Mike “Raccoon Eyes” Kinney is not a typical candidate for Richmond city council.
He wears 17 medicine bags around his neck and a beret on his head.
Ask the lifelong Richmond resident why he’s running for office for the first time, and expect an impassioned soliloquy, with pitched intonations and kinetic gestures that cut through the cigarette smoke.
Kinney, 58, has a cup of coffee in one hand and a filter cigarette in the other, but neither calms his restless arms. “I represent the last hope of any form of people’s democracy of this community,” Kinney says, bolting from his chair outside a taqueria on San Pablo Avenue, taking the higher ground near the curb a few paces away.
Born in Richmond to a Cherokee father and mother who worked as a music teacher, Kinney calls his campaign “Rise to Power,” borrowing the phrase from the historic resistance of Tecumseh, the Shawnee Chief who created a Confederation of Native tribes to oppose white encroachment on their lands in the 19th Century.
As for his platform, Kinney has some specific ideas. He says he will demand an independent audit of the General Fund budget for the last five years, which he says should reveal “corruption” and mismanagement by the current elected government. Kinney also says he’ll push for a moratorium on property taxes for three years. As for the Indian Gaming casino plans that have been hotly contested in Richmond over the years, Kinney is a firm backer, saying he always supports “Native sovereignty, autonomy and self determination.”
“I see the current city council as a racist and colonial government, offensive and insulting in this community,” Kinney said, his voice rising to ensure the full attention of his audience of one. “It’s like in Richmond we are in a time warp of the 1950s, and we’re still hearing James Brown singing ‘It’s a man’s world’ and a preacher in Atlanta saying it’s time for oppressed people to get organized. We are a great southern city of the west, and I am the embodiment of this movement.”
That’s Kinney in a few sentences: He generally despises the current council, he is adamant about Civil Rights and free speech, and his native heritage is the battery-pack that drives his engine.
After years as a local gadfly and activist for Native empowerment and community peace efforts, Kinney has built a reputation in this town. Kinney is known to attend public events in all neighborhoods of town, and can often be found leading education groups and other activities at the Native American Wellness Center near downtown.
His friends and allies see him as a gifted public speaker and tireless force for Richmond’s often overlooked Native American community, while his critics see him as a political lightweight who traffics in sometimes-incendiary rhetoric.
He is set for a November race that shouldn’t lack for fireworks. Three seats are in play, those of Tom Butt, Nat Bates and Jeff Ritterman. Ritterman has already announced that he will not seek re-election.
At his best, Kinney can be a rousing voice who can stir support, whether in the local Native Wellness Center, in churches or on a street corner. At the funeral for North Richmond icon Fred Jackson in 2011, Kinney drew a standing ovation with his eulogy in North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church.
“It was when Fred died that everything switched up for me,” Kinney said, clutching at one of the medicine bags hanging from his neck. “I decided to run a campaign to continue his legacy of stitching together all threads of humanity. The current council fails to understand, to connect with the culture of the city.”
Kinney lays blame for that “disconnect” on the Progressive Alliance, the powerful grassroots political force that backs Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Ritterman and Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles. He calls them “the Greens,” a reference to the Green Party, and regularly attends council meetings to lambaste them for their “colonial mindset.”
Kinney is a political contradiction of sorts. While seemingly to the far left in terms of social issues, Civil Rights, and immigration issues, he wants to slash taxes and shrink government. Rooting out corruption and making government more efficient are themes he hits on time and time again.
But most of all, Kinney pledges to represent a constituency that hasn’t had a representative to call their own. “There are 20,000 people here with Native blood, and they have no voice, no advocate in elected government,” Kinney said. “I am a symbol of everyone who is angry, frustrated and pissed off.”
Asked about that number, Kinney said it was an estimate, taking a broad view of what constitutes Native blood. Many whites, African Americans and Latinos have Native Americans sprinkled throughout their family tree, he said, even though they may not self-identify as Native Americans.
With that, Kinney hopped on his bike and pedaled north on San Pablo Avenue.