Should four members of a community-based organization control the City Council? Why is that so frightening?
By Tim Redmond
FEBRUARY 24, 2015 – The Richmond City Council meets tonight to try once again to fill a vacancy that could be the swing vote on the panel – and it’s a fascinating process that raises interesting questions well beyond the borders of that increasingly progressive city.
In essence, the mayor, Tom Butt, is refusing to support any candidate affiliated with the Richmond Progressive Alliance – a community-based organization that helped get him elected.
His argument: There are already three RPA members on the council, and if another one fills the vacant slot, the RPA would have a majority and could pretty much run the city.
That would render Butts and his closest ally, Jael Myrick, politically irrelevant. In fact, Butt told me that if the RPA winds up with a council majority, he will probably resign. “I have better things to do than be a figurehead,” he said.
Now: Butt and Myrick were both part of a slate of candidates that the RPA, the Richmond city employees, SEIU Local 1021, and the California Nurses Association supported just a few months ago. The victory of the progressives over a $3 million campaign by Chevron made national news and established Richmond as one of the most progressive cities in the Bay Area.
At the time, activists celebrated what appeared to be a 6-1 progressive majority on the Council.
The election also turned the RPA – a somewhat loose organization of about 400 people – into a major political player. And that has Butt nervous.
“They are run by a steering committee, and nobody knows how you get on the steering committee,” he told me.
RPA members and their allies say that Butt and Myrick have sold them out: When you work that hard and walk that many precincts, up against that kind of opposition, on behalf of candidates, it’s frustrating when they turn around and vote against your interests.
In San Francisco terms, it’s the David Chiu syndrome: Chiu was first elected to the Board of Supervisors with the strong backing of the city’s progressives – and when he started moving toward the center, the frustration and anger turned many of his one-time allies against him. There’s much less anger, for example, at a candidate like Mark Farrell, who ran from the start as a conservative and was never expected to be anything else.
But there’s the larger question here: What’s the proper role for an active community group that becomes the equivalent of a political party in a city where, of course, all elections are nonpartisan?
And is the concept of a grassroots organization electing candidates to local office and then holding them accountable really such a scary thing?
We saw the same phenomenon in the 1980s in Berkeley, where the two parties weren’t Democrats and Republicans but Berkeley Citizen Action and the Berkeley Democratic Club (later the All Berkeley Coalition). BCA represented the city’s left, and at one point had the Mayor’s Office and an overwhelming City Council majority.
BCA had its problems; like a lot of political coalitions that have almost unchecked power, the BCA council members at times had trouble seeing other points of view. But they passed some great legislation, including the most important pro-tenant measures in the state, fought the landlords all the way to the US Supreme Court, and won.
And BCA was hardly a secretive cabal. Anyone could join and the meetings were not only open, they were well-attended and lively. There were constant debates, as there always are on the Left; the more radical tenant activists were ready to seize control of all private housing in the name of the People, and the more pragmatic people like Tom Bates (yes, he was a progressive once) and Ron Dellums talked about the need to reach a broader voter base.
In the end, they managed to come together most of the time for election endorsements.
I’ve often argued that San Francisco needs a group like the 1980s-era BCA. (BCA still exists, of course, but after district elections changed the politics of the City Council, and Bates and his operation moved to the right, and the city population changed as property values soared, it hasn’t been as much of a force and no longer dominates Berkeley politics.)
The RPA isn’t quite there yet. The group was formed in 2004, fell apart for a while, and regrouped in 2008. “We set up a steering committee of the most active people,” Mike Parker, the group’s political director, told me. “We added to it as more people became active.”
This is how a lot of groups start. But now that three of its members are on the City Council, and it’s growing in size and influence, Parker said some changes are underway.
“We have decided to be a membership organization, and we’ve set up a committee to figure out how to restructure,” he said. “We are hardly a shadow government.”
BCA wasn’t a shadow, either – it was very visible, and in the heart of Berkeley politics. BCA candidates didn’t always agree, but on the big issues, like rent control, the members voted as a bloc.
And unlike the Democratic Party, which elects people who turn out to be far more centrist then they had promised and then largely fails to hold them accountable, BCA members expected the people they endorsed to stay faithful to the progressive agenda.
I’m not sure why that’s a problem. As long as the community group is open, elects officers freely, holds regular meetings, and represents a legitimate grassroots base (and not some big-money interests), why should anyone be afraid? Isn’t that something we ought to encourage?
Some of the issues in Richmond are basic city-management stuff. Butt complains that the council was split 3-3 over a plan to spend the money from a sales-tax hike that’s supposed to pay for street repairs. He wants to float a bond act backed by the future revenue stream and hire contractors to get started right away. The RPA folks, who include former Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, want the money to be spent as it comes in, saving the bond interest – and they want city employees to do the work, not private contractors.
Another RPA member would almost certainly side with the pay-as-you-go group.
But the decision on replacing the vacant council slot has lasting significance. In San Francisco, unfortunately, the mayor fills vacancies on the Board of Supervisors. In Richmond, the council has three weeks to find a new member; if that doesn’t happen, there’s an expensive special election in November.
The RPA folks at first supported Marilyn Langlois, who is also an RPA member. (That means, by the way, that she paid $12 to join.) “She is the most qualified person,” Beckles told me. “But the mayor won’t support another RPA person.”
So now Beckles and McLaughlin are supporting Claudia Jiminez, who is friendly with RPA but is not, ahem, a Card Carrying Member. “She is a very smart woman who has been working in the community with immigrants and the formerly incarcerated,” Beckles said. “But now I guess they won’t support her because we like her.
“The mayor and Jael are playing a game, and it’s disgusting. They would not be there if the people hadn’t supported them, and now they are going against the people.”
Myrick did not return my phone calls.
The progressives in Richmond have an advantage, and we saw last fall: They have a clear, massive, powerful, and dangerous enemy. Opposition to Chevron can unite a lot of people.
But now Butt and Myrick have developed this fear of a grassroots community group, which could prove to be a great force for progressive politics (although it needs open meetings and elected leadership, quickly.) And that’s creating some pointless, expensive, paralysis.
Full disclosure: While I am trying to raise enough money so that 48hills can pay me a living wage, I do freelance work on the side. One of my projects is helping edit the quarterly magazine of SIEU 1021, which represents some Richmond workers and supported Butt, Myrick, McLaughlin, and Beckles in the last election.