chevron, alleging that “supporters of Team Richmond, candidates supported by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, have been harassing voters” at polling places.
What does this victory mean for Richmond? It means that Chevron — which runs 10 percent of its global sales through its Richmond refinery — will be under even more pressure to install the kind of equipment that will reduce pollution in the area. It means that the city’s comprehensive and ambitious Richmond General Plan 2030, which has an entire section on climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, actually has a chance of getting implemented.
Richmond’s more ambitious progressive projects have won another few years to work themselves out — plans like the city’s choice of Marin Clean Energy as the default energy provider for Richmond residents, the city’s innovations in police work, and its attempt to use the threat of eminent domain help citizens renegotiate underwater mortgages. (That last one raised the ire of the National Association of Realtors, who donated $118,000 to the RPA’s opponents.) The election outcome also means that the RPA is likely to become a model, nationally, for grassroots organizing on the citywide level.
It’s also likely that Richmond city council meetings are going to get a lot more boring. Back in 2010, the RPA endorsed a former drag racer and longtime Richmond resident named Corky Boozé for city council, on the basis of shared opposition to a casino proposal. There is some disagreement over what happened after the election.
“I’m independent. I’m on my own, and I always have been,” said Boozé, when I interviewed him at his unofficial campaign headquarters inside of Casper’s Hot Dogs on MacDonald Avenue. “He crawled into bed with Chevron and basically hung out a ‘for sale’ sign,” said Andres Soto, one of the RPA’s organizers.
Whatever his alliances, once he was elected, Boozé moved frequently to block RPA legislation. Meetings became contentious and dragged on until 1 a.m., and even innocuous decisions, like whether or not to approve a new public restroom, slowed to a crawl.
When we talked, Boozé was two days away from losing his council seat to relative newcomer (and RPA endorsee) Jael Myrick. In his opinion, the RPA were outsiders, using Richmond as a platform for their political beliefs. “Everything they have done has had a link to outside the city,” said Boozé. “They wanted to pass a resolution condemning Israel for raiding some flotilla.“
Indeed, talk to the RPA and you’ll get a sense that this is a group that has rarely met a left-wing cause that it didn’t like. These are some of the leftest left-wingers out there. But they are also experienced and pragmatic political organizers.
When Tom Butt, a city council member and real-estate developer, announced that he was entering the mayor’s race back in August, Mike Parker, the RPA’s candidate, withdrew, rather than split the progressive vote and wind up electing Nat Bates, the Chevron-backed candidate. “Tom is with us maybe 80 percent of the time,” said Soto. “That’s still better than Nat being with us 10 percent of the time.”
Even Parker was something of a compromise. Soto and other RPA members had been hoping for a “strong female candidate”; since Richmond began to elect mayors instead of rotating the mayorship among the city council, the city has seen more women get elected than men.
The RPA endorsed Butt’s campaign, but the two rarely appeared at each other’s events and seemed to exist in entirely different worlds. The RPA’s headquarters — covered in hand-painted posters, portraits of Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X — were surrounded by storefronts that either were out of business or looked like they were about to be.
Tom Butt’s campaign headquarters are located in Point Richmond, where there is a Starbucks, and twee stores sell handmade crafts. Even the air feels different, because Point Richmond has trees — not just one tree, looking sickly and drooping in the middle of a concrete plaza, but lots of them, just hanging out and doing their thing.
And here’s the thing about the election and the likelihood of the RPA continuing to achieve its agenda: the less polluted and more livable Richmond gets, the more money there is to be made building condominiums and selling them to people who are priced out of Berkeley. If you’re talking about political gains, the RPA is in the catbird seat. But if you’re talking about potential financial gains, the big winner of this election, and of this shift in power between the city of Richmond and Chevron, is Tom Butt. The guy is, after all, a real-estate developer.
Which is another way of saying that environmentalism — like any political struggle — builds some strange alliances. This election is over, but Richmond is a city to keep on watching.
Big money politics suffers big blow in Richmond as Chevron spending backfires
By Robert Rogers Contra Costa Times
Posted: 11/05/2014 04:20:56 PM PST Updated: 2 min. ago
RICHMOND -- What does $3.1 million in campaign spending by one of the world's largest corporations buy in Richmond?
Boulevards studded with billboards, mailboxes stuffed with fliers and fleets of campaign workers -- but no seats on the City Council.
Voters on Tuesday rejected the avalanche of spending by Chevron -- perhaps the most ever by a corporation in a local election -- in the oil giant's effort to tilt the balance of power on a City Council that has grown increasingly hostile toward its mammoth refinery here in recent years. Instead, voters handed the energy Goliath an embarrassing black eye, tapping a slate of progressive anti-Chevron candidates who promise resolute oversight of the city's largest taxpayer in the years ahead -- including a lawsuit stemming from the August 2012 refinery fire that sent thousands to the hospital.
Chevron's campaign, which drew national scorn and was waged by a phalanx of campaign committees steered by San Francisco public relations firms, culminated in a stunning repudiation. Candidates backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a mostly volunteer organization, emerged with a tighter grip than ever on local government. Six of the seven council seats could soon be occupied by progressive-leaning politicians critical of the refinery.
"As a political scientist, one has to look at this outcome with a smile," said Robert Smith, a San Francisco State University professor who followed the race. "People who believe in democracy got a boost; this showed that people can organize and triumph, and over big money."
Longtime Councilman Tom Butt easily defeated Chevron-backed Nat Bates for mayor, and "Team Richmond," comprising outgoing Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, incumbent Jovanka Beckles and newcomer Eduardo Martinez, appear to have nailed down the three full-term council seats, despite relentless attacks by a Chevron-backed political action committee that portrayed them as everything from absentee politicians to, in McLaughlin's case, a lobbyist for Cuban spies. With an undetermined number of mail-in and provisional ballots still to be counted, Martinez led longtime incumbent Jim Rogers by 292 votes for the third council seat.
The four candidates backed by Moving Forward, the committees into which Chevron poured money, all lost.
Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall issued a statement early Wednesday. "The voters have spoken, and Chevron will work hard to find common ground with this City Council to push for sound policies that allow Richmond to grow and thrive," he wrote.
A range of factors likely played roles in the outcome, according to longtime political observers and candidates.
The 2012 fire, sparked by a corroded pipe that investigators said should have been replaced, helped sully the refinery's standing in the community. A flurry of media attention cast a harsh spotlight on Chevron's campaign efforts, which included a community news website that reported unflattering stories of Chevron's political rivals, sometimes with anonymous sources.
The decision to go negative may have also backfired, some said, as the flood of kitschy television ads and mailers that attacked Beckles, Martinez and McLaughlin apparently failed to defeat any of them.
"At various polling places yesterday, people would shake my hand and tell me they saw the Chevron mailers attacking me and that I had their support; they were tired of the garbage," Martinez said. "Chevron's mailers attacking me actually worked for me."
A poll conducted by the Richmond Small Business Association and the West Contra Costa Business Association in September found that Chevron had just a 13 percent favorable rating among local voters polled.
"Many voters weren't necessarily pro-progressive or anti-Chevron; they just didn't like the idea that Chevron was intent on buying the election," said Jim McMillan, a Richmond councilman in the 1980s and 1990s. "The billboards looking down on every street, the fliers stuffing your mailbox everyday, it was kind of frightening."
With Butt taking the mayoral gavel, the progressive majority on the council is positioned to appoint another of their allies to fill his council seat.
Chevron's loss on its electoral gamble puts three major issues on the front burner: the city's potentially costly lawsuit against the refinery, which it is now expected to fiercely pursue; the refinery's ongoing efforts to modernize; and the city's stalled effort to use eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages from banks to stem foreclosures.
The eminent domain scheme bogged down in part because of opposition from Rogers. If the results hold up and he loses his re-election bid, the plan has new life.
"With the new council, Richmond will continue to be the trendsetter for local, state and national policies," Martinez said. "Eminent domain is one of those, and I think it will become a tool the cities across the country will use."
As for the relationship between the RPA and Chevron, which have refused to work together in the past, Martinez said he and his allies were eager for a seat at the table as equals, and signaled that future developments with the modernization project would be scrutinized. The City Council signed off on the environmental impact report for the project this summer.
Bates, the lone Chevron ally who will retain a council seat, said the relationship with the refinery is "going to be rough" with the new governing coalition.
The RPA may be "punitive," Bates warned during recorded remarks after his mayoral defeat.