A Company Town No More: Richmond Progressives Visit Petaluma to Discuss Their Grassroots Victory Over Chevron

Grassroots political organizing managed to put the people back in the political process in last year’s election, resoundingly beating one of the most profitable corporate behemoths on the planet, which had spent an unprecedented $3 million dollars in the city of Richmond to elect corporate-friendly candidates.

How did Richmond progressives do it and can their success be replicated? These and other questions around this remarkable, people-powered victory will be addressed in a Coalition for Grassroots Progess event in Petaluma on Saturday June 20th.

Former Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Richmond Progressive Alliance member Margaret Jordan, North Bay activist, writer and Institute for Public Accuracy Executive Director Norman Solomon will be speaking. The event will be hosted by Santa Rosa City Council member Julie Combs.

Where and When:

3 pm, Saturday June 20, 2015 at Fourchette Restaurant, 1435 N. McDowell Blvd, Petaluma.

Here’s a brief piece written for Nueva Prensa/New Press about the Richmond election results:

 

photo by Harriet Rowan

photo by Harriet Rowan

Richmond’s Days as a Company Town Come to an End

Richmond (CA) – Among the few bright spots in last November’s election campaign, which saw both record low voter turnouts across the United States and and extraordinary investment of corporate cash in the political process, was the dramatic defeat of the Chevron corporation at the ballot box across San Pablo Bay in Richmond.

The third most profitable corporation in the United States, Chevron had until recently run Richmond – home to the second largest oil refinery on the West Coast – as its own well-oiled company town. For many years the city provided the company with a Chevron desk at City Hall, where generations of friendly politicians came and went, maintaining a generous low-tax, little-regulation regime which greatly benefited the corporation.

Meanwhile, what had been a small, rural community of 200 people when the refinery was built in 1902 grew dramatically into a city of 107,000 today, a population that is 69% nonwhite, with one of the lowest median annual incomes in the Bay Area at $52,000.

Yet on election day, it was the surprising results in this working-class community which provided headlines to media outlets across the nation – “Chevron’s $3 million backfires in Richmond election,” said the San Francisco Chronicle – and delighted progressives.

Voters elected City Councilman Tom Butt as mayor and sent outgoing mayor Gayle McLaughlin, former teacher Eduardo Martinez, and incumbent Jovanka Beckles to the City Council, where progressives will now enjoy a 6 to 1 majority.

Chevron spent over $3 million to defeat those candidates, lending its support to Nat Bates for mayor and Charles Ramsey, Donna Powers, and Albert Martinez for city council – all of whom lost by substantial margins.

According to UC Berkeley grad student Harriet Rowan, reporting for the local news site Richmond Confidential, the corporation spent over $350,000 on negative campaign ads to defeat former mayor McLaughlin alone.

Doria Robinson, Executive Director of Urban Tilth, a nonprofit devoted to growing a sustainable community agricultural system in the Richmond area, told Al Jazeera America that Chevron’s huge expenditures on hit pieces likely backfired.

“We were getting full-page and multiple-page, full-color mailers, six or seven a day. They were hit pieces. I not only think it turned off voters. I actually think it inspired voters to come out and take a stand against the attempt to buy our elections.”

Pouring so much money into a municipal campaign, Chevron appears to have recognized both how much city politics have changed in Richmond in recent years and how much money is at stake in the future.

Though Richmond did reach an agreement with Chevron in 2010 that forced the corporation to pay an additional $114 million in taxes, there remains an ongoing lawsuit filed against the company by the city in the wake of an August 2012 explosion at its refinery. That explosion sent over 15,000 people to the hospital and caused a considerable drop in area property values. It is believed that a settlement of that lawsuit could cost Chevron hundreds of millions of dollars more.

Meanwhile, progressives are enjoying a rare victory over corporate cash.

Said San Francisco State political science Professor Robert Smith to the Chronicle, “This means big money doesn’t always win, that ordinary people can defeat huge corporate power.”

One item in particular is believed to be one the new council’s agenda quite soon: a long-stalled effort to use the city’s power of eminent domain to aid homeowners with underwater mortgages.

The previous council was one vote shy of the supermajority required by the state to initiate eminent domain proceedings, which in this case would be used to seize mortgages, after which the city would reduce loan principal and refinance the mortgage in a government-guaranteed loan.

That plan has received nationwide news coverage.

 

From the Spring issue of the New Press/Nueva Prensa (formerly the Occupied Press North Bay). Look for this free, bilingual alternative newspaper at a newstand near you, and if they don’t have it please ask them to contact us.

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