Can Big Oil Retake Richmond?

by Steve Early

June 4, 2014

On a weekday evening in mid-April, retired autoworker Mike Parker, a community organizer in Richmond, California, was among the concerned citizens signing up to speak at a local planning board hearing. The topic was a much-delayed refinery “modernization plan” that the city’s largest employer, Chevron, claims will make its 112-year-old facility cleaner and safer.

Local critics of Chevron, including Parker, rallied before the meeting under the banner of grassroots groups like Communities for a Better Environment. Also on hand, but in smaller numbers, were representatives of Contra Costa County building-trades unions who support the company. They want Richmond to approve the $1 billion project, with few questions asked and no conditions attached, so that 1,000 new construction jobs will be created as soon as possible.

Mike Parker, mayoral candidate for Richmond

This being an election year, the Chevron officials in attendance paid close attention to what Parker had to say. That’s because, several months ago, Parker announced his own plan: to run for mayor as part of a citywide slate of progressive candidates that includes Gayle McLaughlin, the current mayor and nationally known California Green, who is prevented by term limits from running for re-election as mayor and will run for city council instead.

“The proposed way that Chevron wants to run its plant is unacceptable,” Parker, 73, told the planning board. He pointed out that the modernization project will increase “both local toxic emissions that damage our health and greenhouse gas emissions that damage our planet.” Why, he asked, “would we, as residents of the community, accept more pollution so that Chevron can use dirtier and cheaper oil to make another $500 million in profits every year?”

This is not the kind of talk that brightens the day of Chevron managers, either in gritty Richmond or at the corporate headquarters in upscale San Ramon. That’s why Richmond watchers see a big battle brewing over its future as a much-heralded “progressive city.” For seven years, McLaughlin and her city council allies have tried to change Richmond with a movement-style mix of idealism and activism. Backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a coalition of grassroots groups and activists, McLaughlin’s administration has mounted brave challenges to powerful business interests, from banks to Big Oil. Now, as municipal elections loom in the fall, the business community—led by America’s third-most-profitable company, Chevron—wants to make a political comeback by defeating those who’ve curbed its influence.

Nat Bates, one of Parker’s two business-friendly opponents in the race for mayor, laid out the corporate calculus. “Chevron has been under attack by the RPA, and they’re going to protect their turf,” he said. “If modernization is denied by the RPA, you better bet Chevron is going to favor someone with more sensitivity and compassion for what they’re trying to do.”

Chevron has long dominated local politics. But it claimed center stage in this year’s election after a big explosion and fire ripped through the Richmond refinery in August 2012. A dozen workers were nearly killed and more than 15,000 East Bay residents sought medical attention. Cal/OSHA imposed a $1 million fine because of the company’s negligent pipe maintenance practices. Chevron pleaded no contest to six charges filed by state and local prosecutors, agreeing to pay $2 million in fines and restitution. Thousands of individual claimants and local hospitals were reimbursed to the tune of $10 million, according to the company. Since then, questions about refinery and related railroad hazards, industrial pollution, and Chevron’s role in the community have been much debated.

On the first anniversary of the accident last summer, McLaughlin and the city council spurned a $10 million settlement offer from Chevron; instead, they filed suit seeking greater compensation for the additional damage suffered locally (such as Richmond’s $1.8 billion post-fire drop in assessed property values). A day later, McLaughlin welcomed 2,500 people to a rally in front of the refinery, where speakers like Bill McKibben of linked the local struggle for refinery safety to the national campaign against global warming.

The 2012 Refinery Fire

Such unflinching advocacy has been a hallmark of McLaughlin’s tenure. A social activist since the 1980s, McLaughlin, 61, has been elected mayor twice, each time with the help of the RPA. Since its founding in 2003, the RPA has grown from a small core of registered Democrats, Greens, and political independents into a combination membership organization, electoral campaign apparatus and year-round facilitator of grassroots organizing.

During McLaughlin’s two terms, Richmond has begun to shed its old reputation for gangs, gun violence and drug-related crime. The city of 100,000 is 80 percent nonwhite, with one-fifth of its residents living in poverty. In recent years, it has gained national attention for creative initiatives on behalf of low-income workers, homeowners, and other victims of corporate misbehavior. Lately, Richmond has been debating whether to set its own minimum wage. Business lobbying is leading to many exemptions opposed by progressives, but if Richmond’s measure gets final council approval, the city’s minimum hourly wage will rise to $9.60 next year and $12.30 by 2017.

Richmond also created a municipal ID card for undocumented residents and passed a “ban the box” ordinance to reduce job discrimination against those formerly incarcerated. To increase public safety in high-crime neighborhoods, Richmond’s popular top cop, Chris Magnus, has employed much-applauded “community policing” methods. Most famously, the city threatened to use its powers of eminent domain to block home foreclosures and seek debt relief for holders of underwater mortgages.

Not every RPA-backed reform has panned out. A proposed penny-per-ounce levy on sugary drinks to fund public health and recreation programs was rejected by voters in 2012, after the beverage industry spent $2.5 million demonizing the idea. (Mexico proceeded to adopt the same approach, as a nationwide anti-obesity and public health measure, last year.) Other setbacks have included the defeat of RPA city council candidates two years ago and successful legal challenges to fair taxation of business, including Chevron. Federal pre-emption imposes another curb on local regulatory initiative, preventing city officials from taking action, for example, on the hazardous “crude-by-rail” now coursing through Richmond. (In March, city council members did call unanimously for a Congressional ban on rail transport of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota until stronger safety rules have been adopted.)

Despite much favorable out-of-town publicity, even the daring anti-foreclosure program, called “Richmond Cares,” has run aground temporarily. Big banks and local real estate interests launched a multi-pronged scare campaign raising doubts about its feasibility, impact on property values, and consequences for the city’s bond rating. Hundreds of residents mobilized to keep the initiative on track last fall, but city council support was renewed only by a 4 to 3 margin. Other cities have yet to join the effort and, in Richmond itself, the trigger of eminent domain can’t be pulled without a five-vote city council super-majority.

With much work still to be done on this and other issues, the RPA is determined to maintain its catalytic role in City Hall. The Alliance has pulled together a slate of candidates that includes not only McLaughlin but her equally outspoken vice mayor, Jovanka Beckles, and Eduardo Martinez, a retired schoolteacher. And, of course, it has tapped Parker to run for mayor. A key RPA organizer who spent thirty-two years as a union reformer and skilled tradesman in Detroit, Parker now works as a community college instructor in industrial electronics. As mayor, he hopes to expand opportunities for similar job training so that more of Richmond’s young people will qualify for better-paying jobs.

But getting elected will not be easy. Arrayed against Parker are two well-known Democrats, both members of the city’s African-American community and much better financed. (Parker is white.) One is Nat Bates, 82, a retired probation officer and the City Council’s longest-serving member. As a foe of the soda tax and reliable friend of Chevron, Bates and two council candidates aligned with him benefited from hefty corporate largesse in 2012, including $1.2 million worth of “independent expenditures” from Big Oil and $2.5 million from Big Soda. When he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2010, the police and firefighters’ unions who backed him spent heavily on ads claiming that McLaughlin had been treated for depression and was overdue on her student loan payments.

Also running for mayor this time is Charles Ramsey, 52, an attorney who serves as board president of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. He is positioning himself as a “consensus builder” who understands that “being adversarial and strident doesn’t necessarily move the agenda forward.” Ramsey has already raised nearly $100,000 from contractors and building-trades unions who value his support for “project labor agreements.” Local building-trades allies of both Ramsey and Bates back Chevron because of its use of union contractors.

In this year’s election, like previous ones, the RPA slate is alone in refusing corporate cash. This not only sets them apart from other candidates but also leaves them at a distinct funding disadvantage, despite Richmond’s modest system of public financing. (Candidates can get matching funds up to a $25,000 limit.) Banking and real estate interests are expected to weigh in heavily, eager for payback. “I think the eminent domain program will dog the candidates who backed it,” predicts Jeffrey Wright, past president of the local realtors association.

But the biggest money player is and will be Chevron. While few campaign finance reports for 2014 have been filed yet, liberal city council member Tom Butt contends that the scale of Chevron’s recent spending has been “unprecedented.” A local architect and frequent non-RPA ally of McLaughlin, Butt even questions why Chevron’s $15 million investment in community programs last year has had such “an ostentatious air about it.” While doling out money to create good will among cash-strapped non-profits, the company has spent much larger sums on advertising that just “reinforces the perception of Richmond as a company town,” he argues.

“For much of 2012 and even into 2013,” Butt noted, “all the billboards of Richmond’s main streets were dominated by Chevron ads for its preferred City Council candidates. Then they were replaced with the visages of smiling Chevron employees touting the company’s dubious safety record…. Chevron appears constantly on TV and radio. There is nowhere you can go to escape the Chevron logo.”

In response to e-mail queries, Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie lamented that “our critics continue to focus on the amount of money that we spend to educate voters about the best possible candidates for the Richmond City Council.” All financial support for individual and “independent expenditure” campaigns is lawful and fully reported, Ritchie said. She did not, however, provide details about Chevron’s expenditures.

To counter the expected corporate propaganda war against its candidates, the RPA plans to do more door-to-door canvassing this year than ever before. One target group is Latinos, who progressives are trying to reach, in part, through a monthly bi-lingual newspaper, called La Voz de Richmond, co-edited by Argentine immigrant Juan Reardon, a founding member of the RPA. The RPA slate has also picked up endorsements and some donations from Bay Area unions, including those representing Richmond city workers, rapid transit employees, and healthcare personnel at Kaiser Permanente.

On the stump, Parker has been blunt about what’s at stake for the city this November. “Chevron wants to retake the City Council,” Parker warns. “They want to sit down and negotiate with people they have already bought and paid for. That will be the main issue in this election: whether Richmond voters want to elect representatives who owe their allegiance to Chevron or to residents of the city.”

If the mayor’s office is lost, Richmond will still have a community-minded police chief; a highly effective city manager, named Bill Lindsay; and some liberal or progressive voices on the City Council. But its current innovative direction would certainly change under Ramsey or Bates. The bully pulpit used by McLaughlin to promote many important causes would become a platform, once again, for an older-style municipal leader more eager to please the powers that be. And Chevron will be back pulling the strings, just like it did during Richmond’s prior existence as a well-oiled company town.

Steve Early is author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. He is currently working on a book about political change in Richmond and belongs to its city-wide Progressive Alliance.

This article was originally published in the June 9 – 16 edition of the Nation.


One response to “Can Big Oil Retake Richmond?”

  1. Alan Peterson Avatar
    Alan Peterson

    Hmm self determination is very important in this regard. It will also help in our prosperity. Our mayor and our police chief and other official are working hard for the betterment of our city.