Posted January 13, 2021
In California the Richmond Progressive Alliance won another stunning victory in this month’s local elections.
Richmond is a working class city of 110,000, 80 percent people of color, north of Oakland on the San Francisco Bay. It is home to a major Chevron refinery that has been the focus of political battles about Chevron’s pollution, Chevron’s special tax considerations, and Chevron’s political involvement. The RPA’s 2014 election victory over Chevron’s $3 million campaign for city council is well known. Since that defeat Chevron has stayed largely behind the scenes and depended on other forces to maintain corporate influence in local politics.
The three RPA candidates for city council this fall, Claudia Jimenez, Melvin Willis, and Gayle McLaughlin, won clear majorities in their districts against a well-financed and powerful opposition. The mayor of Richmond, a corporate neoliberal, kept up a drumbeat of attacks in his newsletter, one of the few sources of news of the city. The regional newspaper denounced the RPA candidates. Corporate liberals dominated NextDoor, the community social media.
Police, fire, and building trades unions, local polluters Sims Metals and Levin Terminal (coal), real estate interests, developers, the Apartment Association, and other landlords all teamed up to fund opponents’ campaigns to the maximum allowed and established an Independent Expenditure Committee to spend much more. The total was over $300,000 in three city council districts totaling fewer than 30,000 voters.
RPA raised small contributions totaling around $120,000, and our mail campaigns matched the opposition’s because our media persons and graphic designers were volunteers and better than theirs. As usual we relied heavily on person-to-person contact by volunteers knocking on doors or phoning.
In addition to city council, RPA campaigned heavily for and won a local Measure U that changed a flat rate business license tax to a steeply progressive one. We campaigned for Jovanka Beckles, who won her race in a transit district of which Richmond is a small part. Her campaign was effectively run by members of the East Bay DSA on the issues of free public transit and transit workers’ rights.
RPA also actively supported candidates in the local school board race and helped defeat an astro-turf pro-charter organization, GO Public Schools, which spent around $200,000 promoting its candidates. For the first time in years we will not have a pro-charter school board. Finally, we campaigned heavily for state Proposition 15, to remove the property tax loophole that was a boon to corporations, and against the Uber/Lyft Proposition 22 to allow them to continue treating gig workers as “independent contractor” slaves. Unfortunately, statewide anti-corporate forces lost on Prop 15 and lost badly on Prop 22.
Several issues drove RPA’s opponents. They bitterly opposed rent control. Large apartment owners manipulated small landlords, who mobilized homeowners who might want to rent out their homes. Progressives and unions had promoted the progressive business tax, Measure U, and, as usual, the big corporations and right-wingers camouflaged the issue by complaining that it would hurt small business. Levin Terminal wanted to reverse a city decision to phase out coal shipments from Richmond’s port. And many whites felt their safety threatened by calls to reimagine the police force.
But RPA’s opponents rarely spoke directly about any of these issues. They tried to make RPA itself the issue: the RPA candidates would not be “independent thinkers” but would be controlled by the RPA steering committee, which they described as a secret cabal taking us to socialism. RPA and the candidates, they said, were too close to Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021, which represents the city workers they named as responsible for the budget deficit. (Opponents ignored the fact that 70 percent of the city budget goes to much higher-paid firefighters and police whose unions supported the anti-RPA candidates.)
For the most part the RPA ignored these attacks and focused on our message: that being free of corporate control was the first step to dealing with pollution, providing services, and making city government serve its residents. We did respond strategically to some of our opponents’ better-financed attacks, like a mass mailer claiming that one of our candidates fraudulently claimed residence.
The RPA candidates may consider themselves socialists, but the campaign was not a socialist campaign. It was a campaign firmly rooted in social justice and class issues. Probably the main theme was that we cannot move forward with government unless we challenge corporate domination of society and corporate money in the election process.
The primary purpose of the campaign was not just to use the election to raise certain issues and ideas but to gain political power. RPA campaigns are part of a longer-term project to empower people struggling for social justice and prepare them for the bigger battles, by building an independent political organization with its own identity rooted in the working people of Richmond.
A LOCAL POLITICAL PARTY?
Local elections in California are nonpartisan, but RPA has evolved into something like a local political party, with a clearly pro-labor orientation and solutions. Most RPA activists are registered Democrats who understand that at least at the local level, and to a lesser degree at the state level, the Democratic Party is not on our side but a defender of corporate liberalism. That recognition comes not from ideological debate but from the experience of seeing which side Democratic Party leaders and county committees come down on in key battles. The leading Democratic Party politicians, past and current Congressional representatives, State Senate and Assembly representative, all with the reputation of being “good liberals,” endorsed the RPA’s opponents. The County Democratic Party refused to endorse Measure U, the only local progressive tax measure on the ballot.
The power of the corporations, including the fossil fuel industries, big real estate, and developers, is not just in their candidate contributions during elections. It is their control over the economy, their expertise, and their financial power between elections that allow them to control the state Democratic Party and most local governments.
For the RPA the political work continues after the votes are counted. We organize support for elected officials. We do research on issues to counter the paid lobbyists and building community support for the social justice and union issues spearheaded by other organizations. We have greatly expanded the range and depth of our email newsletter and we publish and mail to all residents an occasional newspaper, the Richmond Sun. We mobilize support on issues at hearings and with demonstrations to keep the pressure up. These activities in turn develop and train the candidates and campaign workers for the next election.
While a few public employee and healthcare unions give considerable and important support to RPA, and the RPA structure provides for representation on the steering committee for social justice organizations and local unions, it is not a “labor party” in the sense that it represents the labor movement in politics. Too much of the labor movement, such as the building trades, is enmeshed in alliances with corporations, and the bulk of the remainder still relies primarily on the Democratic Party. RPA could be best described as representing independent political organization for local social justice struggles.
RPA now moves from two members on City Council to four (we also had a majority in 2017-2018). Winning a majority again is exciting and we look forward to the challenges of our candidates’ having some ability to govern. Yet conditions make it a daunting task.
The failure of Prop 15, which would have closed corporations’ property tax loopholes, dashes our hope for a significant increase in funds for the city. The combination of years of strangulation of the cities, rip-offs by corporations, COVID, state laws that limit cities’ ability to tax progressively, and an unsustainable police and fire pension program has left Richmond and all but the richest of cities with budget problems. Without additional funds Richmond may have to make cuts of some kind, rather than addressing the crying needs of affordable housing, health, and homelessness. It would be easy to come up with programs to deal with homelessness, for example: a massive program to build affordable housing, which would provide jobs, housing, and training. But that would require the kind of money unavailable to local governments.
17 YEARS IN
Despite its 17-year history of growth and victories, the RPA itself is still a fragile organization. Its strength is that it relies primarily on volunteers, but this is also a weakness. The biggest pool of volunteers are older white middle-class professionals who could afford to retire while they were still healthy enough to be active. Young people who need to work two jobs to survive or older people who must keep working are unable to commit the time necessary to keep an organization like RPA going.
Nonetheless RPA is making the transition to a younger and people of color leadership. Primarily because RPA pursued and won a version of rent control in the city through a ballot initiative in 2016 our electoral base has shifted considerably in the last 10 years from white professional homeowners to lower-income working class people of color. Other battles contributed to this shift. We fought for and won a $15 minimum wage against forces that claimed we would be driving small businesses out of Richmond. When we challenged traditional police practices, white middle-class residents were more likely to see this as a threat.
The RPA will remain fragile until there is a network of similar independent organizations, a labor party, or some other formation with a solid base in a progressive labor movement to provide institutional stability, political grounding, and mass support.
Is the effort to maintain and build RPA worth it? Cities everywhere are faced with budget crises and limited ability to deal with social problems because of the power of capital at the state and federal levels. For example, in California apartment owners’ and realtors’ power at the state level greatly limits cities’ ability to control rents. What is widely known as the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights is state legislation that limits local community control over the police force. And for the most part, city taxing power is limited to regressive taxes. Cities cannot fundamentally change the social structure. Cities cannot establish Medicare for All, significantly tax the rich, build massive affordable housing, or provide good-paying jobs, let alone fundamentally challenge capitalism.
But cities can significantly improve the lives of residents by changing police practices, providing libraries and youth services, limiting gentrification, and enabling community organization to improve their neighborhoods. With this organizing comes the sense that people power can beat big corporations. The knowledge that we can build our own political organizations not dependent on the corporate-controlled Democratic Party is an essential part of building a national movement. More local successes like the RPA’s are necessary but not sufficient. We still need a labor movement exercising social justice politics and working class power at the national level and challenges to power at every level. But those can’t be successful without also having power over local institutions.
Can the RPA model be transferred to other cities? The jury is out. There have been some attempts elsewhere in California, and Oakland activists frequently look to it as a possible model. Many special circumstances contributed to how the RPA developed. The existence of one giant corporation, Chevron, which both spewed pollution and showed contempt for the city provided a clear target for initial organizing. A critical mass of activist cadres with organizing skills developed. Shifting demographics, like an influx of Latinx residents, helped break up entrenched political relations.
But the basic idea of the RPA — ongoing independent political organization based on social justice movements with union allies — should be possible everywhere if activists understand that that is what they need to create.
Many of the leaders, organizers, and candidates of the RPA have joined East Bay DSA. East Bay DSA endorsed the RPA candidates and RPA coordinated and worked with the Beckles campaign, which had substantial DSA-organized involvement. But DSA as such had very little presence in the RPA campaigns. EBDSA mobilizations this fall for five local campaigns did not include Richmond. In part this has to do with geography. Richmond is at the end of the train line and is barely in the consciousness of DSA activists in Oakland.
But the reason for the lack of DSA involvement is mainly political. DSA members in general have little sense or understanding of working in broader organizations, with the possible exception of unions. When DSAers think about electoral action, they think in terms of DSA campaigns — running DSA candidates or supporting a candidate with a separate DSA-organized effort. A significant part of DSA, if not the majority, believe that DSA should determine support for a candidate based on whether the candidate is a socialist rather than whether the campaign brings working-class people into independently organized struggle. It is a fundamental difference in political approach that deserves more discussion.
Articles and books about the RPA experience as well as bylaws and an archive of RPA newsletters can be found on the RPA website. Press the “about” tab and scroll to the bottom.