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UncategorizedIn Richmond, a battle over a council seat --...

In Richmond, a battle over a council seat — and the role of grassroots groups

Should four members of a community-based organization control the City Council? Why is that so frightening?

Just a few months ago, a coalition in Richmond beat back Chevron. Now things are a bit dicey
Just a few months ago, a coalition in Richmond beat back Chevron. Now things are a bit dicey

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.

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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.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. A verbally slapdown requires no physical presence nor personal identity.

    You need to lose your obsession and you’d become a better debater.

  2. Born and raised in California, except Portland between the ages of 2 and 4. Never lived east of LA. Been in and out of San Francisco since I was kid, and have lived here since 1976.

  3. marc, the post of Ellen’s that I responded directly to was 100% a personal attack on me, with no material content, so of course I slapped her down, just like I slapped you down.

    I look forward to your comments on Richmond (whoever you are – I dont care) as, when and if you elect to post them.

  4. Sam, can you read? I see that Ellen has posted five (5) paragraphs exclusively about Richmond politics, far more than anybody else on this comments thread. And yet you accuse her of not focusing on the content of this article. She offers some significant analysis (which I do not entirely agree with), but she certainly is on topic. And she clearly knows what she is talking about, unlike a certain anonymous poster here. That is real discussion and debate.

    So, Ellen, I understand your concern about RPA holding too much power. Can you tell us more about legislation you think they might pass that you believe would be “too progressive for the citizens” of Richmond? And, perhaps, about legislation that you think the City Council should pass. I think that might be helpful in making a concrete analysis of the political situation in Richmond. In any event, thank you for your informed intervention here and in Richmond.

  5. A better idea would be for you to focus on the content of the posts here, and not weirdly obsess about whose names here may or may not be real.

    I neither know nor case whether Ellen is your real name or not. I treat everyone the same regardless of self-serving claims.

  6. Very few people post here with their real name, and we have no way of knowing whether you are or not.

    I have no interest in meeting you because you are spiteful and vindictive.

  7. You know what, this is really ridiculous. Sam, I don’t know who you are, or anything about you. All I know is that you like to criticize and argue. You hide behind a name, you talk about “another Guest,” and you accuse real people of being “invented” by other people. Well, I’ve very real, and I know MichaelJ, and he’s very real, too (although, Michael, I thought you lived here longer than I have!) I’ve heard of Marc, although I’ve never met him. Go ahead and google me. You will find that is my real name, and that I do indeed live here in Richmond. I believe if you google “Michael J” you will find that he, too, is real, although he doesn’t give his full last name.

    Anyway, if anyone wants to meet, we can meet in a coffee shop, anywhere in the city. Name the time and the place, Guest and Guest, and I will be there. I am proud of the statements I’ve made here, and I’m not afraid to say them face to face to anyone.

  8. No, marc, you have sabotaged this thread by talking exclusively about another poster and your own weird obsessions about how public people choose to be.

    Nothing on Richmond.

  9. Just a few things: first of all, I have lived in the “flats” of Richmond for nearly 30 years. Our crime rate has been falling dramatically, and with the exception of a small portion known as the “iron triangle,” our crime rate is about the same as in “the hills.” We walk around the neighborhood, day or night, alone or with someone, and never feel afraid. We are an evolving city, and we are evolving for the better.

    The decrease in crime is most certainly due to our Chief of Police, Chief Magnus. When he came to us eight (I think) years ago, he make huge changes in how officers in the city do their “policing.” The bottom line is that they no longer treat anyone as a criminal. No more shake-downs for id. Much less racial profiling. Weapons are used only as a last resort. As a result, residents talk to the officers without feeling threatened, and report crime when they see it.

    The RPA has spearheaded a lot of the changes that have been made here. I’ve never been a member, but I’ve campaigned for RPA candidates in every election. In the last election, I campaigned for them, Tom Butt, and Jael Myrick. There were many others who supported all three. We shared campaign literature, passed out each others. I did a lot of phone calls for Tom Butt, but on every call I also told people about Jael and “Team Richmond.” I worked side by side with RPA members on election day at the polls. To say that the RPA got him elected is not really true. They all helped each other.

    I’ve always been a staunch supporter of the RPA, even when there are issues that I don’t agree with them on, but I have never felt like it was a problem until this election. I felt like I was up against a brick wall when I asked if there was any other candidate out of the 18 that any of them would consider voting for besides the two they supported. I never got an answer. All that I heard was that Tom and Jael were the “bloc” because they wouldn’t vote for one of the two candidates.

    I am one of those who was also concerned about the RPA holding a majority of seats, but for a slightly different reason. I was afraid that, with a majority, they would be able to pass legislation that was too progressive for the citizens at this point, and that in the next election they would all be voted out of office. I like the work they do, I like their influence on the council, and I want their representation. But I don’t want to feel like any one group is in control of what’s happening.

  10. It is you, Sam, who can’t stick to the topic.

    You don’t “need” to refute my comments, because you can’t, so you call my comments “personal” as a way to hide from the light of day.

    And you don’t “need” to meet me, because then you could not continue to make the ridiculous claim that I am hiding behind some fake name.

    You don’t “need” to expose your identity, because then you would have to take “personal” responsibility for the drivel you post here.

  11. You mean, of course, that I have “sabotaged” your credibility.

    So you have decided to defend your honor from Marcos by digging even deeper into anonymity and misrepresentation of your identity.

  12. marcos started imping those who used distinct names here, and that is when many of us started posting as Guest.

    You should learn to focus on content and not personalities. You’ll be more effective. You’ve already sabotaged this thread with your paranoia.

  13. There is only one world, Sam, as much as you would like to live in your own reality.

    When are we going to meet so we can exchange ids? Or do you prefer to take pot shots from the peanut gallery?

  14. A “different Guest.” Why aren’t you using your “real” nom de plume, Sam? Is it so that when you say something stupid, you can claim it was somebody else?

    When are we going to meet so we can exchange ids?

  15. It is doubtful that we move in the same circles. I probably would not engage with you other than here. Different worlds.

  16. If you go out into the real world, you will find many people who know me.

    Or, if you can’t make it outside of your basement computer room, check out my website.

    So, when are you going to meet me so we can exchange ids?

  17. Marc, how do any of us know you didn’t invent “Nancy” who very conveniently claims to know you?

    Since we don’t know her, we don’t know you.

    Focus on the message rather than the messenger and your problem goes away.

  18. Stockton and Richmond are both in the Bay Area. Modesto is in the Central Valley, and has a very different feel to it.

  19. So, let me attempt to refocus on my original comment, before we were sidetracked by Mr. Anonymous Hiding-in-the-Shadows “Guest” Sam.

    Would Butt have a problem with four Democratic Party members sitting on the Richmond City Council? Methinks not. Methinks he is not unlike many liberal politicians who are afraid of anybody or any organization that actually aims at taking power out of the hands of the Chevrons of the world, and putting it in the hands of working class people.

  20. I know Marc Norton: he’s a stand-up guy who makes a positive difference in the world – and just what are you doing – besides attempting and failing miserably at denigrating anything that is deemed progressive. Your problems run deep –

  21. Guest-as a 27+ year very politically aware Richmond homeowner I have to write that you really don’t have any clue to what’s going on in Richmond. Please work on improving the place where you live, and we’ll work on Richmond. Thank you.

  22. Sam, Sam, Sam. Maybe “Tim Redmond” is a fake name, too. And maybe this isn’t really 48 Hills, maybe it is a front for Beyond Chron.

    You only betray your ignorance by trying to argue that Marc Norton is a fake name.

    Anyway, I didn’t ask “most people” to meet me and exchange ids. I asked you. And, in so many words, you said no. Enjoy the shadows, dude.

  23. That is hardly a practicable solution for most people here, is it?

    You claim that this name you use, “marc norton” is less of a nom de plume than “Guest” or “Sam”. But that is just as likely to be a fake name.

    In fact it is more honest to be anonymous via an obviously anonymous handle than it is to use a name that looks like it might be a real name but in fact is not.

  24. Sam “Guest,” if you want to verify that I am who I say I am, why don’t you suggest a time and place that we could meet. I will show you my id if you show me yours.

  25. Guest already said that, Marc. Are you learning from him finally?

    And how do any of us know that “Marc” is your real name?

  26. Marc, Sam has repeatedly demonstrated a far greater command of the issues than you. You are the one who should keep quiet.

  27. I wonder if Butt would have a problem with four Democratic Party members sitting on the council.

    PS. Hey, Sam (aka “Guest”), if you don’t know anything about a subject, your wisest choice is to sit down and, shall we say, be quiet.

  28. Stockton is hardly a “neighbor” of Richmond. Stockton is 75 miles from Richmond. But I guess you could be right, if Modesto is considered a “neighbor” of San Francisco.

  29. Richmond has massive problems with crime and deficits, and it is probably only the fiscal spinoff from Chevron that has saved that city from the same fate as less fortunate neighbors Vallejo and Stockton, both of which entered bankruptcy.

    Richmond also had to lay off cops, which is always a sign of a city on the brink. But at least its crime and murder rate is down from its peak.

    Even so, that city is hardly a poster child for anything and certainly not good governance. And I suspect you’re only uttering these plaudits because the far left has at least some power there. (On the other hand, congratulations for even looking outside of SF).

    From my perspective, it is rather like Greece responding to fiscal chaos by electing a socialist government. It plays well at home but then when you have to negotiate with the big boys, you discover the limitations of extremist politics. And Athens is already backpeddling furiously.

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