Gayle McLaughlin is in for a fight.
The upcoming election is nothing like her historic win in 2006, which made her one of the most prominent Green Party officials in the country.
This time, the Chicago native has had to rally harder against longtime Richmond politicians, and fend off searing personal attacks from the police and fire department unions.
But Richmond voters need her, she said, and finishing what she started four years ago is reason enough to forge ahead.
“I think it would certainly set us back,” she said about the prospect of losing. “We worked so hard to get here.”
At the downtown offices of the Progressive Alliance in late September, the mayor said she expects to win.
“I don’t think the people of Richmond would allow such a setback to occur,” she said. “I think they know what’s at stake in this election.”
What’s at stake is a crippled economy, an unemployment rate hovering around 18 percent and underfunded public schools.
The mayor asserts she is the person for the job.
At the time, a confident McLaughlin, wearing her signature blazer and colorful scarf, sat unaware of an investigation designed to unravel her carefully woven campaign.
An announcement on October 5 revealed court documents showing McLaughlin has a history of depression, sizable student loan debt and a spotty employment history.
The caustic exposé was orchestrated in part by the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA) and International Association of Firefighters Local 188, who spent $10,000 to investigate McLaughlin and another $5,000 to investigate council candidate Jovanka Beckles.
McLaughlin has responded to the revelations in a letter on her Web site.
“I know that you will look at my record in office over the last six years and judge me on the merits of my consistent hard work and achievements,” she said in the online post.
Councilmember Jeff Ritterman also wrote a letter to voters criticizing the police and firefighter associations for what he called “character assassination.”
Right now, the goal is to focus on her campaign, McLaughlin said, and on how to best serve the needs of Richmond residents.
Anything else is a distraction, she said, edging the conversation in a more positive direction.
McLaughlin, who champions environmental issues, prefers to focus on her accomplishments and efforts toward a better Richmond.
The mayor cites a reduced homicide rate, a balanced budget with no layoffs, and 700 newly-licensed businesses as accomplishments of her term.
McLaughlin also proudly explained how her team led citywide renovations. They restored six local community centers, the historic Plunge swimming pool, the Civic Center complex, the Richmond transit station and Macdonald Avenue Streetscape, she said.
But to critics, the success of McLaughlin’s four years in office is overblown.
Candidate for city council Virginia Finlay said the mayor’s open stand against big business has adversely affected unemployment. Finlay said the mayor’s unwillingness to negotiate on key issues of environmental cleanup is a turn off to businesses willing to set up in Richmond.
Critics also assert that the mayor has grossly underestimated the needs of the city and presses for utopian solutions to issues like education, jobs and crime. Much of the sentiment is linked to McLaughlin’s push for green energy jobs.
Candidate for city council Maria Viramontes voiced her opposition.
“It will be deeply disappointing to me if we wind up [with a mayor] that says ‘environment at every other price’ — that price always falls on African Americans, Hispanics and low-income communities. We already are paying the price; we will not pay a new one,” she said.
The mayor co-founded Solar Richmond, a local nonprofit that provides training for green jobs. She lights up as she mentions the city’s place as number one in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita.
The mayor maintains that she is not pushing an all-green agenda, but instead represents a new economic model, one that is less reliant on major industries like Chevron.
“I’m looking for the full realm of jobs and businesses, but definitely focusing on where the jobs are and where the economic resurgence is happening.”
Ritterman, a staunch supporter of McLaughlin, said her willingness to take on hard issues and major corporations makes her the best candidate for office.
“We’re moving in the right direction and I think we should continue to so,” he said. “I don’t think any of the other candidates will be able to deliver in that way.”
McLaughlin is not afraid of the title “not-your-average politician.” Being progressive is the reason she entered politics in the first place, she said.
“Unless you think ahead and think outside of the box you can fall behind,” McLaughlin said. “I’m making it my job to stay on top of all these efforts and bring quality of life to our neighborhoods.”