Taking Power at the Municipal Level

Refinery Town:  Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City by Steve Early.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 2017.  ISBN: 978 0807029664.

Winning Richmond:  How a Progressive Alliance Won City Hall by Gayle McLaughlin.  Brooklyn:  Hard Ball Press, 2018.  ISBN:  978-0-9991358-1-5.

How do progressives build power to counter attacks from the top of society while building the kind of society we’d each like to live in?


There are multiple ways forward, but we now have an example of a successful, grassroots-led political/social movement that has taken electoral power in a particular city, facing extensive challenges, and has governed successfully for over 10 years.

I’m talking about the work of the Richmond Political Alliance (RPA) in Richmond, California.  What makes the RPA’s work so interesting is that this successful political organization has emerged and developed in a city without a progressive history, one whose population is primarily African American and Latino, and whose population is mostly poor and working class.

Richmond is a city on the east side of the San Francisco Bay (“East Bay”), north of Oakland and Berkeley.  It is a city that has long been politically and economically dominated by the Chevron Corporation, one of the largest energy corporations in the world.  As New England migrant, long-time labor activist and chronicler of Richmond’s metamorphous, Steve Early, describes it:

Unlike its better-known Bay Area neighbors, Richmond was a prototypical company town.  The city was run by public officials installed by global energy giant Chevron, local developers, or their building trades and public safety union allies.  Richmond’s landscape was marked and its air fouled by one of the largest refineries in California.  … the city experienced the full range of late-twentieth-century urban woes.  Deindustrialization, joblessness and poverty, substandard schools and housing, drug trafficking, street crime, and gang violence all contributed to one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the country.  Cronyism and corruption in city hall led to business mismanagement and near bankruptcy; big cuts in jobs and services resulted.  Relations between police and the community deteriorated due to officer-involved shootings, beatings and checkpoints set up to detain immigrant drivers without documentation, in a city now 40 percent Latino (Early, 2).

It was in this context that progressives organized and won.

And now, we have two books about the RPA and its work—Refinery Town by Steve Early, and Winning Richmond by Gayle McLaughlin—that enables outsiders to get a sense of how this alliance emerged, developed, won and has successfully governed over the past decade.  Both are excellent accounts and tell of RPA’s successes while also discussing its limitations and, albeit rarely, its defeats.  These two books complement each other.  This reviewer thinks there is much progressives can learn from these experiences, especially when joined with Jane McAlevey’s recent book, No Shortcuts:  Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, and on which I’ll comment briefly below.

To cite Early again:

RPA candidates have distinguished themselves locally by their refusal to accept business donations, while welcoming the support of progressive unions.  The Alliance also relies on membership dues, door-to-door canvassing to expand its grassroots base, and, in election years, small individual donations and modest public matching funds for its city council and mayoral candidates.  RPA work with labor and community allies has created strong synergy between activist city hall leadership and grassroots organizing.  In a fashion worthy of emulation elsewhere, this group has become a local counterweight to the previously untrammeled exercise of corporate power (Early, 3).

Early gives a good overview of the struggle in Richmond, including a historical survey from earliest inhabitants to date.  This, not surprisingly, includes a history of Chevron’s relations with the city but, interestingly, also of Chevron’s activities in the country of Ecuador.

The struggles against Chevron and the oil industry include those to clean up toxic wastes that had been left by previous industrial inhabitants as they decamped from and deindustrialized Richmond.

So much of the movement that led to the RPA were struggles against environmental destruction and devastation.  In the course of this, however, these struggles morphed into issues of democracy and local control; struggles against racism, sexism and homophobia; efforts to stop police violence and to initiate police reform; confrontations between progressive and reactionary trade union leaders; and collaboration of a few of the local officials with Chevron while Chevron was spending millions of dollars to block and/or unseat progressive politicians.

The key to success has been mobilization of growing numbers of Richmond’s citizens.  The RPA—whose electoral candidates have refused corporate contributions—consistently has fought to represent their supporters’ interests, and tried to advance these interests whenever possible.  When there have been disagreements or contradictions between different groups of supporters, RPA leadership has tried to resolve these by meeting with the different sides and working out issues to achieve the most progressive outcomes possible. 

In 2014, in the face of a determined attack by Chevron to defeat RPA candidates, “the main issue had become Chevron’s increasingly blatant attempt to buy the election.”  To help, Mayor McLaughlin and RPA member Mike Parker brought Bernie Sanders to town, even before Sanders had decided to campaign for the presidency.

Sanders pointed out that key was to increase citizen participation:

“We doubled voter turnout,” Sanders reported.  “Low-income people and working-class people came out in large numbers, demonstrating that if you’re willing to stand up to the powers that be and keep your word, people will stand with you.”  He denounced corporate domination of US politics today and accused Chevron of trying to teach Richmond about “who owns this community, who controls this community” (Early, 127).

The efforts of the RPA defeated Chevron, which spent as much money in Richmond as it did in Congressional races across the country in 2012 and 2014 combined.

The RPA has had to address serious threats to its efforts, in addition to confronting Chevron.  These included a mayor who ran as an ally and then went his own way after election (Gayle McLaughlin’s successor), at least for a while.  They had to confront issues of gentrification, as elected officials outside of the RPA tried to lure investment into Richmond, and land values exploded.  They also had to reorganize their own alliance, moving people of color and young people of all colors into positions of power, as founding members’ aged, while being made aware that the organization needed more multiracial and younger leadership.

Early certainly tells this story well, in a clearly written book by someone who came to Richmond after progressive organizing took off.  McLaughlin’s book, written by an activist, leader and former two-term Mayor of Richmond, gives a much more personal and inside account of these same struggles, written by someone who was there from the beginning.

She begins by labeling Richmond’s story “as a tale of transformation and political upheaval,” as local activists with a new approach to progressive politics “seized power in City Hall and held it, ushering in a bold new agenda focused on social good and climate activism.”  As she says, “Through continued work and reorganization of the alliance and the city, we offer both a model of progressive politics and a challenge to others to take action to realize democratic ideals” (McLaughlin, 1).

McLaughlin, writing a first-person account, necessarily takes a much more personal view of developments than Early.  Originally from Chicago, and later Massachusetts, McLaughlin arrived in Richmond in 2001.  But she didn’t arrive as a neophyte:  as she tells it, her political development from working class Catholic schoolgirl was affected by feminism and anti-(Vietnam) war activism, along with the 1960s-early ‘70s counterculture.  Yet, her class background kept her “estranged” from many of her upper-middle class friends and activists.  Still, she also later joined the solidarity movements of the 1980s, which focused on ending US wars in Central America.  She also got interested in the Green Party.  So her engagement with life in all of its complexities and challenges were essential in how she became engaged in politics in Richmond once she landed there.

One of the [Green] Party’s values is grassroots democracy, which is central to my political philosophy.  I believe that democracy is an active process that must be practiced in every facet of life, from neighborhoods to workplaces to city halls.  The Green Party’s belief that people should be able to participate in decisions that affect their lives offers a healthy route for expanding our democracy from the bottom up.  This value spirited in me the decision to start taking stands on local issues and to advance change from the grassroots (McLaughlin, 31).

She talks about how activists came together in 2003 to create the RPA:  Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq stimulated the collective response.

We joined together to stop the madness that we saw unfolding from our government’s retaliatory approach to 9/11, forging new relationships and gaining a new sense of civic responsibility on the ground at local levels.

It was horrifying to watch our nation ignore the will of millions of people demonstrating for peace.  As we moved into the new era of war without end, our government was following a foreign policy that resulted in overwhelming and tragic loss of human life, along with untold mental and physical harm inflicted upon countless individuals and families both abroad and here at home.  We were also being dragged domestically into a war economy, leaving cities and counties with an ever-decreasing number of social programs.  The poorest among us were being forced to bear the greatest burden of the war economy on top of our nation’s failed economic policies (McLaughlin, 34).

McLaughlin then proceeds to use her various political campaigns in Richmond—being elected as a City Council member in 2004 and taking office in January 2005, then elected as Mayor in 2006, and then re-elected as Mayor in 2010—as signposts to development of community-based politics in the city.  She talks about the successes won by RPA, as well as the trials and tribulations.  And then tells the story of the election in 2014, in which she could not run for another term as Mayor due to term limit restrictions in Richmond.

Through all of this, while McLaughlin has been clearly in the leadership, she brought a different approach to electoral politics.  First, and most important, while she recognized her own contributions, she certainly saw herself as only one of a dedicated team of people who had joined together to transform City Hall and the city’s political processes:  RPA built the support to take over the city council in 2014, winning three open four-year Council seats (one by McLaughlin), an open two-year seat, and their supported ally winning the Mayor’s race.  [Chevron spent $3 million, twenty times more than RPA, and every one of their candidates lost!]  Second, she based her campaigns on recognizing the strengths and capabilities of “ordinary” people in the city; she was no prima donna.  And third, she saw the political process as being more than “just” getting elected; she saw it as a “movement building process,” based on staying connected with the community all the time rather than just when she was seeking votes.

The process didn’t end then.  In 2016, RPA elected two more candidates, giving them five seats on the seven-person Council.  

In 2018, Gayle McLaughlin is running for Lt. Governor of the State of California, trying to take RPA’s processes and politics to a larger level.  In the process, she’s encouraging people in every town and city to set up their own progressive alliance.  

Obviously, she wrote this book to help her get her ideas and experiences to a wider audience and help her electoral efforts, but there is a wealth of experience conveyed in this book.  Running and winning electoral office is not easy, and governing certainly brings its own challenges, but McLaughlin well conveys these in this book:  there is a wealth of knowledge shared in these pages, and I think anyone who wants to engage in progressive electoral politics in this country would be remiss not to study both McLaughlin’s and Early’s books.

However, there’s one issue that need to be raised.  As said above, I’ve recently reviewed Jane F. McAlevey’s book, No Shortcuts:  Organizing for Power in the Gilded Age for the journal Green Social Thought (see here).  McAlevey argues the need to organize one’s constituency, instead of merely mobilizing them.  

RPA seems to have combined these two approaches, organizing Alliance members—self-defined activists—but using a mobilizing process to build support among voters.  In Richmond, this process has worked.  But I’m wondering how well this will transfer elsewhere.  

The reason I raise this issue is that it seems that there was a collection of some very experienced, wise and charismatic people who happened to live in geographical proximity of each other, and who joined together to create and build the RPA (and have selected good people to lead the Alliance as the founders “age out”).  I celebrate their successes, but I’m doubtful that this constellation of good people will emerge in many other places; and, even if they do, there’s no guarantee of success.  

While I don’t have “the answer,” I think the “deep organizing” approach that McAlevey proposes might be a better long-term approach for most localities who want to build similar alliances in the future.  What that means is that local organizations need to consciously shift to an organizing approach, where people are taught how to organize, and where leadership is organic and consciously developed.  (As per McAlevey, this is much different than how many political/social organizations approach their political work.)  Certainly if currently existing organizations made this shift, and then built electoral alliances to advance their work, they would have a stronger foundation on which to build.  I recommend that people study McAlevey’s book to help them further think out these issues.

Nonetheless, we owe Steve Early and Gayle McLaughlin big debts of gratitude, not only for their work over the years, but for taking the time so share their experiences in such a clear, coherent manner into two compelling and complimentary books.  Hopefully, progressives will be able to learn much from them, and use these experiences to build many progressive alliances across North America.

Kim Scipes is a long-time labor and political activist who worked as a substitute high school teacher in Richmond and nearby El Cerrito in the late 1980s-early ‘90s.  Over the years and to varying extents, he has been active in urban politics in the East Bay as well as in Northwest Indiana.  He currently is a Professor of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, IN.

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