Mark Wassberg finishes the knot with his teeth and steps back from the chain-link fence. He stands quietly for a moment and inspects his work as a wave of cars passes by. It’s a warm cloudless afternoon a month before Election Day and two posters emblazoned with the message MARK WASSBERG 4 CITY COUNCIL gleam in the sun.
Wassberg is running a decidedly low-budget, low-profile campaign for City Council. On the ballot, he left his candidate statement blank. He’s raised no money. To date, his campaign expenditures total $350 that he scraped together and spent almost exclusively on handmade signs.
Wassberg’s political aspirations started last year, he says, when the City Council passed an ordinance authorizing a program that granted ID cards to people, including undocumented immigrants.
“The City Council did more for illegal aliens than for their own citizens,” Wassberg says. “The City Council is going against the oath they took,” he adds, “to uphold the constitution of the United States of America.”
He cites the ordinance as the catalyst that launched his first run for public office. “I’m out to support Constitutional law,” Wassberg says.
When not working on signs or biking to candidate events, the 56-year-old Richmond native can usually be found on the Contra Costa College campus, where he has been a student since 2006.
On a Tuesday afternoon, students mill between buildings and classes. In the art building, the video-editing lab is dark except for one glowing screen. Class doesn’t start for several hours, but Wassberg is already there. He huddles over the keyboard, face awash in the blue glow of the computer screen, playing back clips of police tape, whirring lights and bodies covered by sheets.
Wassberg is an aspiring filmmaker and has been working on a documentary about homicides in Richmond for nearly eight years. “In my own personal opinion, the Iron Triangle is one of the deadliest places in the U.S.,” Wassberg says. Armed with a police scanner and his camera, he used to park his ‘66 Chevy pickup in the Iron Triangle and wait.
“You don’t see Michael Moore, you don’t see Spike Lee down here. I got a chance to do something that Hollywood won’t do,” he says as shaky footage reveals a sheet-covered body. No matter the outcome of the election, he plans to submit the film to festivals.
The overhead lights turn on as a student enters the room. Another class is about to start, so Wassberg takes one last look at the screen. He’ll be back to work on it later.
“Let’s go recycling,” he says.
He packs up his equipment, returns it to his locker and heads outside. It’s just after lunch and students sit outside in the sun. Walking down a path, Wassberg notices a discarded Gatorade bottle in the grass. He picks it up and keeps walking, past a group of trashcans and recycling bins, out past the first row of cars in the parking lot, to a large bush.
Wassberg disappears into the greenery and quickly emerges holding a large black trash bag.
“Gatorade is where the money is at,” he says, smiling as he drops the empty bottle into the bag, referring to the bottle’s weight. The thicker plastic will fetch a higher price. The bag is nearly full after a month of early afternoon strolls across campus. He carries the bag with him, peering into trash bins and occasionally stopping to dig down a layer or two to retrieve a bottle. The students ignore him. After hitting all the usual spots, Wassberg heads for a large group of bushes away from the main path. “I’ve got stash spots all over campus.”
Wassberg is unemployed and makes a couple of hundred dollars per month by bringing recyclables to a center in Richmond. “It’s kind of embarrassing, but hell with it,” he says. “You do what you gotta do to stay alive.”
Times weren’t always this tight. Wassberg worked at several factories when he was younger, and for a contractor for Chevron for a couple of years. “I always had a job, had money,” he said. “In the ‘80s there were jobs everywhere.”
When the factory and contractor jobs ended, he decided to learn a trade. He enrolled at Contra Costa College and spent 13 years as an auto mechanic. In 2003, he moved out of the auto business to work as a cameraman on a public access TV show. That’s when he started paying attention to the homicide rate and spending his nights glued to a police scanner. The show he was working was canceled, but Wassberg was engrossed by his newfound passion.
He worked on his film full time while he looked for other work. He lived on savings until it ran out. “Everything just dried up,” he says.
Wassberg’s ’66 Chevy pickup has a flat tire and is parked behind a bicycle shop in El Sobrante. Inside the cab, underneath rumpled piles of clothing spread from door to door, lies a stack of bright white posters. He pulls the stack out of the window and sets them on the truck’s hood, then dives back in.
Wassberg has lived out of the truck for the last six years, leaving it parked in the lot in exchange for keeping it tidy and keeping vagrants out. He finds spray paint in the cab and assembles his materials: the white posters, two cans of paint and a stencil cut from another poster. He’s running his own campaign, putting up his signs, making appearances at candidate’s nights. He went to the City Council meeting in early October to make his case to the public. After making a fiery campaign speech urging the public to vote for him, he was escorted out by the police for electioneering inside the council chambers.
Wassberg barely made it on the ballot and his campaign has survived on the generosity of others. He found the required signatures easily enough, but had a friend front him the $336 filing fee. City Councilmember Nat Bates, who is also running for reelection, bought Wassberg two shirts and two ties to wear while on the stump.
At candidates’ nights or on the street talking to voters, Wassberg tends to begin with his dissatisfaction with the current City Council. “I’m against the RPA, against the soda tax, and against illegal immigration,” he says.
The first thing he would do as a councilmember would be to end the municipal identification program and reestablish cooperation between Richmond Police and federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Wassberg says.
“It’s not about prejudice, it’s about regarding the U.S. Constitution,” he says
On Cutting Boulevard, the late afternoon sun is beginning dip towards the horizon, throwing long shadows across the street. Rush hour means more eyes looking at his signs and, as another wave of traffic approaches Wassberg moves out of the way, so as not to block their view.
Across the street, a big colorful sign from the Police and Firemen’s Unions endorses Bea Roberson, Nat Bates and Gary Bell. Wassberg stops mid-sentence to stare at it. This is a race he’s not likely to win, but that’s not stopping him.
“It’s all about reaching out to the people, you know?” he says. “I might just pull an upset.”