When “The Richmond Sun” hits your mailbox, you know election season has started, and the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) is planning a comeback. Once the predominant political power in Richmond, the RPA representation on the City Council has dwindled to two – Eduardo Martinez and Melvin Willis – who constitute the radical fringe on most legislative issues.
Unable to win at-large elections anymore in Richmond, the RPA believes the new district elections will give them a fresh chance at regaining power at a much reduced cost of running a campaign.
The strategy, outlined in full in “The Richmond Sun,” a campaign mailer disguised as a newspaper, is as follows:
- Current Councilmember Melvin Willis, who currently claims North and East (District 6) as his home, will find a new home in the Iron Triangle (District 1).
- Former councilmember and mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, will run from her home District 5, which consists of the Annex and Marina Bay.
- Claudia Jimenez will run from her home District 6, North and East and East.
Figure 1 - Front page of "The Richmond Sun"
Figure 2 - The RPA 2020 candidates: Melvin Willis, Gayle McLaughlin and Claudia Jimenez
The prospect of an RPA resurgence should alarm Richmond residents, particularly at a time when the economy has been devastated by COVID-19, unemployment in Richmond has risen from a record low of 3% earlier this year to 17% because of COVID-19 Shelter in Place, and the City is facing a $30 million budget deficit.
As we hopefully emerge from the pandemic and patch together a FY 2020-21 budget, new sources of revenue will be required to continue providing even the existing level of services to Richmond residents. Not only are we facing the COVID-19 related hit on revenue, but the CalPERS contributions continue to climb to a point where we will be paying more for employee pensions than we are for employee compensation. The Kids First obligations will start up in 2022 and quickly climb to exceed the revenue from Measure M. A settlement with Chevron stemming from a utility user tax dispute several years ago has been propping up the budget for years but is running down. Hilltop Mall (newly renamed “The Shops at Hilltop”), once the prime source of sales tax revenue, has recently shut down.
Other than raising taxes, the best prospects for new revenue are property taxes and sales taxes from new development. Although eager to spend money the City doesn’t have, the RPA candidates have always eschewed new development unless it is affordable housing. They have always viewed the business community, corporations, developers and landlords as not just suspect but truly evil. The RPA candidates continue to consistently oppose the two largest developments on Richmond’s horizon – Point Molate and the Zeneca site (Richmond Bay), which could bring millions in new tax revenue to the City. Both Melvin Willis and Eli Moore (Claudia Jimenez’ spouse) have also viewed Richmond ferry service negatively (Soon-to-open Richmond ferry terminal could revive shoreline, usher in gentrification – SFChron, July 5, 2018).
Figure 1 – Pension costs are rising at nearly twice the rate of inflation
The RPA fancies themselves as environmentalists, but their members routinely oppose the development of remediated brownfield sites like Point Molate and Zeneca. It is ironic that several of the RPA stalwarts live in Marina Bay, a successfully remediated brownfield site.
Despite repeated assurances from both City staff and SunCal that Point Molate will not require City subsidies, the RPA continues to erroneously allege otherwise without a shred of evidence. In “The Richmond Sun,” they provocatively asked the question, “Is part of the proposed sewer fee increase going to subsidize [Point Molate] infrastructure?” when they knew the answer is “No.” For Point Molate, the RPA advocates “a magnificent public waterfront park”… restoration of Winehaven Village “as a commercial educational and cultural destination” and no housing, without any credible economic study of how to achieve that vision. They have no idea how their plan would be paid for. Dream it, and it will come, is their motto. They also skip over the fact that the current Point Molate plan actually includes “a magnificent public waterfront park,” in fact, 70% of the site is set aside as a park.
“The Richmond Sun” hits the high points of the RPA agenda, including even more egregious rent control schemes paid for by rental housing owners and investors. To the RPA, housing investors, developers and landlords are not part of the critical housing supply pipeline; they are a malicious and unnecessary burden to be bled dry. The flagship accomplishment of the RPA in their years of City Council dominance was rent control, but there is no evidence that it has been effective (Is it Time for Richmond's Rent Control Ordinance to be Repealed? May 25, 2020). One thing rent control did accomplish is reducing the number of rental units available. According the Rent Program reports and Nicolas Traylor, there are currently 17,633 rental units in the City, a reduction of 1,626 units (8.4%) since 2018-19, due to units being take off the rental market as a result of Rent Control. Fewer rental units result in market pressure to increase rents for everyone, exactly the opposite of what people think rent control does.
Figure 3 - the blighted RPA headquarters on Macdonald Avenue doesn’t exactly set a good example for the neighborhood – it looks like an abandoned storefront
The salient characteristic of all three RPA candidates is their radical anti-police platform. Melvin Willis, Claudia Jimenez (plus her spouse Eli Moore) and Gayle McLaughlin all went on the record at the June 16, 2020, City Council meeting for reducing the police budget by 20%. Although the “defund the police” outcry has been popular recently, the majority of voters in Richmond want more, not less, police services and faster response times.
While we all share the outrage over the George Floyd killing and similar incidents that have inspired criticism of police nationwide, we can appreciate that the Richmond Police Department has taken a different and better path the last few years. On June 9, 2020, a San Francisco Chronicle article, “This Bay Area city radically reformed its police department. Here's how it went,” stated, “In the wake of nationwide pleas for "defunding the police," national media has honed in on one city in particular: Camden, New Jersey. In 2013, Bloomberg reports, Camden ‘dissolved its local PD,’ heavily invested in community policing, and instituted strict and clear use of force guidelines in response to a 2012 spike in the total number of homicides in the city. In the ensuing years, Camden's use of force complaints and crime rate dropped dramatically. While much of the United States looks to Camden, an example of a dramatically reformed police department centered around the principles of community policing exists right here in the Bay Area.”
Figure 4 – When Loretta Lynch, Obama’s attorney general, visited Richmond, she said, “I am delighted to be here in Richmond today to talk about your innovative and exciting work. Through programs like the RYSE Center that I was able to visit earlier today, which provides access to trauma-informed care for young people exposed to violence and initiatives like the Safe Return Project and Operation Ceasefire, which work to steer people away from criminal activity and towards job training, education and employment programs, you are demonstrating the value of a holistic, comprehensive approach to public safety. Through the Richmond Police Department’s community policing model, you are showing how developing positive relationships between law enforcement officers and the residents, businesses, schools, faith organizations and community groups in their jurisdiction can create benefits for the entire community. And through RPD’s early adoption of body-worn cameras, its participation in the Violence Reduction Network and its focus on combating unconscious bias and promoting alternatives to deadly force in use-of-force situations, you are recognizing and working to solve some of the most important challenges our communities face.”
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said, “This is about community policing and public safety and at the end of the day, successful community policing is an important part of building trust in the community.”
Butt also said, “It’s every citizen out there in Richmond who has made (community policing) work and we’re proud to share the successes we’ve had with other people, but we solicit their successes with us for their advice and solicit all the help we can get — so thank you Attorney General (Lynch) for (coming to Richmond).” https://cccadvocate.com/2727/news/lynch-visits-richmond-gives-community-hope/
The pleas by dozens, if not hundreds, of Richmond residents to defund or significantly reduce police funding as a part of the budget adoption for FY 2020-21 is extreme, precipitous and unsupported by the vast majority of Richmond residents. The people of Richmond are not growing disgusted with the police department. In fact, positive ratings of the police in the biannual Community Survey have climbed 32% since 2007, peaking in 2015 when popular Chris Magnus was still chief, and the number of officers also peaked. Crime prevention, similarly, has gained support, rising 200% since 2007.
Until the George Floyd incident, which happened nearly 2,000 miles east of Richmond, only a few residents were even talking about defunding or reducing police. That incident unleashed a flood of emails advocating police reforms and defunding of the police department, most of which were not from Richmond residents. Before George Floyd, the overwhelming requests via email to me and on social media such as Facebook and NextDoor, were for more, not less, police presence and patrols, as people complained about fireworks, gunfire, car thefts, bicycle thefts, car break-ins, burglaries, speeders on neighborhood streets, vehicles blocking sidewalks, dumping, abandoned vehicles, noise and loud parties. Police also continue to take guns off the street, making us all safer.
Reducing crime and disorder remain the top priority of Richmond residents, as shown below from the 2019 Community Survey.
Figure 5 – Source: http://wwwci.richmond.ca.us/DocumentCenter/View/52252/The-NCS-Community-Livability-Report---Richmond-2019
As Richmond faced continued budget challenges in the last five years, the number of police officers has, in fact, been reduced by 20 percent, and the City Council vote another 4 percent reduction on June 16 by freezing eight police positions. With a declining number of officers, traffic enforcement has also declined, as has the ability of RPD to send the same assigned beat cop to neighborhood council meetings.
Gayle McLaughlin is a former mayor and city council member. After being termed out as mayor in 2015, she successfully ran for City Council, but ambitions for higher office prevailed, and she resigned before her term ended to unsuccessfully run for California lieutenant governor, winning only a handful of votes. Now, she wants back in. McLaughlin has been pretty much invisible in Richmond since 2015, resurfacing only recently after announcing her City Council candidacy. She wrote a book, Winning Richmond – How a Progressive Alliance Won City Hall, taking creditfor everything good that happened in Richmond during the RPA heyday, even though the RPA actually controlled the City Council only two of the 12 years that Gayle was either a City Council member or mayor.
Point Molate remains a prime focus of the RPA as they advocate for a vision they have no idea how to implement. It is ironic that Gayle McLaughlin is singularly responsible for the City of Richmond losing total control over the future of Point Molate and having to spend millions of dollars on litigation. After the City Council abandoned the casino project, the City was sued by Upstream and the Tribe. The City prevailed on all counts in Federal District Court, but Upstream and the Tribe appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which remanded the case back to the District Court, finding a plausible claim that Mayor McLaughlin had inappropriately tried to influence public policy and “breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”
We therefore conclude that the TAC [Third Amended Complaint] states a plausible claim that, by preventing the occurrence of the condition precedent and relying partially on the non-occurrence to deny the casino project and avoid carrying out the purpose of the LDA, the City breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing when it promulgated Resolution 23-11 and discontinued consideration of a casino use for Point Molate. ( https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-9th-circuit/1869961.html).
In short, McLaughlin abused her office as mayor to pursue her personal agenda regarding Point Molate, and it has cost the City dearly. The band of several dozen opponents of Point Molate development are largely the remnants of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, founded and led by no other than Gayle McLaughlin, who, ironically, lost City control over Point Molate.
Melvin Willis is a sincere and well-meaning member of the City Council, completing his first four-year term. He hasn’t yet put down roots in Richmond, preparing to move to a different neighborhood this year purely for political reasons -- to run in a district election other than from his current residence. As a member of the RPA, he has close ties with SEIU Local 1021, whose representative serves on the RPA Steering Committee and helps pay the rent for the RPA office across from City Hall – a blatant conflict of interest. He has never taken a vote that is contrary to the interests of Local 1021. Because of RPA support, Local 1021 is the only Richmond public employee union that did not agree to help pay for their health care costs. Like other RPA colleagues, Willis has little respect for the business community and has consistently voted against developing Point Molate and the Zeneca site. Rent Control has pretty much been his main agenda from the beginning.
In 2017, Melvin Willis was quoted in the media as advocating cutting the Richmond Police Department budget:
Willis said he would like to cut the police department’s budget and reallocate some of its remaining funding to city youth programs. “I would like to redefine public safety,” Willis said. “We need more investment in youth, our libraries and rec center are rundown. The RYSE youth center and Urban Tilth are viable programs that help prevent crime and violence.” (http://www.oaklandmagazine.com/January-February-2017/Taking-Responsibility/) At a 2018 candidates forum, Willis doubled down on his promise to downsize the police department, this time by 20 percent. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sc28c9MLKMc), and on June 16, he voted to reduce Richmond Police Department funding by 20 percent.
Like Willis, Claudia Jimenez is a community organizer, a skill set that doesn’t always transfer well to being a legislator who needs an objective viewpoint to serve all the people of Richmond. Her biggest claim to fame is working on and advocating for a radical community benefits agreement that played a significant role in killing the proposed Global Campus. The proposed agreement had provisions that UC Berkeley did not have the power or money to fulfill, and they eventually canceled the project. Although UC Berkeley is, like the City of Richmond, a cash-strapped public agency and not a cash-flush private developer, they were treated like one.
Another major campaign she was involved in at CCISCO was pushing UC Berkeley to accept a community benefits agreement for the proposed UC Berkeley Global Campus project in Richmond. The proposed campus is expected to bring local jobs during its construction and elevate Richmond’s profile in the technology sector of the San Francisco Bay Area. But critics warn that it could lead to the displacement of low-income Richmond residents who are unable to afford the increasing cost of living the campus would trigger.( https://richmondpulse.org/2016/04/19/claudia-jimenez-profile-of-a-community-organizer/)
Ironically, RPA candidate Claudia Jimenez and her spouse, Eli Moore, who were major proponents and assisted in drafting Richmond’s Rent Control ordinance, were later found to be flouting the ordinance’s requirements when they became landlords. When I pointed that out, they accused me of doxing them. Live by the sword; die by the sword.