Before Tony Thurmond was appointed to the Richmond City Council in 2004, he was a political newbie. He’d done work in the non-profit world, and on the county commission on child-abuse prevention, but that’s not why he thinks then-mayor Irma Anderson tapped him to fill the last two years of Mindell Penn’s council term after he retired.
It was because he hadn’t made any enemies yet.
“In my case, [getting appointed to city council] didn’t have anything to do with what I’d done,” said Thurmond, who now serves on the West Contra Costa County school board. “In fact being new to the scene helped me, I think, because I didn’t have much history with anybody.”
The process of appointing a replacement to city council is fraught with insider politics, since any newcomer must be ratified by a majority of the sitting council – meaning a nominee has to be neutral enough to be accepted by all the factions of the body. It’s a head-scratching, curious and at times highly emotional affair – one in which inexperience can count as a plus, political loyalty is tested, and cronyism can run rampant.
And it could happen again this year.
With many City Hall insiders predicting that Councilman Nat Bates will run for mayor against incumbent Gayle McLaughlin this fall, the possibility emerges that, should he run and ultimately win, Bates’ council seat would be vacated, and the newly elected council would have to find a replacement right away. If he runs for mayor and loses, Bates could still return to fulfill his term on the council, which has two years remaining.
While appointing a new council member without any voter input hasn’t always been a popular move, it isn’t terribly uncommon. As recently as 2006, McLaughlin appointed Harpreet Sandhu to fulfill her term on the council once she’d been elected mayor.
There seems not to be any formula to choosing a council replacement; replacements have come from backgrounds in non-profit work, education, and even the business world. According to some former council members, extra consideration is often given to the next-highest vote-getter in the general election, although even that seems to have little bearing on the council’s selections in recent years. (Neither Sandhu nor Thurmond – the last two appointees – finished as runners-up in a November election).
“I suspect that the council members look at what a [nominee] has done in their community,” Thurmond said. “Do they have the experience for this hard job? Do they have experience in fiscal management? Are they familiar with the issues? And realistically, they also want to think about their relationship with them. That’ll all factor into the conversation.”
John Ziesenhenne, a former councilman (1981-1993) whose name has been floated as a potential mayoral candidate, remembered that when Richard Griffin, a school teacher and member of the Laurel Park Neighborhood Council, was appointed to a council position in 1981, it owed as much to his personality as his politics. “We went through a lot of people before we found someone the majority of council could vote for,” Ziesenhenne said. “Rich had a very respectful personality – a very caring personality. That’s why he kept getting re-elected.”
Gary Bell, another former councilman — who has declared he is running for election again this year — served on the council in 2001 when the Rev. Charles Belcher was appointed to fill the remainder of Alex Evans’ term after Evans resigned. Belcher, who was the pastor of the Resurrection African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Richmond at the time, was unanimously voted in by the council, despite having little background in politics. “He sort of came out of the blue,” Bell said of Belcher’s nomination.
This year, however, Bell figures there won’t be any such surprises. With a full slate of council candidates already declared for the race, he says finding an extra hand, if one ends up being needed, won’t be hard to do. “It’ll be a pretty crowded field this year,” Bell said. “They’ll have a lot of people who will have demonstrated that they’re interested in the job. I certainly hope it’s not going to be the kind of politics where they’d pick somebody out of the shadows.”
But handicapping such a scenario takes on added difficulty this year because it involves predicting how a number of moving parts may ultimately interact. With only council members Bates, Tom Butt and Jeff Ritterman locked into their seats, it’s hard to say what ideological faction will control the council’s majority after November.
“All these people [running for council seats] will have supporters on the council,” Bell said. “If Bates is able to win and becomes mayor, more than likely, it’ll come down to who’s still on the council? A lot of different scenarios could play out.”
With that said, here are some names being floated by City Hall insiders as replacements the council might consider:
Jovanka Beckles – Beckles, who lost out on a council seat in 2008 by about 400 votes, will try again this year, and has an impressive list of credentials: She’s the president of the Richmond Heights neighborhood council, and serves on both the city’s planning and economic development commissions. One question is whether her strong environmental creds may tip her hand in the Point Molate casino plan – one that has divided the council and will likely be a major factor in any nomination.
Gary Bell – Ran unsuccessfully for a mayoral bid in 2006 after five years on City Council. Bell, who has announced his candidacy for city council this year, has a background in banking, and currently works as the chief executive of a financial collective, Co-Op Credit Union, in Berkeley. His ’06 platform centered on creating and retaining business in Richmond – a theme that should play well in 2010 – as well as fighting crime and blight.
Virginia Finlay – Finlay, who has declared her candidacy for City Council, works as a real estate agent for Signature Realty Services in Richmond, and has served on the city’s Planning Commission for 16 years. She is also on the board of directors for the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
Rhonda Harris – Harris, a well-known local businesswoman, is the CEO of R.F. and Associates, a property-development firm in Richmond. She also helped found the Richmond Community-Based Employment Collaborative, and is involved with the city’s neighborhood coordinating council and the local NAACP.
John Marquez – Former council member couldn’t quite win his seat back in 2008, and has some baggage with the council: In early 2009, Marquez complained to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission about a campaign mailer sent out by Councilman Jim Rogers in support of Jovanka Beckles, claiming Rogers had illegally set up an independent expenditure committee on her behalf. Depending on who ultimately wins council seats this year, that history could either help or hurt Marquez.
John Ziesenhenne – Rumors swirled about earlier in the year that Ziesenhenne, a former council member and CEO of M.A. Hays Insurance Company in Richmond, was considering a mayoral run of his own this fall. For now, he says he’s staying put in the business world, but Ziesenhenne, who has been active in a number of arts programs in Richmond throughout the years, could remain an attractive candidate to return to the council.
It remains to be seen whether the uncertainty surrounding the mayor’s race will have much affect on how council candidates run their campaigns – after all, a candidate who has spent weeks attacking the council could well find themselves in front of the same people, needing their vote of support.
Of course, making political about-faces is nothing new to the Richmond City Council.
“Richmond has a strange set of politics. There’ve been all kinds of scenarios where people who were once allies become rivals, and rivals become allies,” Bell said, evoking the warring political camps of Bates and Councilman Butt. “I mean, Nat and Tom sometimes agree on stuff.”