From KPFA’s Up Front, Sept. 12, 2014

Richmond Today and Tomorrow

In this wide-ranging, half-hour discussion (at 33:35 in KPFA's archive), guest-host Marie Choi speaks with Mike Parker and Andrés Soto about why Mike withdrew from the mayoral race, Chevron's candidates, the role of social movements, the status and future of Chevron's refinery, progressive strategy, our opposition, the main issue in the 2014 race, and beyond.

Marie Choi: As November elections approach, we're turning our attention to Richmond, California, where the Richmond Progressive Alliance is battling oil-giant Chevron for control of the City Council. For many of us outside of Richmond, the RPA has been an example of what's possible when an independent grassroots organization gains council seats and pushes through a progressive agenda. Through a combination of grassroots-mobilization and holding key council positions, the RPA and its allies have won major concessions from Chevron, defended homeowners from bank foreclosures, and changed the city's approach to policing. We're talking this morning with Mike Parker and Andrés Soto, they are members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and Mike was until recently a mayoral candidate for Richmond, California. Mike, let's start there: you announced a couple of months ago that you were going to be dropping out of the mayor's race; why did you make that decision?

Mike Parker: No, I actually just dropped out less than a month ago. What happened was that we campaigned very hard for mayor for a long period of time, about four months, and then, three days before the filing deadline, Tom Butt, a liberal councilman in Richmond, decided that he was going to jump into the mayor's race, believing that only he could possibly win. At that point our candidates and our supporters all had some very long discussions over a period of three days, trying to figure out what to do. And in the end we decided that we did not want splitting the progressive vote to become the issue in the race. We wanted to run this race around the real issues, because we're essentially running to prevent Chevron from taking over control of the city and the city government. Chevron's already put in 1.6 million dollars, into a fund to elect candidates friendly to it, and that is the real issue in Richmond. And we didn't want people then debating the question of should the progressive vote have been divided between Tom Butt and Mike Parker.

Marie Choi: Did you see that coming, that Butt was going to enter the race?

Mike Parker: No, we didn't see it coming. Matter of fact, the week before we had every indication, from people very close to Tom, that he was not going to enter the race.

Marie Choi: And what is that relationship between Tom and you, or Tom and the RPA, really?

Mike Parker: Well, Tom has always been independent of Chevron. He hasn't always agreed with us about how to deal with Chevron. He has a good record on environmental issues. He has a good record on preserving historic buildings in Richmond. He has a good record on where development should be in Richmond. But we've also had disagreements with him about things like minimum wage, about the role of social movements, and the like. But he's somebody that we can work with, and he is not in Chevron's hip-pocket.

Andrés Soto: And, during the last term, frequently many of the votes ended up being five to two, where it was Chevron-supported people—Nat Bates, who's running for mayor, and then Corky Boozé, who's kind of the disrupter of all the Richmond City Council meetings, being on the losing end of these votes. And so, more often than not, Tom tends to vote along with the RPA, and while it was more a marriage of convenience, and one of, I think, pragmatic political calculus, having the notion that Nat Bates might win the race was really anathema to everybody. And we knew that they were going to have a lot of money behind their candidates. The candidates they have are really not that strong, but one thing we've learned from advertising is if you put enough money behind a product people will buy stuff that's not good for them. And that's exactly what Chevron's trying to do in this Richmond City Council race. Besides Nat Bates running for mayor, who's now 82 and sleeps through most City Council meetings, you have Charles Ramsey, who has been on the School Board for 20 years. He got arrested for prostitution in Oakland. He has now been subpoenaed—documents from the SEC—for shenanigans involving the School District's bond program. You've got Donna Powers, who hasn't lived in Richmond for the last 15 years. She's been out in Martinez, but she's going through a divorce, so she moved back to Richmond. And Chevron decided she would be a candidate for City Council even though, when she was on the council last time, she almost got kicked off the council for missing so many council meetings, and she had to cut a deal with the council majority to vote the way they wanted her to vote in order to keep her seat. And then Al Martinez, who's a former Richmond police officer, who got arrested for stealing cocaine out of the evidence locker. So these are the people that Chevron is running for City Council. The question then becomes: How do we get the message out about our candidates, Team Richmond, in order to counter-balance the bombardment of media advertisement that Chevron's engaging in, in Richmond?

Marie Choi: And I do want to get into the council races, and the money that's coming into this election. But I also want to hash out what the differences are between Tom Butt and the RPA, as well. Mike mentioned that one area in which there's disagreement is in the relationship to social movements. I mean, what is that disagreement?

Mike Parker: The RPA strongly believes that the way in which things get changed is by a partnership between a movement that exists in the city, and government officials, and we've always operated on that basis. So one of our techniques is to put forward legislation in the city, and to mobilize large numbers of people to come to those meetings. Tom thinks, in general, that that's not the right way to do things, that it should all be done by smart people sitting down and working out the details of things, and then bringing forward the results of their deliberations. We think that's a fine method, if it wasn't for all the power that's involved. We think that almost everything we want involves major amounts of power and challenging not only Chevron, but developers, the status quo, systemic racism. Challenging all kinds of things which have power in the society requires mobilizing other people, and getting people involved so that we can't be ignored. But I want to come back to this: that in this context, the context of this election, the issue here is whether we're going to let Chevron take back the City Council. That is the issue, and all the other differences are within the context of that fight, are questions of tactics and strategy within the overall battle to let Chevron control the city, or to let the people have at least some control over their lives.

Marie Choi: And one of the areas in which we've seen that strategy work out in Richmond is in the fight against Chevron, against the expansion of the refinery to refine dirtier, heavier crude oil. The recent Environmental Impact Report was passed by the City Council—the plan that Chevron wanted. What implications has that had for the strategy of the RPA?

Andrés Soto: It's had several iterations. First there was what Chevron wanted. That was not adopted by the Planning Commission, of whom all the members have been appointed by Gayle McLaughlin, our mayor who's a member of the RPA. And I think that's one of the critical things to understand about the mayor. The mayor is essentially, in Richmond, just the chairperson of the City Council. One of the few powers they actually have is to appoint members to commissions, of which the Planning Commission is the most important one. As a result of her appointees, we were able to adopt one of the most progressive general plans in the entire State of California—one of the first ones to have a health element, that's got bicycle and pedestrian plans, and parks master-plans, and a whole variety of progressive ideas in there. So when it came around to the Chevron project, because of the advocacy and the mobilization, the Planning Commission actually went with the recommendations that were put forth by the Richmond Environmental Justice Coalition. And it was called Alternative 11, which was viewed as a superior alternative by Attorney General Kamala Harris. But, with certain conditions, that people like CBE put forth (Communities for a Better Environment), and that is what was adopted by the Planning Commission. Of course, this was then anathema to Chevron, so they went to work on their people in the City Council, and leveraging. First they put up 20 million dollars, then it was 40 million dollars, 60 million dollars. It ended up being 90 million dollars in a communtiy benefits program. And, with that, they diluted those recommendations and adopted something that will actually allow them to increase more toxic emissions. Now, since that time, Chevron has reached out because they want to avoid litigation, because there are litigatable issues here. And so, there are the beginnings of some negotiations with Chevron to see if some of these issues can be changed. And one of the benefits of having some of the people like Tom Butt, who voted for that package: it will take a motion of reconsideration, and that can only be done by a person who voted in the affirmative, for the majority, to actually make that kind of motion for reconsideration, to make any modifications to the agreement, to the program that was adopted.

Marie Choi: So are you expecting Tom Butt, then, to make that motion for reconsideration around the Environmental Impact Report?

Andrés Soto: It's way too premature at this point. The conversations around negotiations are just beginning, and there have been no sustantive decisions made at this point. But, should we come to some kind of mutual agreement, it would require that kind of procedural action, and it could be Tom Butt or it could be any of the others who voted in the affirmative.

Marie Choi: Passage of Chevron's Environmental Impact Report changed RPA's strategy. The fight around Chevron, from what I've seen, the strategy has been to build a large base of grassroots support, and to mobilize folks to pressure the City Council, where you have the support of the mayor and you have a supportive councilmember. And then you also have a crew of lawyers working in the courts to try and get court injunctions to stop the expansion.

Andrés Soto: Right, and also having scientific data to support what the improvements to the project could be.

Marie Choi: And so, so much of this was geared toward not giving them permits, sort of slowing down the process, to stopping the process at any point possible. And now that their EIR has been approved and that Chevron is going forward with their project, is there a re-evaluation that's taking place around the question of strategy?

Mike Parker: Well, we should be clear that Chevron is a living operation, and is always having to build, and is always having to change, and that's one of the reasons why, even though it won a lot of what it wanted on this EIR, it's also so concerned about taking over the City Council—because, in one year or two years or whenever, there are all kinds of ways in which the city can actually impinge on Chevron's operations. We lost the big opportunity with this permit, to basically get a much cleaner refinery. Let me be clear: the RPA's position has always been that what we want is for that refinery to continue operating, but to operate on a basis that it's continually cleaning up, that it's continually producing less greenhouse gasses, and that it becomes safer. We're not trying to just push it out in a not-my-backyard thing. What we're trying to say is that we have to do something globally about greenhouse gasses and locally about all the pollution. And the way to handle that is for Chevron to move and spend its money on those operations. We didn't win everything we could have won in that last negotiation because we didn't have enough members on the City Council willing to stand firm on those things. There was more we could have won in the negotiation. But we did win a lot, we did get a lot cleaner project than we would have had when this thing started in 2007, much cleaner. But there's still a long way to go. So we're going to take them on, on every question. We'll work with them, but we're going to say: show us where this makes the refinery safer, show us where this makes the refinery cleaner, show us where this produces less greenhouse gasses. Show us where you're actually providing Richmond residents jobs, where you're actually training people for the good jobs that exist at the refinery, rather than just counting all of the dead-end jobs and then adding those up and saying: this is our contribution to Richmond. And then we have to take them on, on the tax questions, which is a whole other discussion. I don't know if you want to do that.

Andrés Soto: But I also wanted to add that when you get into the strategic consideration is, no, I don't think this has changed our strategy at all in terms of developing a base of engaged community members who are directly impacting their local government. I mean, that's the way government's supposed to function in a democracy. We don't want a plutocracy, we don't want a technocracy. What we want is an active and vibrant democracy in Richmond. That's what the RPA's been building, that's what we engage in. We have to use people power to counteract their money. And that's just the way politics are. Either you have money, or you've got people. And we have the people, and they've got the money. And so, right now we have people out on the streets going door-to-door on a daily basis to reach out into the community, to educate them about our candidates, about the issues, in order to counteract what I call the carpet-bombing of Richmond. Right now there's billboards all over town that they have been controlling for two years. With a whole series of media campaigns that roll out over the several months, and they change them up. And it's all leading up to now promoting their candidates for City Council. So we know that that's the environment we have to operate within, and that's our way of counteracting their money. I mean, to put it in context: the 1.6 million they're going to spend in this election—in 2013 they spent two and a half million dollars, Chevron did, in Sacramento influencing statewide politics. So they're spending more than half of that in a local City Council race. And I think that's a testament to the power and strength of people power that we've developed in Richmond. They are so afraid that they have to spend obscene amounts of money to try to steal this election.

Marie Choi: And, in order to capture that council majority that Mike referred to, that you referred to in terms of what people are going out to knock doors for right now...

Andrés Soto: Knock on doors, not knock doors.

Marie Choi: ...to knock on doors to do, explain to me what the calculus is right now, around the City Council in this particular election. You all are running candidates for three seats.

Mike Parker: Correct.

Andrés Soto: And the mayor's race, so four out of seven seats.

Mike Parker: We're running people on our program for three seats, the three regular four-year terms. In addition, we are urging people to vote for Tom Butt to defeat Nat Bates, who is Chevron's candidate, and to vote for Jael Myrick to defeat Corky Boozé, who has been Chevron's candidate for the last four years even if they're being quiet about him because he's such an embarrassment.

Marie Choi: Are those seats going to be enough?

Andrés Soto: There's only seven seats on the council, so you need four to have an operational majority.

Marie Choi: Right, so if you win the three seats, and you can count on...

Mike Parker: If we win the three seats, and we can work with Tom Butt, and then Tom Butt's seat will be open, so we will then try to negotiate for another seat on the council, for the council's appointment, or there'll be a special election which we expect we can win. Either way, if we do our job, we will win control of the council so that we can carry the progressive platform and the progressive program through. The problem is, people underestimate, I think, the extent to which Chevron is able to spend money to buy support. They will spend money to pay for votes. For instance, come the election, like they have in the past, they will give people slips of money or bags of groceries in exchange for a voting ticket, and organize in that way. They are hiring Richmond residents and paying them 13 dollars an hour to go door-to-door to pretend like they're a grassroots community group. The reality is, of course, many of those people who are working for Chevron have told us that they are actually voting for us in this election. But, when you put out enough literature, over and over, and you make up things about the candidates, as they're doing now, and every day the mail includes some lie, enough people believe it to at least sort of back away. And that's our big problem, that Chevron can create a sense of cynicism about the City Council, a sense of cynicism about politics, that people just won't participate. We depend on people believing that Richmond has moved forward in the past ten years, significantly because people have been involved. We depend on people believing that their participation in politics actually makes a difference. Chevron's role is to try to convince people that they're really powerless, and that anybody that's there is really just some ugly politician, and that, therefore, why bother getting involved?

Marie Choi: And part of your success in being able to do that, and being able to convince people that their participation makes a difference is that you all have created an option outside of this two-party, let's take the lesser of the two evils kind of situation, and to say: okay, let's actually support candidates that we can actually fully get behind.

Andrés Soto: Well, you know, the RPA was created in an environment where Richmond has the highest Democratic Party registration of any city in the Bay Area. And yet the strings were all being pulled by these Republican-controlled corporate interests. And so, since the local City Council and mayoral races are non-partisan, what we did was we created an organization, a political organization based on values, on progressive values. So we know that there's a whole lot of people in the community who share those kind of values, and it was real easy for people to buy into it because they had become cyncical, because it didn't matter whether the members of the council were European Americans, African Americans, or Latinos, if they could be bought by Chevron, they would sell their own people out. And so what we are doing is saying we need to break down the politics of racial division, the politics of class division, and focus on a politic of pro-people, pro-community kind of values, supporting families. As a result of the investments in the kind of programs and changes in, like, the police department, homicides are at the lowest they've been since 1970. Richmond had a reputation, and in many peoples' minds still has a reputation as crime and violence and pollution. Well, we've been tackling the pollution issues for more than a decade, and now we're seeing crime and violence go down, businesses are flourishing, we have the highest per-capita solar installation in California. So these are the kind of changes that, when people come to Richmond, they begin to feel and experience those kind of changes. And that's what helps the progressive movement continue to move and grow.

Marie Choi: And even for someone like me, who generally is not that excited about electoral politics, Richmond has been one of these places that's been incredibly hopeful because of the work that you all have done. And so, I wonder, in a scenario—when I heard you were dropping out, Mike, I was like: really? I was like, man, the other guy should drop out! But, it brought me back to that place of cynicism, of like, God, why is the RPA now asking people to vote for the lesser of the two evils, or the party that we can negotiate with, or whatever you want to call it? I mean, have you seen a change in momentum on the ground?

Mike Parker: Well, what we've seen in Richmond is that people are very clear that the enemy is Chevron's domination of Richmond's politics. People are clear on that, and that is why people are coming together. And that's why we made that decision. We are still running our three candidates, and we're running them based on a full program having to do with questions of the environment, having to do with questions of racism in the city, having to do with support for the unions, believing that people have to organize themselves and get support from their government as the way to make change, rather than demobilizing themselves and waiting for the government to make change. So we're still pushing ahead. That's our message when we go door-to-door. But we are telling people that we understand what the big battle in Richmond is, because we are up against the 1.6 million program. And, by the way, 1.6 million dollars is just what they've officially put into this one campaign fund. It doesn't count all of their networks, all the money they give to various groups to do their bidding. We think it's probably closer to four or five million dollars of direct funds. And then, on top of that, they've put in their so-called good works funds which they buy off other non-profits and get their silence. So we're up against a lot, and we need more help. We need more people in Richmond, and we need people outside of Richmond to go with us door-to-door so we do knock on every single door, so we do talk to everybody.

Marie Choi: Looking ahead, beyond the November elections, what are the big issues going to be—facing Richmond, aside from Chevron, which we've talked about at length?

Andrés Soto: Well, certainly right now the battle about the crude-by-rail is impacting the entire Bay Area, and in Richmond in specific, with the Kinder Morgan operation. But it's also really about improving our schools and improving the performance in our schools, not just building school buildings. And, frankly, there still needs to be a whole lot of community development. We need renters protected from capricious landlords. 55% of Richmond are renters, and we have virtually no renter protection. Efforts to try to get things like just-cause eviction have never really reached fruition because we haven't had enough progressives in place to make that happen. People are afraid of the realtors and the real-estate industry. And so really the quality of life issues that we've been building upon are some of the ones that we want to see further developed.

Mike Parker: I just want to add that Doctors Hospital, and keeping a community hospital in West County, is at the top of our list. The fact that it's being closed down is only because the medical system is broken, and Doctors Hospital was serving a low-wage, indigent community. And the fact that they're closing that down will very very much hurt the entire West County, including people who have medical care through insurance plans, and at Kaiser. If people go to TeamRichmond.net, you'll find we have a button up there which says Priorities, where we talk about some of the policies that will help make Richmond move forward even faster.