At its first public meeting since the Aug. 6 Chevron refinery fire and a Measure N—referred to as the “soda tax”—lawsuit filed against the city, Tuesday night’s hotly anticipated City Council meeting painted for the Richmond community a clear portrait of its pending election season.
“Trends are already beginning to form,” said Councilmember Tom Butt after the meeting about the strong positions taken by many of the candidates. Butt was ready to define his own reelection campaign as the middle ground in a divided city.
“On one side you have the pro-Chevron establishment candidates like Bell, Bates, Boozé and Roberson and then on the other side you have the two RPA candidates,” he said. “I’m the sweet spot.”
Nine of the 11 council candidates attended Tuesday’s meeting. Marilyn Langlois, Gary Bell, Bea Roberson, Mark Wassberg, Eleanor Thompson and Mike Ali-Kinney all took the opportunity to speak during public forum, while current Councilmembers Butt and Nat Bates spoke from the council dais.
As the council considered amending the city’s industrial safety ordinance following the Chevron fire, Councilmembers and candidates were clearly divided between acting now and waiting until the investigation into the Chevron incident by the Chemical Safety Board was complete.
Councilmember Corky Boozé argued against the amendment, and was joined by Councilmember Nat Bates.
The CSB “came in from Washington,” Bates said. “Why are we going to jump ahead of the experts?”
Boozé and Bates were vocal from the outset, and tried to draw sharp contrasts between themselves and other councilmembers.
“They don’t care about poor people,” Boozé said from the dais and gestured to his RPA opponents.
Councilmember Jeff Ritterman, an RPA member who has repeatedly clashed with Boozé in the past, is not running for re-election and said the Bates and Boozé alliance was all part of the game.
“You’ll see that Bates and Boozé are attacking Butt, saying he’s getting special privileges,” Ritterman said. “It’s all part of the politics.”
Measure N, as it has all year, continued to play another part in the politicking. In a closed-door executive session before the meeting, the council discussed the city’s defense against a campaign disclosure lawsuit filed by the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin had removed the discussion from the public agenda at the start of the meeting and directed staff not to talk about the closed session. Boozé and Bates objected, saying it was the city’s duty to the citizens of Richmond to remain transparent on the issue, but City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller said that Councilmembers could not talk about the issue due to attorney-client privilege.
Having clearly separated themselves from the progressive alliance that now controls the council, Boozé and Bates hope to capitalize on the election not just to keep Bates in his seat but to add to their ranks by electing Bea Roberson, who aligns with Bates and Boozé on several issues.
“My goal is getting my team together and up there on the Council,” Boozé said.
But candidate Marilyn Langlois, one of two RPA candidates whose election might help the progressives achieve a four-seat council majority, said she was skeptical about speakers’ intentions at the meeting.
“There’s always the difficulty of seeing if people are speaking because they’re really looking out for the best interests of all of the Richmond residents,” she said. “Or are they just trying to carry votes with one constituency or another?”
And though they’re on opposite sides of the Richmond political spectrum for now, Nat Bates said he agreed.
“You’re going to find a lot of politicking between now and the election, people using anything and everything to try and get an advantage,” he said. “It will probably even get nasty, but that’s the nature of politics.”