Fifty-one years ago on May 24, 1965, David Pierce, now 83, was sworn in as the mayor of Richmond. I had the pleasure of having dinner tonight with David and some of his Richmond friends at the home of Barbara and Steve Friday in Sebastopol. We talked about old times in Richmond.
Tom Butt and David Pierce
Pierce was a 32-year old defense attorney and the youngest member of the City Council when he was selected from among his peers as mayor after serving on the City Council for two years. He is probably the oldest living former Richmond City Council member.
Someone had given him a copy of the May 25, 1965, edition of The Independent, which reported Pierce’s selection the same day it reported 41-year old Richmond Mayor George D. Carroll’s appointment as a municipal judge by Governor Edmund G. Brown. According to the Independent, Carroll was the “first Negro mayor of a major American city.”
Pierce describes himself as a “leftie” whose selection was also a surprise to many, as was his election to the City Council. He told me he got 90 percent of the black vote and 40 percent of the white vote. From the Independent:
His [Pierce’s] election [as mayor] last night came as a surprise to some observers since Councilman Milton Spinner and Stanley Grydyk were the two most likely candidates in the rotation system used for the election of a mayor.
Councilman James Wiley moved Pierce’s nomination, seconded by Walter Weyman. Both were elected on May 11 and were sworn in last night along with George Livingston. All three voted for Pierce as mayor.
Councilman Gay Vargas and Milton Spinner and Mayor George Carroll also cast their votes for Pierce.
Abstaining were Stanley Grydyk, John Sheridan and Pierce.
Since Grydyk’s and Spinner’s term expire in two years, one of them may not have the chance to become mayor.
“But someone is taking advantage of a situation here and I don’t approve of it,” Sheridan said. He said he hoped no deal had been made regarding Spinner and Grydyk as mayor next year.
You won’t find a more colorful figure than Davis Pierce, who now lives in Thailand north of Chiang Rai and is married to a Thai woman,. He and his wife have been in California the last three weeks for the marriage of his son.
Pierce described most of his Richmond City Council colleagues as “crooks” except for Gay Vargas, who was a “decent guy.” He said they were all looking for money. I asked him how he got along with Chevron, and he said, “They hated me.” “When I was running,” recounted Pierce, “ I went to see the refinery manager who asked, ‘Why do you want to build parks for black people?’” “They were good engineers I suppose,” said Pierce, “but they had no common sense.”
Pierce told me he eventually grew tired of all the corruption in Richmond and resigned from the City Council by postcard from Paris the year after his term as mayor ended.
David Pierce graduated from Richmond High in 1951 and attended Hastings College of the Law. At one time he was a law partner of Jack Knox. David was a brilliant lawyer, and the 1960s Richmond power broker Bert Coffey saw him as an up and coming potential politician and encouraged him to run for City Council.
Pierce was elected and ultimately rotated into the mayor’s seat. The best descriptions of Pierce in the 1960s come from his friend, Hunter S. Thompson. Who wrote:
I think David Pierce (the garbage mayor of Richmond) had the right idea, he is now living on a hashish farm in Nepal, financing his New Life with profits from various hypes and skullduggeries from the old days …I now understand why he panicked when I put you onto that garbage lobby deal.
I seem to run into Pierce somewhere every few years. In 2009, he lived in Bangkok and regaled us with tales of his pet baby elephant. Several summers ago, he was stark naked on a gravel bar of the Eel River at the Kate Wolf Music Festival at Black Oak Ranch (also known as “The Hog Farm”) in Laytonville, CA.
Above, Tom Butt, David Pierce and David Vincent at Point Richmond Fall Fest 2009
Jean Knox wrote the following about David Pierce:
I’d like to add two items which speak to David Pierce’s enduring contributions to the city: If David had not been on the council (1966-7 would be the dates I believe) not only Point Richmond, but the whole city, might not be enjoying Keller’s Beach. The property at that time was held by Danny Keller, son, I believe, of a Santa Fe Railway engineer to whom it had been granted as a life estate as compensation for severe injuries in a rail accident. The Kellers had a beer shack at the end of a short pier which provided a living. I remember seeing a sign on the then very little beach: ”We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Not a friendly spot for lots of people in Richmond, but it was a popular spot for the water ski boats which roared in the shallow cove. When Danny Keller died and Keller’s became city property, David realized there was no longer any excuse for the city to neglect waterfront recreation, and he put together the votes needed from the nine member council to create Keller’s beach. It wasn’t a slam dunk, as you’d now think it would have been, but that’s a longer story about Richmond politics, Tom, than you may want to insert here. Ted Osmundsen was the landscape architect who came up with the brilliant scheme which transformed the narrow driftwood cluttered site to the jewel it is today. (See pictures in the Richmond Historical Museum).
Somehow David Pierce and Hunter S. Thompson, of Gonzo Journalism fame, became friends and hung out together in Point Richmond. In “Meeting Hunter S. Thompson,” Margaret A. Harrell writes (http://www.poetspath.com/Scholarship_Project/harrell.htm):
Another of David’s significant, and maybe even enduring, contributions was putting together city support (funding) for improving neglected street drainage on the south side, which routinely and sometimes disastrously flooded.
Given all the stories of David’s association with the flamboyant Hunter Thompson, I’d like to point out that his day time costume and persona was strictly Brooks Brothers. There was, however, the Mandrake cloak for transition to the Fillmore.
Another old friend, David Pierce, played a key role in the Hell's Angels publication in stealth and required everyone involved be sworn to secrecy. To this day no one has revealed it. Desperately tracking down Pierce in 2008, I located him en route to Thailand—about to disappear. Fortunately, for Keep This Quiet! he withdrew the oath. Below is some background.
They don’t make mayors like that anymore.
In the 1960s, Pierce, a good-looking, intelligent attorney, worked twelve hours a day and lived in a beautiful house with teak floors. In the heyday of hippies he was mayor of Richmond, in the Bay Area. He reminisces jovially.
"Here's a typical Hunter Thompson story. Hunter hung out at my house because there was a lot of drugs and booze and he was broke. He kept telling me I should go see the Hell's Angels. I had no desire to. I thought of them as being a bunch of really disgusting scamps. As usual, he had this sheepskin coat with this big tape recorder on his back. So I finally agreed and I put on an old dirty pair of Levi's and an old shirt and we go to Oakland [to a] scumbag pool hall."
Within minutes Pierce left. Hunter followed. "And again, as usual, he has a bottle of Wild Turkey right beside him in his old beat-up car." To make a long story short, Pierce, who handily and overwhelmingly carried the African-American vote, told him, "'Tonight's celebrity night in Richmond. This black club on the South Side would really like me to show up because I'm the mayor.'"
At the club, they "get completely smashed. They got transvestites dancing on the bar, the whole damn thing
They left at 2:00 a.m. Hunter was, as typically, parked right out front in the bus lane. Three policemen had the car surrounded. Though Pierce tried to make nice, Hunter liked the odds for a fight. Behind Hunter and Pierce was a sort of Greek chorus softly murmuring, "You're the mayor, asshole. What you kissing ass for? Those fuckers work for your ass." One cop, overhearing them, conveyed the news to the other two and charges were dropped. Insisting Hunter was drunk, the officers made the loaded mayor drive home followed by three cop cars.
Hunter had two large swords on his wall, and another time they sword fought in the street: "So ... we're whacking [said with the sound of wind in his voice] the swords back and forth and of course the neighbors call the cops." The cops asked for ID. Pierce showed his. Hunter said his was in the house, come on in. Inside, one whole wall was filled with unpaid traffic tickets! They instantly handcuffed him and took him to jail, leaving Pierce to get him out.
Another time, around 1968, Hunter asked if he liked a certain Country Western music; Pierce said it was "rinky-dink." Hunter took out a gun and shot him in the chest. The bullet was blank. But the weapon was a .44 Magnum. "Now, a blank of a .44 Magnum will knock you all the way across the room. I just thought I was stunned and he was nuts." Hunter followed Pierce to his rented house, and through the window Pierce saw him piling cardboard outside, setting it on fire. He called the cops.
Pierce reflects, "So Hunter could be really sweet and everything. But he could also be extraordinarily painful and stressful to be around."
At the time, Pierce continues, "I was on my way to India, to leave and abandon ship, which also pissed him off because he thought I ought to run for governor"—to make a difference. "I said, 'I don't want to run for governor. I want to get outta here.'"
Pierce quit politics to follow the great Swami Muktananda. Joining the guru's inner circle, he organized his tours for four or five years, then went to Saudia Arabia to seek a fortune selling fresh ice cream on the road to Mecca.