When we sat down to talk with 60-year old Gayle McLaughlin, the mayor of Richmond, Calif., she had just been through a summer media whirlwind. Policy innovation and political controversies landed McLaughlin and her East Bay city of 100,000 on the front page of The New York Times, on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, and on Democracy Now with Juan González and Amy Goodman. Even Fox News recently hosted a debate between two Richmond city council members about the merits of a new “ban the box” ordinance passed to ease the re-entry of former prisoners into the community.
The national media’s rediscovery of Richmond began last fall when the Times informed an unsuspecting world that McLaughlin’s “small, blue-collar city best known for its Chevron refinery has become the unlikely vanguard for anticorporate, left-wing activism in recent years, having seized the mantle from places like Berkeley, just south of here, or San Francisco, across the Bay.”
Since 2007, Richmond has approved a business tax increase and defeated a casino development scheme; opposed Immigration & Customs Enforcement raids in the city and created a municipal ID card to aid the undocumented; sought fair property taxation of Chevron and sued the giant oil company over the damage done by a huge refinery fire and explosion last year; and supported “community policing” initiatives introduced by Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, which have helped reduce violence.
In 2012, Richmond progressives failed to win voter approval for a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, a public health measure bitterly opposed by the beverage industry. And since Richmond became the first city in the country to threaten the use of eminent domain to avert foreclosures, major banks have sued to block the plan and some investors have shunned the city’s municipal bonds. Homeowners without mortgage problems have been flooded with banking-industry funded mailers claiming that their property values will be adversely affected. At a Sept. 10 meeting attended by 300 people, the city council voted, by a 4 to 3 margin, to resist these pressures and pursue McLaughlin’s anti-foreclosure initiative. (Actual use of the city’s eminent domain powers will require five council member votes.)
While the outcome of the anti-foreclosure fight has yet to be decided, the city’s expanded bike lanes, urban garden network, public art displays and worker co-op initiatives are all flourishing. On August 3, a crowd of 2,500, joined by McLaughlin, marched to the Chevron refinery gates in the largest environmental justice protest in Richmond’s history.
We asked McLaughlin about her own background and the recent changes in a city better known, in the past, for its problems with drugs, crime, gangs and industrial pollution.
How did you first get involved in politics?
McLaughlin: I was born into a working-class family; my dad was a union carpenter and my mom worked in factories and as a housewife. Most of the work that I had done prior to coming to Richmond [in 2000] was for causes that had a national and international focus. I was involved in the Central American solidarity movement and campaigns against racism and sexism and for education and jobs. I decided once I moved here that it was time to put down roots and get involved in local work.
You’ve accomplished a lot in 12 years, including winning three consecutive elections (one for city council and two for mayor). How did that happen?
It all came from the grassroots. In 2003, many of us came together to form the Richmond Progressive Alliance, an organization of people with various political affiliations—Democrats, Greens, Independents. By running progressive candidates, like myself and Council Member Jovanka Beckles, and getting some of us elected, we’ve taken electoral politics in Richmond in a new and different direction. We’ve done this electoral work—without any corporate money—alongside a strong progressive movement of committed activists. Together, we’ve become a fighting force for real political, social, and economic change in our city.
What form of municipal government does Richmond have?
Richmond has a city council/city manager style of government. That means the city council as a whole, including the mayor, makes policy, but we hire a professional manager who implements all our administrative and policy decisions. The mayor has the power to appoint people to commissions and boards, with the concurrence of the council majority, which is important because we have the voice of the progressive movement represented through those structures as well. Being mayor is technically not a full-time job, but clearly is one if you want to do it right. I have only two full-time (and one two-third-time) staff members, so I really am working day and night to make sure the community understands they have a mayor who stands with them.
In 2010, Chevron spent heavily on mailers and ads that they hoped would defeat your bid for re-election. Last year, progressives were outspent 50 to 1 in local elections, and two RPA candidates lost their races for city council seats after being smeared by Big Oil and Big Soda. How do progressive public officials like yourself or ones running anywhere else overcome this corporate spending advantage?
We do it by reaching out, door-to-door and one-on-one, to fellow community members. Precinct walking is the way we have won all our campaigns and the way that we have continued to build a base. Having real relationships with our neighbors gives us an advantage over Chevron, which has started to recognize our success with door-to-door campaigns. They’ve actually started hiring people to go door to door, with lies and misinformation. But these aren’t authentic relationships they’re building. So while Chevron has a lot of money, we have values, principles and better communication with the people.
You have an African-American community, a Latino community, and now many Asian immigrants living in Richmond. Has it been a challenge reaching out to so many different constituencies in a majority non-white city?
We have beautiful diversity, people coming together from various cultures and backgrounds. It’s been an incredibly enriching experience for me to work with all sectors of our community. I think I’ve won all three of my campaigns because people see me as a regular person, as someone who really cares. Richmond’s overall demographics makes our progressive movement very special but, hopefully, also an example for how we could move forward in our country.
The sector of the African-American community that sometimes will side with old-guard politicians, who are taking money from Chevron and not serving our collective interests, still exists. But it is shrinking, and we have a younger African-American community that is rising up and taking a stand against old-guard leaders.
Our community is 39 percent Latino, and they have been very strong in siding with progressives. We have stood for immigrants’ rights and been a leading city in the area of immigration reform, before it even reached the national stage. And we have a municipal ID that’s going to be rolled out pretty soon for everyone, including immigrants.
What about organized labor—how have local unions related to the Richmond Progressive Alliance?
Labor unions are very much a part of the solution. We’ve always gotten the support of the main union here in the city, which is Service Employees International Union Local 1021. And we do have some unions represented on the RPA steering committee.
There are some unions that are more conservative and more narrowly focused, rather than looking at the big picture. The building trades Council [FC], for example, supported building a casino at Point Molate [on the Richmond shoreline] because the developer promised them all kinds of jobs. Well, our point of view was that whatever you build at Point Molate is going to create a lot of jobs. And we’re for good, healthy sustainable development that benefits the whole community rather than takes advantage of poor people by picking their pockets.
Relocation of Lawrence Berkeley Lab facilities to Richmond was a project we strongly supported. We got them to agree that our city was a preferred location to expand their lab, and now there will be a lot of building trades and other jobs there. That was an opportunity for us to unite with building trades, which haven’t always supported the RPA. “
Unions have a strong role to play in building a better society, clearly, as does the community. So having local unions join with community efforts to build a progressive movement is definitely essential.
Can you explain the city’s anti-foreclosure initiative?
Richmond had 900-plus foreclosures last year. We face the same level of foreclosures going forward unless we step in, as a city, and do what the federal government hasn’t been willing or able to do and what the banks don’t want to do.
Under our mortgage reduction program, we would be helping 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 stated quite clearly that we have the option of acquiring the properties through eminent domain, again paying fair market value. So the banks are not too happy and some are now suing us. But we’re moving forward and I think we’ll win in court. We’ve had many lawyers review this program and [they say] it is legally sound. I think the banks are against this because they want to maintain their control and don’t want a city like Richmond to utilize local power.
Does Richmond have partners in this endeavor?
This is a battle and we’re waging it with wonderful community allies, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and Mortgage Resolution Partners (MRP), the private company that actually brought this idea to us and will cover any legal costs incurred by the city.
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. We’re doing this on behalf of our homeowners to prevent blighted neighborhoods.
It’s an overall public benefit, which is why eminent domain is something we feel strongly we can use legally.
You’ve got 17 months left to go before being termed out as mayor. What do you hope to accomplish in the remainder of your second term?
Reduction of crime is really one of the key accomplishments of our joint efforts with the community since progressives won office. Richmond, when I first got involved here, had an incredibly high crime rate. Even in 2007, we had 47 homicides. Last year, we had 18. I want to continue to reduce crime because obviously 18 homicides is 18 too many.
I want to continue with environmental initiatives. We were number one in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita in 2010. We have a solar installation co-op that’s being formed right now and an award winning green job training program. So worker-owned co-ops are another effort that I want to see continued in the city. I would say getting our downtown revitalized more, promoting the arts and promoting further job training are all priorities
There really are multiple goals here in Richmond: achieving peace, community stability, economic justice, and greater democratic participation–and making it clear that we’re not a company town anymore. Chevron ran this city for decades. But just because previous city councils were bought off by their money doesn’t mean an engaged community with honest elected representatives can’t chart out a whole new course. And that’s what we’ve been doing.
Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon are journalists who moved to Richmond, Calif. last year. They are currently working on a book about the city’s history and recent political evolution. Both belong to the Richmond Progressive Alliance. They can be reached at: Lsupport aol.com.