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Book Excerpt: The Greening of City Hall In a California Refinery Town

The Greening of City Hall In a California Refinery Town   Late-twentieth-century Richmond, CA. mirrored the postindustrial desolation of former manufacturing centers in the Rust Belt. Once prosperous and bustling, the city now suffered from high levels of unemployment, poverty, family disintegration, street crime, and violence. In neighborhoods where residential housing and industrial activity once…

Written by

Steve Early


Originally Published in

The Greening of City Hall

In a California Refinery Town


Late-twentieth-century Richmond, CA. mirrored the postindustrial desolation of former manufacturing centers in the Rust Belt. Once prosperous and bustling, the city now suffered from high levels of unemployment, poverty, family disintegration, street crime, and violence. In neighborhoods where residential housing and industrial activity once coexisted, factory owners packed up and fled, just like local retailers did after the downtown disturbances of the 1960s. Left behind were vacant lots and abandoned buildings, brownfields scattered all over town, each representing a loss of blue-collar jobs.

More than a dozen former factory sites, often lacking warning signs and protective fencing, were not just eyesores. Due to past chemical manufacturing or storage, they were “toxic hot spots” ending up on the Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup list. On Point Isabel, just south of the former Kaiser shipyard, tens of thousands of old battery casings lay buried beneath a shoreline park, leaching lead and other poisons into a swimming beach and nearby fishing spots.

In North Richmond, liquid polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from discarded utility company equipment tainted local groundwater, thanks to past dumping by Fass Metals. The processing and shipping of DDT by United Heckathorn left marine sediment in Richmond harbor badly contaminated. Stauffer Chemical, another maker of pesticides and fertilizers, created a residual toxic stew so hard to remediate that its former site remains fenced off, overgrown with weeds, and undeveloped nearly two decades after production ceased there.[1] In the Blair Landfill, a shoreline parcel near the Stauffer site, radioactive material was discovered in the soil, a likely legacy of solid uranium being melted for years by Stauffer Metals, a sister company.

Deindustrialization left human wreckage behind as well. By the early 1980s, Richmond was suffering from a major crack epidemic. Assault rifles replaced handguns as the weapon of choice for drug dealers seeking to expand or simply defend their local market share. Adding to the city’s illegal gun trafficking were three dozen federally licensed firearms dealers who did business from private homes within the city. Homicides increased from ten to twenty per year in the 1960s to an annual death toll of fifty in the 1980s, finally peaking at sixty-two killings in 1991, almost all drug- and gang-related.

Meanwhile, Richmond’s African American community was decimated from within by the highest rate of AIDs transmission in the Bay Area, through heterosexual sex and drug use. In search of personal security, better housing and schools, or improved job prospects, middle-class blacks joined the trajectory of Richmond’s earlier white flight. People moved their families to safer communities like Vallejo, Antioch, Fairfield, or even far-off Tracy. Left behind, in disproportionate numbers, were Richmond residents one activist described as “low-income, under-educated, and criminal-justice involved.”

During this troubled era, Richmond city hall was no beacon of hope. Its deepening dysfunction was due in part to Darrell Reese, a Richmond fire captain and longtime leader of Fire Fighters Local 188. Reese, a shady backroom patron of local African American politicians, “raised plantation politics to an art form,” according to John Gioia, a Richmond native who is now a Contra Costa County supervisor.

City councilors depended on Reese for campaign funding and endorsements. In return, Richmond’s public safety unions, including Reese’s, got favored city hall treatment at the bargaining table, sometimes to the detriment of other union-represented city workers. Reese was a white Republican who lived in suburban Rodeo. Yet his stock in trade—as a part-time political consultant, fixer, bagman, and lobbyist for developers—was election year appeals to “save the black seats on the council.” Meanwhile, Reese’s own firefighters’ local, like the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA), still had few nonwhite members.

Through his union political action committee, Reese wielded enough influence to pick Richmond city managers. In 1993, he helped install Floyd Johnson, who served four years before being fired for shoddy budgeting, dwindling city reserve funds, and other administrative problems. With backing from Reese, Richmond’s director of employment and training, Isiah Turner then replaced Johnson, with disastrous consequences. Turner was hired despite an employment history that included a forced resignation in Washington State after an auditor discovered his misuse of $22,000 in public funds. On Turner’s watch, Richmond city finances deteriorated further, to the point of near bankruptcy.

After budget shortfalls and layoffs in 2003, Turner suddenly retired for “health reasons,” followed out the door by his finance director. Just a few months later, Richmond discovered that it faced a $35 million budget deficit, which the recently departed city manager had managed to conceal. California state auditors accused Turner of “deliberately misrepresenting both the size of the city’s reserves and its annual expenses.”[2] The city’s full-blown fiscal meltdown led to two hundred layoffs and budget cuts, which closed libraries, parks, some fire stations, and senior services.

In many places, such a long-brewing mess, born of cronyism, corruption, and incompetence, would have deepened popular cynicism about city government. In Richmond, instead, an “unlikely group of Greens, Latinos, progressive Democrats, African Americans, and free spirits” formed a “new Richmond political coalition [that] united ideals rather than power and personalities,” as then–city councilor Tom Butt described this favorable development to me. The group included residents committed to “civil rights, the environment, education, open government, and quality of life issues,” people who wanted to challenge old guard politicians when five city council seats were up for grabs in 2004.

Spearheading this effort was fifty-three-year old Juan Reardon, a burly, gray-bearded immigrant from Argentina. Reardon’s youthful involvement in left-wing politics had led to his exile abroad after a mid-1970s military coup in his homeland. In the late 1980s, he immigrated to the United States and got a graduate degree in epidemiology and biostatistics at UC-Berkeley. Reardon first became familiar with local problems while doing data collection during Richmond’s drug-related HIV-AIDs epidemic. He moved to the city in 1999, helped raise funds and equipment for Cuban hospitals, and lobbied to create an official sister-city relationship between Richmond and Regla, a refinery town near Havana. During Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000, Reardon joined the California Green Party and pulled together some of its most active local members.

Calling themselves the Richmond Alliance for Green Public Power and Environmental Justice, Reardon’s group opposed construction of a municipal power plant next to the Chevron refinery. Proponents claimed that this oil-fueled facility would meet all of the city’s own electricity needs plus generate millions in new revenue when the surplus power was sold to customers elsewhere via Pacific Gas & Electric. The project was killed after the Greens turned out surprisingly large crowds to speak and protest against the additional pollution it would create. They urged the city to explore alternative energy solutions instead. Working with existing environmental groups, like the West County Toxics Coalition, the Alliance also pushed Richmond to adopt a stronger industrial safety ordinance to reduce the risk of refinery fires and explosions or chemical spills.

Reardon and his fellow activists also launched a yearlong campaign against police harassment of homeless people after the city council banned sleeping and camping in public places. They supported that part of Richmond’s rapidly growing Latino population accused of vagrancy when seeking work on the sidewalk outside Richmond’s Home Depot outlet. To give these workers a collective voice, Reardon helped them create the Richmond–El Cerrito Day Laborers Association. Its protest activity led to an unusual ten-point agreement between the association and the Richmond Police Department (RPD). In writing, the RPD agreed to treat day laborers more politely, respect their right to be on public property, and pursue their complaints about wage theft.

Organizing around such issues “showed what a little group of people could accomplish,” Reardon recalls today. But members of the group, soon to be rebranded the Richmond Progressive Alliance, realized that they needed more allies, like liberal Democrat Tom Butt, within local government. That required getting themselves elected to office or appointed to city positions where they could directly affect policy making.

Given Richmond’s financial distress and city hall dysfunction, the municipal voting scheduled for November 2004 created a timely opening. RPA founders originally hoped to field a full five-candidate slate for the council that would reflect the city’s racial and ethnic diversity. Andres Soto, a graduate of Richmond High School and nearby Contra Costa Community College, had deep roots in the community and was ready to run, particularly on the issue of police misconduct.

In 2002 Soto and his two sons were among several dozen Latinos arrested during Richmond’s Cinco de Mayo festival. Soto, a city and later county employee, who once contemplated a career in law enforcement, questioned the RPD’s heavy-handed dispersal of a celebratory crowd. As a result, he was roughed up, pepper-sprayed, and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. A Latino community mobilization, orchestrated by Soto, led to a Richmond Police Commission finding that excessive force was used. A commission investigator recommended that one officer responsible be fire. On the day of his own trial, all charges against Soto were dropped.

Other potential candidates, from the black community, were less eager to be tethered to a common political platform developed by local radicals. Tony Thurmond, a liberal Democrat who now represents Richmond in the California Assembly, met with RPA founders and sought their endorsement of his planned 2004 council race. However, in return for that support, he wasn’t willing to spurn corporate donations—required, then and now, of all RPA-backed candidates.[3]

Soto’s only RPA running mate ended up being a newcomer to Richmond, a fifty-two-year old Chicago native named Gayle McLaughlin. Before relocating to California in 2000, McLaughlin had been active in the Central America solidarity movement and supported Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition. The daughter of a union carpenter, she studied psychology in college and worked after graduation as a postal clerk, teacher, and caregiver for disabled children and the elderly. As a member of the Young Socialist Alliance, she got to know Peter Camejo, then a leader of its parent organization, the Socialist Worker Party. Camejo later joined the California Green Party and twice ran as its candidate for governor.

In California, McLaughlin joined the Greens too and met fellow members like Juan Reardon. As a movement person, she had never considered running for office herself. However, she had decided, after arriving in Richmond, “that it was time to put down roots and get involved in local work.” Both Camejo and Reardon encouraged her to run for city council. Reardon agreed to serve as her campaign manager, which required becoming a self-taught expert on the mechanics of local campaigning.

Soto and McLaughlin kicked off their joint campaign with public forums featuring speakers from out of town. Matt Gonzalez, a Green Party member on the San Francisco board of supervisors who had just lost a close race for mayor, came to Richmond, as did US congressman Dennis Kucinich, then campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. Six hundred people turned out to hear speeches by Kucinich, McLaughlin, Soto, and an up-and-coming Bay Area environmental justice campaigner named Van Jones. McLaughlin challenged the crowd to “begin right here and now to build a progressive future for our polluted, our corrupted, and our life-threatened city.”

To reinforce McLaughlin and Soto’s message that “another Richmond is possible,” the RPA convened a first-ever “People’s Convention.” Three hundred residents set local policy goals that included repealing the city’s anti-homeless ordinance, taxing Chevron more heavily and punishing its “industrial pollution events,” strengthening police oversight by the community, fighting for affordable housing and public access to Richmond’s shoreline, enacting rent control and “just cause” eviction protection, establishing a living wage, and fully “investigating the current city budget crises and the governmental mismanagement” responsible for it.

Soto’s campaign for “new leadership, new ideas, and new ethics” garnered far broader labor and political support than the lesser-known McLaughlin. A registered Democrat, he was endorsed by the Contra Costa County labor and building trades councils, the county Democratic Party, and local Democratic officials. Both RPA candidates were backed by ACORN, the community organization later known locally as ACCE (the Association of Californians for Community Empowerment), and by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local that represents Richmond city employees.

 Soto’s $175,000 settlement from a lawsuit over his Cinco de Mayo mistreatment made him persona non grata with the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA) and Fire Fighters Local 188. Soto regarded both to be “attack dogs for corporate power,” and they responded in kind. Their Keep Richmond Safe Committee spent $270,000 on advertising for its favored candidates and hit pieces aimed at Soto.

Both Soto and McLaughlin were also heavily outspent by Chevron. McLaughlin’s low-budget, grassroots campaign had so little money for glossy mailers that she was not taken seriously by those smearing Soto and thus largely ignored. Yet, in a field of fifteen candidates, she placed third among the five winners, while Soto, after being severely attacked as a dangerous radical, finished sixth. As a new city councilor, McLaughlin proceeded to confound the expectations of Richmond insiders “who saw her as an ideologue ill-suited for the tedious work that elective office requires.”[4]

Outsider on the Council

After taking office in January 2005, McLaughlin championed new park projects and faster, safer cleanup of Richmond’s toxic sites. On refinery-related issues, McLaughlin aided a promising but short-lived “Sunshine Alliance,” which united building trades unions (that later became RPA critics) and local environmental groups. All opposed Richmond’s practice of allowing Chevron to insure its own compliance with city codes and permitting requirements through “self-inspection.” Over company objections, the city council voted to make refinery construction work subject to regular city permits, fees, and independent certification—regulatory oversight that also had the effect of curbing the company’s use of nonunion contractors.

McLaughlin backed a successful campaign by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) to get the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to adopt a first-in-the-nation flare control regulation, applying to Chevron and four other nearby refineries. And, much to Chevron’s additional chagrin, McLaughlin criticized Big Oil’s privileged treatment as a utility user, joining Tom Butt’s activism on this issue, which had begun before he joined the council in 1995.

 While other Richmond residents paid, on average, about 10 percent of their tax bill for utility services, the refinery’s liability was capped at $14 million a year, based on a very favorable flat rate formula. With support from some city councilors, the company balked at releasing information about its actual energy use, claiming that “business confidentiality” prevented the city from accessing such records. This bolstered McLaughlin’s case for repealing the utility users’ tax cap in order to generate revenue for a greatly expanded jobs program for Richmond youth.

Irma Anderson, an African American public health nurse then serving as Richmond’s mayor, was not supportive of McLaughlin’s ideas. The widow of a former city council member and mayor, Anderson enjoyed the support of the local industry council, the Richmond chamber of commerce—then headed by Chevron executive Jim Brumfield, and Chevron itself. She was dismissive of Richmond Greens, calling them “a special interest group.”

To accomplish more on the council, McLaughlin challenged Mayor Anderson when she was up for reelection in 2006, creating a three-way race that included a second black candidate, former Richmond councilor Gary Bell. The incumbent collected a string of endorsements from California Democrat Party heavyweights, like US senator Dianne Feinstein and then–state treasurer Phil Angelides. She raised four times more money from her business backers than McLaughlin did from her small individual donors and campaign volunteers. Chevron, the chamber, and the industry council also helped Anderson by running ads against McLaughlin criticizing her support for Measure T, a tax proposal on the November 2006 ballot.

If adopted, Measure T would have raised $10 million by imposing a manufacturers’ tax on Chevron. Unfortunately, the poorly drafted measure would also have closed a local tax loophole benefiting small landlords, so Measure T foes were able to claim that its passage would trigger rent increases. Voters were bombarded with mailings declaring that “Gayle Should Fail with Her Terrible T.” Measure T did fail, but McLaughlin did not. Instead she shocked and amazed the local political establishment—and surprised herself—by winning the mayoral race by 279 votes.

McLaughlin’s upset victory in 2006 made Richmond the largest city in the United States with a Green mayor. Despite Chevron’s win on Measure T, McLaughlin’s RPA-backed campaign raised public awareness about Big Oil’s long history of trying to substitute corporate philanthropy—voluntary donations to schools, libraries, and local nonprofits—for tax revenue that would be greater, if the company paid its fair share in one form or another. Future tax fights would not end so favorably for the refinery.

Using the Bully Pulpit

Under Richmond’s city charter, the disparity between the authority of the city manager and the mayor is pretty clear. The latter is paid far less than the former—in Richmond’s case, five or six times less. The city manager directs a city workforce of about seven hundred today, while the mayor’s office has a staff of only two or three people. The mayor casts a single vote on the city council, presides over its meetings, and appoints, subject to council approval, members of local boards and commissions. But the mayor can also “develop and inform City residents of policies and programs which he or she believes are necessary for the welfare of the City,” an agenda-setting role that Gayle McLaughlin played to the hilt during her eight years in office.

McLaughlin turned what had been a part-time job with a $45,000 salary—less than a city janitor’s pay—into a bully pulpit for reform causes. In a series of battles that pitted fossil fuel defenders against local critics, the new mayor confronted industrial hazards arising from both oil refining and local railroad operations. She and her council allies waged major fights over development issues, home loan foreclosure relief, and an innovative public health initiative involving soda consumption. Under McLaughlin, Richmond quickly became a more welcoming place for immigrants and, unlike most US cities during the same period, managed to improve relations between police and the community.

One of McLaughlin’s first official appearances as mayor set the tone for her administration. In January 2007 she addressed an emergency meeting of one thousand Richmond residents protesting local raids by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. These neighborhood sweeps, leading to deportation and detention of some undocumented workers, made other immigrants in the community fearful of contacting the police to report crimes. City hall began work on creation of a municipal ID card for anyone living in Richmond who did not have picture identification. Unveiled in 2014, this card can be used in dealings with the police or other accessing of city services.[5]

McLaughlin helped strengthen grassroots organizing in the city by seeding an array of city commissions, boards, and committees with like-minded activists rarely considered for such roles in the past. Three prominent RPA members she named to the Planning or Human Rights Commissions—Jovanka Beckles, Marilyn Langlois, and Eduardo Martinez—later ran for city council based in part on their record as city commissioners. Along with community advocate Nicole Valentino and union activist Jeff Shoji, Langlois also served on the mayor’s full-time city hall staff. Through its energetic outreach work, the McLaughlin administration built ongoing relationships with a wide range of community groups and tried to strengthen ties between city hall and Richmond’s forty neighborhood councils.

One of the most important actions that McLaughlin and council allies like Tom Butt took, even before she became mayor, was hiring Bill Lindsay. Lindsay arrived in Richmond two years after its near bankruptcy, taking over from a former Contra Costa County administrator hired to manage the city on an interim basis. Lindsay’s background and appearance was quite different from that of the Richmond activists in McLaughlin’s kitchen cabinet. A gray-haired Yale graduate, he dresses in such neatly pressed, buttoned-down fashion that he could easily pass for a New England prep school headmaster or classics teacher. Before coming to Richmond, he served as city manager of Orinda, an upscale East Bay bedroom community not far from Walnut Creek, where he was raised. No less than McLaughlin, however, Lindsay believed that “new ideas can percolate up from cities” when municipal government becomes a policy innovator. He shared Richmond progressives’ strong commitment to making city government more accountable and transparent. And, proceeding in his own brisk, business-like fashion, he was no less willing to push the envelope when gang violence or mortgage foreclosures required unusual policy initiatives.

Lindsay was viewed with much initial suspicion. “People just thought that Richmond would gobble me up,” he told me. The city government Lindsay inherited was “viewed as a failed organization. There were not a lot of high expectations for what it could do.” Among the challenges the new city manager faced was insuring sufficient funding for public safety (now 45 percent of Richmond’s general fund budget), developing better departmental leadership, and repairing municipal labor relations. During Richmond’s 2004 layoffs, “people found out in the newspaper whether they were losing their jobs,” he recalled. “So there was a complete lack of trust.” Over time the new city manager was able to develop what he describes as “good relationships with our unions.” During the always challenging process of balancing annual budgets, “they have come to the table and said, ‘We want to be part of the solution.’”

In addition to better communication within the city workforce—now several hundred employees smaller than when Lindsay arrived—one hallmark of his tenure is the remarkable amount of information that flowing from his office to the community. The city manager sends a weekly report, illustrated with charts, graphs, and photographs, to several thousand Richmond residents who have signed up to be on his email list. He provides information for people trying to access city programs and services of all kinds, detailed updates on the work of various municipal agencies and departments, and the activities of local nonprofits serving the community.[6]

Lindsay also oversaw the drafting of “Richmond General Plan 2030.”  This sweeping policy document now provides guidance in the area of “land use, economic development, transportation, open space conversion, and arts and culture.” In rather singular fashion, Richmond’s general plan also prioritizes “community health and wellness—conditions that previous city administrators and elected officials had neglected.”[7]

When Lindsay was hired, others in city hall were still bemoaning Richmond’s generally unfavorable media coverage. The city had a reputation for crime, violence, and political dysfunction that was hard to shake. New business was hard to attract and even some BART users avoided its downtown Richmond station. Lindsay’s response was “If you don’t want horrible press, do good work. If you get things done, you’ll get good press.” Over the next decade (while not always entirely avoiding controversy himself) Richmond’s manager followed his own advice. As city hall administration and conditions in the city steadily improved, Richmond’s turnaround became widely hailed as “one of the most remarkable stories in the Bay Area.”[8]

The list of civic accomplishments under McLaughlin and Lindsay would have been much shorter if the city council majority had remained beholden to past benefactors. Jeff Ritterman, the second RPA member elected to the council, was definitely not a favorite of Richmond’s corporate donor class. Then chief of cardiology at Kaiser’s Richmond Medical Center, Ritterman is a former sixties’ radical, who sports a graying pony-tail. He belonged to Physicians for Social Responsibility and aided Central American solidarity campaigns in the 1980s  When Ritterman

announced his council candidacy in 2008  he had just helped secure thousands of signatures for another ballot initiative to raise taxes on Chevron. Both Chevron and the Richmond chamber of commerce spent heavily to defeat this local utility tax proposal, claiming it would hurt small business. Nevertheless, 54 percent of Richmond voters favored the RPA-backed measure, In a council race more competitive than usual (because the body was being downsized from nine to seven members), Ritterman emerged as a winner.

The city’s legal and political skirmishing with Chevron over taxes continued for another two years before a settlement was reached. The company agreed to make a graduated payment to Richmond totaling $114 million in return for a fifteen-year moratorium on any new local taxes.[9] Meanwhile, McLaughlin and the RPA helped keep the pressure on county tax assessors during a protracted fight triggered by Contra Costa County’s 2004 decision to reassess the value of Chevron property in Richmond. The company appealed the resulting tax bills three times, leading in one case to a $23 million rebate. In late 2013, Chevron finally settled its property tax disputes, based on the refinery’s 2012 assessed value of $3.28 billion.

By 2014, that meant the company was paying about $50 million in property taxes to Contra Costa County, with Richmond, its second largest city, receiving less than one-third of that amount. “Is $3.28 billion a ‘fair’ assessment?” asked RPA activist Jeff Kilbreth, who was one of many who lobbied the county for a better deal. According to Kilbreth, Chevron “is still going to pay property taxes based on roughly 1/3 of the Richmond refinery’s true value.”[10] But, he notes, that unfair result is the product of California’s nearly forty-year-old cap on taxation of commercial real estate that doesn’t change hands, a property tax policy badly in need of statewide reform.

Not Easy Being Green

Gayle McLaughlin presided over a city with nearly 20 percent of its population living in poverty and a local jobless rate that was, at its peak, twice the national average. During her first term, Richmond city hall tried to generate new employment, particularly for young people who might otherwise be drawn to gangs, drugs, or street crime leading to jail. The mayor took credit for attracting one thousand new jobs via businesses relocating to or starting up in Richmond. McLaughlin’s enviro-friendly electoral base favored green jobs. But, without far greater federal funding for them, job creation of any kind, on the scale needed, was a major challenge. Richmond did launch the Worker Cooperative Revolving Loan Fund (WCRLF) as a grant-funded stopgap measure and demonstration that “another world is possible.” The fund aided local worker-run enterprises, few and small.

The private sector had a very different job creation plan for Richmond. In 2009–10 it became the center of a heated community-wide debate about what kind of economic development was good or bad for the city. The battleground was a 422-acre section of the Richmond shoreline with sweeping views of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, across the Bay. There at Point Molate a wealthy East Bay developer named Jim Levine sought city approval for construction of a hotel and casino complex. In place of an abandoned winery and a former US Navy fuel depot, Levine promised to erect what local environmentalist David Helvarg caustically described as “the greenest most eco-sustainable billion dollar casino, high-rise hotel, and parking structure this side of Las Vegas.”[11]

Backers of the project argued that it would generate much-needed tax revenue for Richmond, while providing thousands of new jobs in construction and then hospitality. “You put a casino out there and you’ll be manufacturing money,” one building trades leader predicted. Since the crash and burn of Atlantic City was several years away, such claims quickly gained traction. Casino gambling still retained considerable cachet as an engine of economic development in depressed communities. And, as Helvarg wryly observed, “moving from alcohol to petroleum to gambling” on this particular Richmond site did “make sense in terms of the continuity of human addiction.”

The pro-gaming forces included many influential local players, plus a Native American ally from out of town, the Guidiville band of Pomos. They hailed from Mendocino County, had no historical connection to Richmond, and were enlisted to provide tribal cover for a piece of the action. Levine’s firm, Upstream LLC, spearheaded the campaign for city hall approval, aided by a very enthusiastic Contra Costa County Building and Construction Trades Council. A majority of Richmond council members favored the project, including its senior member, Nat Bates, a declared candidate for mayor in 2010. Bates rallied his longtime supporters in the African American community, including many ministers, behind the casino idea. He promoted the project on his weekly cable TV public affairs show, which was funded, in part, by Levine. Joining this “pro-growth” faction were two surprising partners, the Sierra Club and Audubon Society. Both conservation groups got seduced by the promise of shoreline preservation outside of Richmond—funded with $48 million in slot machine revenue—if Point Molate itself was sacrificed to the developer’s plan.

For much of Richmond’s modern history, residents had limited access to its thirty-two miles of shoreline. Users of the waterfront like Standard Oil (now Chevron), Kaiser and other manufacturers, the Port of Richmond, and the US Navy kept things off-limits to local people, unless they were employees or uniformed personnel. Now, local hikers, bicyclists, bird-watchers, and would-be expanders of public space were not eager to trade the sound of wind and waves at Point Molate for the whir, chimes, and beeps of four thousand slot machines. As Upstream’s environmental impact report confirmed, “a 182,000 square foot casino . . . up to two hotels . . . with ancillary restaurants and retail, a 150,000 square foot business, conference and entertainment center, and approximately 5,000 parking spaces” was not  exactly “balanced development” of the site. [12] Organizing as “Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate,” community critics stressed the traffic congestion, over-building, and visual blight that casino gambling would bring, along with its other well-documented ills.

McLaughlin and the RPA joined the opposition during an election year in which the Green mayor was seeking her second term. “Our point of view was that whatever you build at Point Molate is going to create a lot of jobs,” she explained. “And we’re for good, healthy sustainable development that benefits the whole community rather than takes advantage of poor people by picking their pockets.”

In the ensuing propaganda war, casino backers spent $500,000 to win voter approval of Measure U, a citywide advisory referendum on the project, held in November 2010. But operators of local card clubs, a gambling interest group already well entrenched in the Richmond area, did not want to see their own low-income customer base eroded by new slot machine competition at Point Molate. A combination of their self-interested spending, grassroots organizing, and community education,produced a 57.5 percent vote against Levine’s scheme. When Richmond’s new city council reaffirmed those results in early 2011, the developer–apparently not a gambler himself–sued Richmond to get his $15 million “non-refundable deposit” back.[13]

 Just as gambling interests were helpfully divided over the future of Point Molate, so were McLaughlin’s critics when they had their opportunity to oust her. By the fall of 2010, Richmond business interests and allied labor organizations had plenty of reasons to deny her a second term. Fortunately they couldn’t agree on a single candidate against her. Furious about the mayor’s opposition to the Point Molate project, the county building trades council backed John Ziesenhenne, former president of the Richmond chamber of commerce. The construction unions even opened a campaign office in Richmond to help get him elected. City councilor Nat Bates ran with his usual strong financial backing from Chevron. Bates’s other business donors included an auto importers’ association with a big stake in Richmond port operations and Veolia, a global firm that operates Richmond’s privatized sewage treatment system.

Amid the resulting blizzard of negative ads and mailers directed at McLaughlin, the top prize for personal vilification was won by two familiar foes, the firefighters and the police association. Their mailers detailed a past personal bankruptcy filing by the mayor, triggered by $119,000 in credit card and student loan debt, and trumpeted her alleged inability to “hold down a job.” The most infamous hit piece in this series disclosed that McLaughlin had once been treated for depression and was for a time eligible to collect social security disability benefits.

As would later prove true of Chevron-funded smears in 2014, the dark portrait of McLaughlin painted by her political enemies seemed unrecognizable to the many residents of Richmond who had personally encountered her. “Gayle is so committed and indefatigable,” observes Robert Rogers, who covered the 2010 campaign for the Contra Costa Times. “She’s totally authentic, and you can see the natural affinity she has with the underdog, because of her own life experiences—and she draws her strength from that.”

McLaughlin’s reservoir of goodwill and respect, even among those who disagreed with her, fed the widespread backlash against those prying into her past for political gain. She handled their disclosures with grace and candor. She acknowledged having suffered “debilitating illnesses” and “personal finances that suffered as a result.” She urged voters to remember her six-year record on the city council, including her role in achieving the city’s $114 million tax settlement with Chevron. She emphasized her continuing commitment to “transparent and participatory government” and curbing “the influence of large corporations and developers on public policy.”

 In his campaign for McLaughlin’s job, her strongest opponent took a higher road than his public safety union backers. Nat Bates claimed that his “background as a retired probation officer provided him with unique knowledge in fighting crime.” Alienating many Latino voters, he promised to “reinstate police checkpoints and hold them on a regular basis throughout the city to protect the safety of the community.” Bates also stressed that he was a “lifetime Democrat,” with close ties to California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and then-congressman George Miller, whose district included Richmond. He urged the 69 percent of the city’s voters who had registered as Democrats to “stand strong and united” against the “loyal Green Party member” who had regularly failed to support Democratic presidential candidates but now “wants Democrats to vote for her.” A tiny party like the Greens, with only 462 registered voters in Richmond (1 percent of its total electorate), “should not control this city,” he declared[14]

Neither Green-baiting nor his allies’ vilification of McLaughlin proved to be a winning strategy for Bates. The mayor was reelected with 40 percent of the vote in her three-way race. When all the ballots were counted, the results, as in 2008, reflected further erosion of Chevron influence and the emergence of a strengthened left-liberal majority. It was now composed of McLaughlin and Ritterman, their frequent allies, Democrats Tom Butt and Jim Rogers, and forty-seven year old Jovanka, Beckles a leader of the RPA leader (and registered Democrat) who worked for the county. Beckles’s victory in 2010 was both a personal triumph and a major organizational breakthrough for Richmond progressives. In a majority minority city, their only previously successful candidates were white.

Dr. Ritterman’s Prescription

Amid its many charms and allures, one small downside of life in Richmond is the need for a bigger mailbox at election time. Any extra roominess comes in handy when special interest groups, with millions of dollars to spend, decide to bombard the electorate with direct mail deriding local progressives and their latest controversial schemes. During the 2012 election cycle, Big Soda became the biggest spender on such glossy, full-color junk mail. The industry’s target was a much-needed public health initiative promoted by Jeff Ritterman.

Through his work as a doctor in Richmond, Ritterman became familiar with all the refinery-related health problems common among Chevron’s low-income neighbors, including high childhood asthma rates, cancer clusters, and lower than average life expectancies. In his medical practice, he also treated hundreds of African American and Latino patients suffering from heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other weight-related ailments. Ritterman watched with mounting concern as a leading local cause of heart attacks and strokes began to spread to younger people in the community: nearly half the city’s children were growing up overweight or obese.

Increased US consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is a major factor in the development of obesity, Type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, and some forms of cancer. If current trends continue, nearly half of all Americans will be obese by 2030, putting a huge additional strain on US medical spending and guaranteeing a life of pain, misery, and disability for many. According to California health researchers, a tax on soda, to discourage its consumption, would produce the greatest health benefits among blacks and Latinos in the state. In Richmond, these groups represent two-thirds of the population currently most at risk for diabetes and heart disease.

In response to this public health crisis, Ritterman and the RPA launched a citywide drive to raise $3 million annually in new tax revenue for youth sports programs and health education. The funding mechanism was a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. Ritterman decided not to run for reelection to the city council, preferring instead to focus on voter education about the soda tax. In countless community meetings and forums, he explained how this new tax revenue could “provide adequate sports fields and teams for Richmond children,” plus fund “programs that prevent childhood obesity, like healthy school gardens and nutrition and cooking classes in the schools.”

Ritterman’s cause was bravely embraced by only a few African American ministers and health workers. Reverend Alvin Bernstine of the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church proudly maintains a “no fry / no soda zone” in his congregation’s social hall and is quick to invoke the historical connection between sugar plantations and slavery. “The soda companies have been exploiting black people for too long—with products that have no nutritional benefit and no community economic benefit. Our people want to be healthy because healthy physicality is a sign of healthy spirituality.”

Local soda tax opposition was soon ginned up by its perennial national foe, the American Beverage Association (ABA). The ABA hired Whitehurst/Mosher Campaign Strategy and Media, a high-powered Bay Area political consulting firm, whose past clients have included Governor Jerry Brown and liberal state legislator Mark Leno.[15] Whitehurst/Mosher was simultaneously working for Chevron’s political action committee, Moving Forward, which ended up spending $1.2 million on Richmond’s 2012 election. Coca-Cola deployed its own lower-level Bay Area managers to personally canvass Richmond neighborhoods. Just before the 2012 election, two men from Coke knocked on my door. They were working in tandem, like a pair of young Mormon missionaries. The pamphlet I was offered by the Coke brothers was entitled Our Position on Obesity. It disputed claims by doctors and medical researchers that Americans are overweight because we drink too much soda.

The ABA’s local consultants recruited and deployed teams of paid canvassers to distribute “Vote No on N” lawn signs in Black and Latino neighborhoods. They enlisted Latino grocery store owners and hired former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown to deliver an anti–soda tax speech to NAACP members and Richmond ministers. In a West Coast replay of the industry-orchestrated minority community backlash against soft drink regulation in New York City, Measure N supporters in Richmond were accused of being racist and elitist, plus proponents of a regressive tax on low-income people. As sociology professor Edward Walker documents in Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy, this approach is part of the broader “Uber-ization of activism.” By that Walker means that when individual firms like Uber and Airbnb or a trade association like the ABA fights taxation or regulation these days, they do far more than deploy “traditional public relations tools: TV ads, robocalls, mass mailings, celebrity endorsements, and political operatives.” Their campaigns also mobilize consumers, urging them to join a “social-media assault” on public officials critical of the corporate behavior or new business model in dispute. According to Walker, these new “protest-on-demand movements” blur the distinction between genuine grassroots organizing and its “astroturf” counterpart.[16]

The ABA’s Richmond front group was dubbed the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes. It’s “No on N” materials focused on the higher cost of sports drinks, baby formulas, and horchata and agua fresca (the latter two consumed largely by Hispanic residents). Campaign materials said, “Richmond needs real solutions like more jobs, better schools and safer streets. No more taxes on working people!” The Vote No campaign’s paid canvassers were largely young men of color in need of a summer job. By the end of the campaign, their duties included engaging in some minor vandalism outside the Vote Yes campaign headquarters (the RPA office). An attempt by the city to mandate greater disclosure of Community Coalition funding sources did not survive an industry challenge in federal court. The ABA propaganda campaign did remain subject to California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) reporting requirements, which are less stringent.

For the RPA’s year-round foes, Measure N was the wedge issue from heaven. It enabled them to depict would-be soda taxers as racist, elitist social engineering agents of a local nanny state opposed even to the simple pleasures of an ice-cold Coke. As city council member Nat Bates complained to the New York Times: “They’re using the black community to pass a measure for us without consulting us. . . . We’re tired of this Progressive Alliance coming in and telling us what to do. I’ve renamed them ‘the Plantation Alliance.’”[17] Bates’s leading ally on the council, Corky Booze, questioned whether sweet potato pie, candied yams, and cupcakes might be the next targets of taxation.

The Contra Costa labor council urged its affiliates to reject Measure N because it might reduce employment for Teamster delivery drivers and bottling plant workers. “We can’t make Richmond healthier with a new tax that takes money out of people’s pockets,” argued Don Gosney, a retired plumbers’ union official. Ritterman tried in vain to remind organized labor about “the additional health care cost and loss of wages suffered by every union family member with a preventable chronic condition related to sugary drinks,” Some local unions, including the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 (which shares office space with the RPA) and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, representing BART workers, heeded his message and urged members support the soda tax.

Overall the ABA spent about $2.5 million to defeat Dr. Ritterman’s prescription for a healthier community by a 2 to 1 margin. (Ritterman and the RPA raised less than $70,000 to defend Measure N.) Ritterman went on to promote similar soda tax proposals in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Mexico. In November 2014, a majority of voters in Berkeley embraced the idea after a $650,000 Bloomberg Philanthropies grant helped pay for advertising that only the industry could afford in Richmond. According to Marion Nestle, author of Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda, the Berkeley campaign became a more “inclusive effort with a very strong diverse coalition” that avoided the bad “racial dynamics of Richmond.” As a result, the ABA was less able to depict the ballot measure as a “regressive tax backed by white elitists that would boost grocery bills of working class people of color.”[18]

In 2012 Richmond progressives paid a heavy political price for their soda tax advocacy. For the first time since the RPA started running candidates, none of them won. The combined Richmond election spending of Big Soda and Big Oil totaled about $3.7 million—setting a local record not broken two years later. Worst of all, Big Soda’s successful racialization of the Measure N debate threw local progressives on the defensive in an election held just a few months after the Chevron fire, which should have been a boon to RPA candidacies. “We did a bad job,” one RPA strategist admitted. “We did not realize what was coming and we didn’t build strong enough coalitions with the black community.” With Ritterman’s departure from the council (and the electoral defeat of Marilyn Langlois and Eduardo Martinez), the RPA delegation was reduced to two—McLaughlin and Beckles.

An Eminent Domain Solution

Big Soda elbowed Big Oil aside as a source of local controversy only until it was time for the banksters to become the next subject of Richmond political rumbling. The burst of the housing bubble, our nation’s related Wall Street meltdown, and subsequent bank foreclosures hit Richmond particularly hard. In the city’s Iron Triangle neighborhood, the 2007–8 crisis devastated housing prices, with some homes losing 75 percent of their value. Even Point Richmond, with its funky but tonier mix of apartment buildings, private homes, and, on one side of the hill, sweeping views of the bay, saw real estate prices halved.

In 2012 Richmond had nine hundred foreclosures. By the end of 2013, 50 percent of Richmond homeowners were still saddled with underwater mortgages, and many owed an amount twice the current value of their property. Foreclosures forced poor and working-class families out of their homes, often leaving vacant dwellings behind, which contributed to neighborhood blight and further depression of local property values. In the “zombie houses” of South Richmond, Santa Fe, and Coronado, squatters moved in, exacerbating problems like drug dealing, gang activity, and flight from the city by those who could afford to leave.

With no effective relief in sight from any other level of government, Richmond city hall joined forces with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) to unveil a program they called Richmond Cares. Mayor McLaughlin accused the banking industry of creating the crisis with its “predatory lending policies” in Richmond and other cities. At the mayor’s initiative, a city council majority voted to use the threat of eminent domain to force mortgage lenders to renegotiate the terms of their housing loans. That way Richmond residents who qualified for the program could hold onto their homes.

As McLaughlin explained, her approach would help “people who are underwater, who have mortgages higher than the current value of their home. The city will purchase these loans at fair market value from the banks and reset the mortgages in line with the homes’ current value. Then we’ll put these refinanced loans, with lower mortgage payments, into the hands of our homeowners. That way, they can continue to stay in our community and our neighborhoods will remain stable. They can avoid going into default, experiencing foreclosure and eviction, and having to walk away from their home. If lenders don’t cooperate, we have the option of acquiring the properties through eminent domain, again paying fair market value.”

Big mortgage holders, like Wells Fargo, Bank of New York Mellon, and Deutsche Bank, did not favor this scenario. Like the ABA trying to block a first-time-ever local soda tax, the banking and real estate industries wanted to strangle Richmond Cares in the cradle before it could become a model and precedent for other cities. An industry bid for injunctive relief in federal court was denied because the city’s eminent domain powers had not yet been exercised. So the well-funded critics of Richmond Cares stepped up their nonelection-year “air war” to sway public opinion against it.

The National Association of Realtors bombarded Richmond homeowners with slick mailers warning of the dire consequences of McLaughlin’s “radical scheme.” Among these were redlining by Richmond’s municipal bond holders and a lending institution boycott that would send property values plummeting even further. “If the eminent domain plan goes into effect, lending for new home buyers will dry up, home values will decline, and neighborhoods will be hurt,” claimed one brochure from the West Contra Costa Realtors Association.

The industry’s message was carefully designed to pit neighbor against neighbor: if you were paid up on your mortgage, why should you care about others in Richmond who should never have bought a home with so much borrowed money to begin with? The campaign by bankers, realtors, and builders against Richmond Cares also drove away much-needed allies on the city councils of neighboring communities. Some of these leaders had initially expressed interest in joining the anti-foreclosure fight, wielding their own eminent domain powers, and then sharing with Richmond the cost and risk of litigation.[19]

 Richmond Cares generated national publicity for McLaughlin’s administration, most of it favorable. Yet there was one aspect of the program that critics were quick to question, and it aroused some concern on the left as well. Just as the success of the campaign against the Point Molate casino included a strange political bedfellow—local card clubs—Richmond’s proposed use of eminent domain was an idea of mixed provenance. As McLaughlin acknowledged, it was San Francisco-based “Mortgage Resolution Partners (MRP), a private company, that actually brought this idea to us. The city has a formal agreement with MRP that they will provide the funding and technical assistance in purchasing these mortgages. It will not cost the city of Richmond or its taxpayers one penny.”

As Rebecca Burns reported for In These Times, the venture capital firm had been shopping its plan to other cities for some time. Under the terms of its proposed private-public partnership, MRP “would take a cut on each mortgage acquired through eminent domain in return for providing the necessary capital backing.” In Richmond, that would mean “primarily buying mortgages where the homeowner is current on payments” but not necessarily coming to the rescue of homeowners with second liens increasing the risk of foreclosure.[20] “In an ideal world,” said liberal journalist Robert Kuttner, “you would not be reliant on a renegade Wall Street group to come up with the capital, but it’s what we’ve got for now.[21]

For its part, the ACCE did essential door-to-door work, educating and mobilizing local homeowners who were getting barraged with anti–Richmond Cares propaganda. ACCE organizers like twenty-three-year-old Melvin Willis helped them resist evictions, seek renegotiation of their mortgage loans, and protest the deceptive lending practices that victimized minority home buyers in Richmond and other cities. At a September 2013 meeting attended by three hundred people, the city council voted 4 to 3 to resist industry pressure and pursue, to the extent possible, McLaughlin’s anti-foreclosure initiative. Actual use of the city’s eminent domain powers required a “super majority” of five, only unattainable if voters in 2014 replaced one of the council opponents of Richmond Cares.

Richmond’s anti-foreclosure initiative might have gone further if like-minded progressives had wielded greater influence in neighboring communities. Yet even the ACCE, with multiple local chapters and a statewide staff, was unable to get any other city to go as far as Richmond did. In late 2014 President Obama prevented further spread of the Richmond Cares concept when he signed a bill passed by Congress forbidding any federal role in mortgage financing of homes taken by eminent domain. As a fallback approach, McLaughlin got the Richmond council to support a “Foreclosure Prevention and Neighborhood Stabilization Program” promoted by ACCE.

Under this program banks and federal agencies would “offer their distressed mortgages first to non-profit organizations to help keep homeowners in their houses and rents low through reduced monthly payments.”[22] At the US Conference of Mayors meeting in San Francisco in mid-2014, the mayors of Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose, and fourteen other cities had lobbied for this approach because “HUD, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac have millions of distressed mortgages on their books but don’t assist families who are struggling with payments.” As McLaughlin told a reporter: “There’s a better path here than selling these mortgages to speculators and hedge funds.”[23]

Similar networking by McLaughlin and other progressive city officials helped build Local Progress, a policy clearinghouse backed by four hundred mayors, city council members, and county supervisors. Assisted by the Center for Popular Democracy in New York, the group offers a sixty-page guide to improving local labor and environmental standards, housing and education, policing, voting rights, and financing of elections.[24] It also holds annual conferences, with workshops and presentations by mayors like McLaughlin and New York’s Bill de Blasio. At these gatherings, local victories are celebrated and setbacks like that of the Richmond Cares campaign can be dissected. Local Progress strategists believe that neither street politics nor electoral victories alone will make a sufficient dent in the status quo. To counter corporate influence, progressives need what Local Progress chair Nick Licata calls “an outside and inside game . . . people on the inside and people protesting on the outside to provide insiders with backbone.[25]

Richmond’s Sister Country

Throughout her two mayoral terms, Gayle McLaughlin faced reoccurring objections to her international activities. Many American cities have sister city relationships, designed to promote global understanding and cross-border solidarity. Such partnerships are either developed by local civic organizations or municipalities themselves. The latter type tend to be noncontroversial, like the sister city projects and exchanges that Richmond has conducted over the years with communities in Japan, China, and Cuba (although linking up with the Cuban refinery town of Regla was a more daring political statement at the time).

But Richmond under Gayle McLaughlin was virtually alone among North American cities in forging direct ties with another country. Its solidarity relationship with Ecuador grew out of the shared experience of environmental pollution and resulting litigation against Chevron. In mid-October 2013, at the invitation of Ecuador’s left-wing populist president Rafael Correa, McLaughlin and a small local delegation flew off to Quito, accompanied by East Bay Express reporter John Geluardi. After conferring with Correa at the presidential palace in Quito, McLaughlin’s party flew to the hot and humid Lago Agrio rainforest, where a large media contingent awaited their arrival. With President Correa leading the way, the US visitors personally inspected one of the hundreds of sludge pits that mar the local landscape and contain millions of gallons of toxic waste. “Gayle, Gayle,” Correa said, holding up his goo-covered hand. “This is Chevron. For thirty years, this is Chevron!”[26]

Correa’s visitors from California then met with the mayors of Lago Agrio and neighboring Shushufindi. As Geluardi reported from the scene, residents of both communities recited a litany of health problems in the area, including skin infections, miscarriages, birth defects, and rare cancers. “Texaco—now Chevron—clearly disregarded the environment and simply disposed of its toxic products in the most cost-saving way,” McLaughlin said. “They just tossed them into the rivers, streams and roads. As a result the indigenous people who drank from and bathed in the rivers, cooked their food and washed their clothes in the water, suffered monumentally and continue to suffer.”[27]

During her six-day visit, which coincided with Richmond’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month back home, McLaughlin invited members of the Union of Affected People and their courageous local lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, to visit California and report on their Chevron lawsuit. Back home, she and the RPA also arranged for a public screening of Crude: The Real Price of Oil, a documentary about the Ecuadoran lawsuit against Chevron. Even though it was conducted at foreign government expense, McLaughlin’s fact-finding mission to Ecuador drew political flak from the usual direction.

Chevron issued a statement saying that the mayor “would better serve the citizens of Richmond” by staying home and “constructively addressing the city’s most pressing issues, including jobs, education, and public safety.” Chip Johnson, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, similarly chided McLaughlin for “intertwining her personal politics with the duties and responsibilities of her elected office.” In Johnson’s view, holding “the company accountable for environmental damage in Ecuador seems a little bit beyond her job description.” [28]

McLaughlin was typically unrepentant. “Chevron is not only polluting our air and water,” the mayor said. “They’re polluting our politics and legal system. So we’re building an international ‘union of affected people’ that can turn our shared pain and suffering into the power to change things.”

In March 2014 McLaughlin reached out to a group of affected people in Canada who had, like the Ecuadorans, quite a story of pain and suffering to share. At a packed public meeting organized in response to crude-by-rail shipments to Richmond, the mayor welcomed Marilaine Savard from the Citizens Committee of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. In French-accented English, this slim, sad-eyed woman described the federal regulatory lapses that proved fatal to forty-seven of her friends and neighbors. Nine months earlier, a runaway “bomb train”—improperly braked by its single-man crew—had barreled into Savard’s rural community. The resulting derailment and explosion obliterated its entire downtown. “The oil industry is far too powerful,” she told a crowd of 150, packed into RPA headquarters. “The first duty of government should be to protect citizens, not shareholders.”

Locally Big Oil’s clout was on display in a new form, as far as the eye could see in the sprawling Richmond rail yard located just across the street from the Chevron refinery. Operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), the rail yard was now filled with hundreds of black, metal tank cars. These had just carried the same volatile form of crude oil that destroyed Lac-Mégantic, all the way from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to a transfer facility located right next to Richmond’s oldest residential and business neighborhood. Kinder Morgan, a major energy firm, stored up to seventy-two thousand barrels per day there, under a lease agreement with the BNSF, which is owned by Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett. The crude-by-rail shipments were then loaded onto tanker trucks bound via local streets and a state highway for the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, California.

In 2014–15 hazards of transporting Bakken crude were highlighted by a series of major train fires and explosions. As labor and environmental critics pointed out, the Achilles’ heel of crude-by-rail everywhere is the aging condition and structural weakness of most tank cars. They were designed and used in the past for hauling less hazardous cargo. According to the Association of American Railroads own estimate, “78,000 of the 92,000 cars now moving oil need to be replaced or retrofitted.” [29] Meanwhile, the US Department of Transportation failed to mandate tank car modernization and upgrading in timely fashion. Chevron and the rest of Big Oil objected to “forcing oil producers and shippers to use newer tank cars and replace older models” because that “would impose high costs on the industry and lead to a shortfall in tank car capacity.” Through its industry-wide lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute filed a legal challenge to “new federal rules intended to improve the safety of oil-by-rail transportation,” further delaying “a two year-effort to reduce the risks of moving hazardous materials on railroads.”[30]

Even newer, supposedly safer tank cars have sometimes failed to protect the public from the consequences of oil train collisions, rollovers, tank car ruptures, and spills. The total amount of oil spilled in 2013 due to derailments was greater in volume than all the spills occurring in the United States during the previous forty years. One major accident in West Virginia triggered a fire that burned for five days, forced the evacuation of two nearby towns, and seriously threatened local water supplies.

Despite this alarming track record, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) board issued the permit necessary to bring Bakken crude into Richmond in secret. There was no prior notice and no public hearings or environmental impact review. Outraged when they discovered this, Communities for a Better Environment, the Sierra Club, and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network filed suit to block Kinder Morgan from operating in Richmond. The Richmond city council backed revocation of its permit and urged Congress to halt all Bakken crude shipments until tougher federal safety rules could be implemented. Unfortunately a superior court judge in San Francisco dismissed the permitting challenge on the grounds that it wasn’t timely. This unhelpful ruling was appealed but never overturned.

Seven months after Savard’s visit, local environmentalists took the fight directly to Kinder Morgan’s front door. With well-organized backup teams, reporters covering their action, and a legal consultant on hand, eight protestors chained themselves in pairs to a rail yard fence, using bicycle U-locks. This had the effect of blocking trucks from entering the main gate. It also created a three-hour impasse between the Richmond police and a security officer from BSNF since the trespassing occurred on railroad property beyond the RPD’s jurisdiction. The railroad cop initially seemed intent on pressing some kind of federal charges, more serious than trespassing.

Thanks to the intervention of local officers, the demonstrators were allowed to leave after being identified, with no citations issued or charges pressed. Per usual when there was a protest scheduled in Richmond, Gayle McLaughlin was at the scene—this time watching from the sidelines. As one participant from Oakland, Margaret Rossoff, reported, the mayor offered her warm congratulations  And then, adding to Rossoff’s surprise, “the Richmond officers lined up to shake our hands.” This parting gesture made the Sunflower Alliance member feel like she was on “a receiving line at a wedding or bar mitzvah,” rather than wrapping up “a non-violent direct action protest!” [31]  It was not the reception she might have gotten in her own hometown or any other place yet to undergo its own greening of city hall.

Steve Early has worked as a labor journalist, lawyer, organizer, or union representative since 1972. For 27 years, Early was a Boston-based national staff member of the Communications Workers of America. Early's free-lance writing about labor relations and workplace issues has appeared in The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Nation, The Progressive, Washington Monthly, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications.

Early's latest book is called Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City.(Beacon Press, 2017) Refinery Town describes public policy controversies involving jobs and development, housing, taxation, police accountability, local labor and environmental standards, and municipal elections in a blue collar city long dominated by Chevron Corp. Early has been a resident of Richmond, CA for the last five years. He is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and serves as an appointed member of the city Personnel Board, a body which hears municipal employee grievances. He can be reached at





[1] Ian Stewart, “Years Later, Chemical Company Lot Still a Toxic Stew,” Richmond Confidential, November 9, 2009.

[2] Chris Thompson, “Burning Richmond’s Race Card,” East Bay Express, October 7, 2005.

[3] In 2004, Thurmond ran and lost as an “independent” but ended up joining the council later, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy. After serving as a Richmond city councilor, he ran for the Contra Costa County school board and then gained his current state assembly seat. Later, in their own 2004 campaigns, Soto and McLaughlin also diverged over the issue of accepting business donations. Each received five hundred dollars from a local manufacturer. Soto accepted the money, while McLaughlin publicly rejected and returned her check, to uphold the RPA’s policy of refusing corporate funding.

[4] Rebecca Rosen Lum, “McLaughlin Proves a Pragmatist,” Contra Costa Times, July 24, 2005.

[5] Unfortunately, Richmond’s municipal ID program does not yet have the backing of a financial institution so the card obtained by undocumented workers could also be used to make bank deposits and withdrawals. This would reduce their need to carry cash, which has made some in Richmond a target for street robberies).


[6] One-stop access to city services and programs is now also available to users of the City of Richmond’s mobile-phone app. Via this, residents can even report streets that need to be repaired, attaching a picture of their most hated potholes if they wish.

[7] John Geluardi, “Richmond Developer Pushes Two Ballot Measures,” East Bay Express, November 11, 2015.

[8] See John Geluardi, “The Man Behind Richmond’s Renaissance,” East Bay Express, May 18, 2011. In 2015, when the city manager’s contract came up for renewal, Lindsay came under fire from critics of his compensation package. By 2013, he was receiving $288,372 in annual salary, plus an additional $123,600 in benefits, for total compensation of $411,972. “While it could be argued that city manager salaries in general are too high,” noted Gayle McLaughlin, “the compensation the city council has negotiated with our current city manager is not out of line based on current levels in the Bay Area.” One foe of Lindsay’s, developer Richmond Poe, placed a ballot measure before Richmond voters in June, 2016, seeking to cap the city manager’s pay; it was only narrowly defeated.

[9] The Measure T litigation settlement—negotiated by city councilors Jeff Ritterman, Tom Butt, and Jim Rogers—was denounced as a sellout by a few RPA members. Charles Smith, a retired union activist, left the organization over the issue and has continued to criticize it ever since, saying that “so-called progressives squandered this major victory.” See Smith, “Bad, Bad Jerry Brown,” letter to the editor, Nation, July 15, 2014.[using this cited headline, from hard copy edition of the Nation? makes no sense—head is totally unrelated to subject of Smith’s letter, one of several in that section—much easier for any reader to access the letter in question by restoring the link to it I had here before—]

[10] For more on Kilbreth’s property tax analysis and critique, see Jeff Kilbreth, “Overview of Chevron and Contra Costa County Property Taxes,” presentation, November 2013, Richmond Progressive Alliance,

[11] David Helvarg, The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

[12]  “Draft Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report, Point Molate Mixed-Use Tribal Destination Resort and Casino”, Volume 1, Appendix O, “Environmental Noise Analysis,” City of Richmond, >.


[13] Upstream and its tribal allies forced Richmond to spend nearly $2 million on attorney’s fees in this litigation before a federal judge finally ordered them to reimburse the city for its post-referendum legal costs. The plaintiffs then appealed that fee award but defeated casino developer Richard Levine offered to settle the whole case based on Richmond’s acceptance of his offer to  build 1,000  housing units on Point Molate instead of the rejected casino. In mid-2016, settlement talks with the city, involving this suspect proposal, were continuing. Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate was not in favor of any such deal with “a private developer without a public process and competitive bidding.”

[14] Nat Bates for mayor campaign mailer, 2010. Document in possession of the author. In Richmond, candidates for municipal office are identified on the ballot only by their chosen description of their occupation—not as a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Green Party member.

[15] In 2010, Whitehurst/Mosher was also hired by Richmond card club operators to campaign against the Point Molate casino project.

[16] See Edward Walker, “The Uber-ization of Activism,” New York Times, August 7, 2015; and Edward Walker’s valuable book-length study, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[17] Norimitsu Onishi, “California City Savors Role in Fighting ‘Big Soda,’” New York Times, November 4, 2012.

[18] Marion Nestle, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 382. In June, 2016, Philadelphia became the largest city the U.S. to embrace soda taxation after its local advocates downplayed public health as a rationale and campaigned instead on the need for new revenue for parks and recreation, public libraries, and universal pre-school programs. See Margot Sanger-Katz “Phildelphia Finds Winning Strategy For Soda Tax, and Other Cities Notice,” New York Times, June 17, 2016.

[19] In Richmond itself, city councilor Jim Rogers told me that he turned against Richmond Cares because its backers tried to convince him “that we did not need insurance to protect us from the promised industry lawsuit.”

[20] Rebecca Burns, “A Company Town Becomes Our Town, In These Times, September 18, 2013.




[21]  Quoted in ibid.


[22] Karina Ioffee, “Bay Area Mortgage Relief Target of Mayors,” Contra Costa Times, June 19, 2015.

[23] Quoted in ibid.

[24] For further details, see Local Progress and Center for Popular Democracy, Policy for Local Progress: Case Studies and Best Practices from Around the Country (Washington, DC: Local Progress, 2016),

[25] Quoted in Steve Early, “Meet the Group of Feisty Urban Progressives Who Want to Transform the Country One City at a Time, The Nation, December 10, 2014. See also Nick Licata, Becoming A Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies, & Advice For Changing Our World (Seattle: Sasquatch books, 2016).

[26] Quoted in John Geluardi, “From Richmond to the Rainforest,” East Bay Express, October 16, 2013.<AU: yes? If not, then what source?—the source is correct, as cited>

[27] Quoted in ibid.

[28] Chip Johnson, “ Richmond’s activist-mayor blurs line over Chevron,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 17, 2013.

[29] “Time to Move on Dangerous Tank Cars,” editorial, New York Times, May 30, 2014


[30] Jad Mouawad, “Oil Industry Asks Court to Block Rail Transport Safety Rules,” New York Times, May 12, 2015. In September 2015 the California legislature did help curb the one-member-crew trend by requiring all freight trains operated in the state to have both a conductor and engineer. A year later, however, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed a new rule, over the objection of railroad unions, that would enable carriers to get federal approval for single-employee operations, even if for hazardous material hauling.


[31]  Quoted by Patsy Byers, “Protesting Crude by Rail in Richmond: the people here Thursday showed some guts,” RPA Activist, September 7, 2014, archived at