Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2016  
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  Moving Past the City Council Election
November 10, 2016

Following this email is a statement by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which they asked me to publish – and I am happy to do so, about the November 8 City Council election.

This is my statement.

Some believe that this election, where I opposed both the RPA candidates and Measure L, isolated me and was a defeat for me and what I stand for. The fact is that for my entire 20 years on the Richmond City Council, I have never enjoyed a majority who aligned with my personal political beliefs, and I have butted heads with the City Council majority a thousand times. I’m used to it. Whatever I have accomplished these last 20 years, I have always done by building coalitions among often unlikely individuals or sometimes even by inviting intervention from higher authorities.

My first successful run for City Council in 1995 was largely a result of frustration with the City Council’s relationship with Chevron. The City was considering a permit application for a major Chevron modernization project, and working with CBE, the Richmond Toxics Coalition and others, we had been able to get the Planning Commission to approve a $62 million community benefits package. The City Council swiftly dismantled the community benefits package on appeal, and the project moved forward without it. About the same time, I had questioned the formula by which Chevron’s utility user tax was computed and filed a public records request (over a decade later, my concerns were fully validated). The City balked, and I sued. Then the City sued me for the costs of the lawsuit and won. See City Officials Threaten to Embarrass Council Member Over Unpaid Judgment. Later, the city attorney garnished my City Council wages. It was these types of actions by the City Council that motivated me to run. I was “madder’n hell and not going to take it anymore.”

When I was first elected in 1995 and took my seat along with eight others (we were seated right after the election in those days), I had to work with people like Nat Bates, Donna Powers and Richard Griffin, all of whom were closely tied to the Richmond business establishment and the public safety unions. I was often on the wrong end of an 8-1 vote, but I reasoned that having even one vote was better than none. Today, the RPA rails against “corporate money,” but in those days, the big money came from City employee unions (some things don’t change) and developers laundered through lobbyist Darrell Reese. Chevron was so powerful, they got a free ride and didn’t even have to spend any money to wield influence.

Not long after I was sworn in, the City Council was faced with the selection of a consultant to prepare the reuse plan for Point Molate. Not satisfied with the short list selected to be interviewed by staff, the City Council insisted on interviewing all the candidates, eventually reaching down to one ranked lowest by staff to which to award the contract. I protested, citing evidence of meddling by notorious firefighter unionist and lobbyist Darrell Reese, and eventually prevailed on the Navy to compel the City to repeat the whole process. Feelings and egos of my City Council colleagues were bruised during the process, and three Council members hired attorney John Burris  who threatened to sue me. Eventually, the City Council took another vote, and consultant ranked first by staff was awarded the contract.

Despite an unfriendly reception from most of my new City Council colleagues beginning in 1995, I worked with Alex Evans to get an ordinance regulating lobbyists passed. I worked with Donna Powers to bring the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park to Richmond. I worked with Mayor Irma Anderson to set up what became the Office of Neighborhood Safety. In 2014, I worked with Jim Rogers and Jael Myrick to successfully negotiate a $90 million Environmental and Community Investment Agreement (ECIA) with Chevron that would not have passed without support from Nat Bates and Corky Booze. The RPA City Council members voted against the ECIA.

I have also worked successfully with RPA City Council members ever since Gayle was first elected to the City Council over a decade ago. We have agreed on all environmental and health issues, and we voted together to approve the General Plan 2030 and joining what is now MCE Clean Energy. We collaborated to retain Bill Lindsay when Nat Bates and Vinay Pimple voted to fire him. We worked together to successfully defeat Measure N (Richmond Riviera) and Measure O, and we both supported the unsuccessful Measure M (real estate transfer tax). I nominated Ben Choi to fill the seat ultimately filled by Vinay Pimple, but the RPA City Council members rejected Choi and ended up with Pimple. I have appointed a number of RPA stalwarts and even RPA steering committee members to City boards and commissions.

I congratulate Melvin Willis and Ben Choi on their victory, and I look forward to working with them. The RPA ran a superb ground campaign and outworked, outfoxed and out fundraised all other candidates.

On the other hand, this election was neither a mandate nor a blowout. There were around 20,000 voters in this election, although some 2,000 may be added when all mail-in and provisional ballots are counted.

Of the 20,000 who voted:

  • 35.38% voted for Willis
  • 31.40% voted for Choi
  • 30.05% voted for Myrick

That means that around 2/3 of voters wanted someone other than Willis, Choi and Myrick. None of the three came even close to a majority, but all they needed was a plurality. That’s the way our political system works. It’s kind of like Hillary won the popular vote, and Trump won the election. What remains to be seen is whether the RPA will respect the 2/3 of residents who did not support them as well as the 1/3 who did. If the RPA takes this as a mandate, it is going to get contentious. If they take it as an opportunity to collaborate for a better Richmond, we could make real progress.

The difference between Willis and Rogers is 1,438 votes and the difference between Willis and Bates is 1,593 votes. The difference between Choi and Rogers is 641 votes, and the difference between Choi and Bates is 796 votes.

For those who would rather have not seen an RPA majority or supermajority, I tried my best to urge them to vote for Rogers and Myrick, neither of whom have consistently supported me over the years. The polls also indicated, inaccurately as it turned out,  that Bates was a shoo-in. What I saw unfold is that many people who were staunchly anti-RPA derided my endorsement of Rogers and Myrick and proudly announced their support instead of Pimple, Zepeda and/or Uwahemu, and these same people also gravitated away from Bates. Amazingly, lots of people even voted for Corky. I tried to talk to people about voting strategically rather than emotionally, but few get the concept. If a fraction of voters who voted for  Pimple, Zepeda and/or Uwahemu had essentially not thrown away their votes, there could have been a very different outcome.

In any event, the election is over, and we have to get to work.


RPA New Logo

Following the election of Ben Choi and Melvin Willis to Richmond City Council last night, the RPA steering committee, Vice-Mayor Eduardo Martinez, Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, Councilmember-Elect Ben Choi, Councilmember-Elect Melvin Willis issued the following statement:

Rising to the Occasion

We, the Richmond Progressive Alliance Steering Committee, and incumbent and elected members of the City Council extend congratulations to the newly elected Richmond City Councilmembers: Melvin Willis, Ben Choi and Jael Myrick.

We also applaud the voters’ decision to pass Measure L: Fair and Affordable Richmond for rent control and tenant protections. As Measure L advocates have said from the start, this measure alone will not solve our community’s housing crisis, but it constitutes an important step to help seniors and working people stay in their homes and to prevent evictions without just cause. Moving forward, Richmond must redouble its efforts to develop more affordable housing.

We appreciate the democratic participation of all candidates who ran for city council seats. We acknowledge outgoing Councilmembers Nat Bates, who deserves recognition for his decades of participation on the council, and Vinay Pimplé, for their dedicated service to our city. We know it is a very difficult job.

These progressive victories in our city belong to all those in the progressive movement in Richmond and beyond, who supported the electoral struggle for progressive measures and corporate-free candidates. To each and every one of them, our most sincere gratitude and celebration.

In recent years, voters have elected several corporate-free council representatives who brought new progressive approaches to the problems that our city faces. The grassroots movement that propelled their victories upset the political status quo. As a result, the differences among councilmembers often receive more attention than their many shared values.

It is now incumbent for the entire Council to focus on its primary mutual interest: the betterment of Richmond. The needs facing our community are too urgent for us to be distracted by past disagreements or personal grievances.

At times, the members of the Council will surely disagree with each other about the best ways to solve Richmond’s many challenges. Our city will be well-served when decisions are debated with rigor, passion, and civility. Given the extreme challenges from the outcome of the presidential election, our national government may be wracked by division and malice, but in Richmond, let our Council demonstrate how dissent and decency can co-exist.

RPA-supported councilmembers will also disagree with one another at times, and have amply shown they do not share a single mindset for casting votes. Faithfully adhering to requirements of the Brown Act, they will not conspire behind closed doors about how to vote, and welcome input and open discussion from all sectors of the community.

One conviction we do share deeply is that corporate money corrupts our democracy, a belief shared by the Bernie Sanders revolution. When Bernie Sanders urged supporters to run for local office, Ben Choi and Melvin Willis heeded his call. Their campaigns for City Council seats (and the Measure L effort) were fueled by hundreds of small donations and thousands of volunteer hours.

We look forward to working with Mayor Tom Butt and Councilmember Jael Myrick in a spirit of constructive collaboration. There is common ground in many areas and it is land worth cultivating. Let us all bring our best selves to the table and rise to this occasion.

- Co-coordinators Marcos Bañales & Marilyn Langlois for the RPA Steering Committee
- Vice-Mayor Eduardo Martinez
- Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin
- Councilmember Jovanka Beckles
- Councilmember-Elect Ben Choi
- Councilmember-Elect Melvin Willis