When the official returns came in on Wednesday morning, Richmond voters had decided that after the most expensive campaign in city history, what they wanted was familiar faces.
Incumbents Nat Bates and Tom Butt were re-elected to the City Council, and Gary Bell, who will return to the dais after an eight-year hiatus, will take the seat vacated by retiring Councilmember Jeff Ritterman. The city’s proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, Measure N, was defeated.
Money was a major talking point of this year’s election. More than $4 million in independent expenditures from outside committees flooded the City Council race and Measure N. But the actual story of the money is more complex. Some – including the victorious candidates — said that in the final tally, name recognition and incumbency served as a greater predictor of success than corporate expenditures. “People know me, they trust me, they respect me,” said Bates, who will serve his eighth term on the council.
The Chevron-funded group Moving Forward spent $80,000 promoting candidate Bea Roberson, who finished sixth — and she said the base of supporters for Bates and Butt is what got them re-elected, not the money. “Bates will be elected because he’s the godfather of the City Council,” Roberson said. “And Tom Butt is almost the same. He has a big following.”
Others, though, were critical of the role that money from outside interest groups played in the City Council race.
In an email to supporters Wednesday, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin wrote, “The onslaught of $4 million of corporate money on our local campaigns has impacted the election results here in Richmond.”
McLaughlin called the campaigns by Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates Eduardo Martinez and Marilyn Langlois “inspiring” and “heroic” but concluded, “this level of corporate money proved too massive for us to overcome.”
Moving Forward, backed by $1.6 million from Chevron, spent $1.4 million on the race, funding campaign literature, billboards and posters in support of Bates, Roberson and Bell and opposing Martinez and Langlois.
But for once Chevron’s campaign contributions were overshadowed: the largest expenditures in the election were in opposition to Measure N, the controversial ballot measure that was defeated by a two-thirds vote. The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, which received $2.4 million from the American Beverage Association, spent close to $2.7 million to defeat the “soda tax.”
“What happened in California, in Richmond and in El Monte, is a continuation of what we have seen around the country since 2008,” said Karen Hanretty, vice president of public affairs at the American Beverage Association. “I hope other policy makers in California, and around the country, really take to heart that they are not going to be able to get a consensus from voters.”
RPA members, like the retiring Ritterman, said afterward that they were perhaps the most frustrated by the amount of money spent in the election. Ritterman argued that the campaign mailers against Martinez — who finished in fourth, 600 votes behind Gary Bell — cost him the election. “Let’s say hypothetically it was reversed and there was a hit piece say every week on Gary Bell,” he said. “There is a good chance you can influence 600 voters, I would think.”
Moving Forward spent $422,000 in support of Bell and $143,000 in opposition to Martinez.
When the new councilmembers are sworn in on Jan. 8, the RPA will lose one of its councilmembers, but Vice Mayor Jim Rogers said he thinks this won’t have an effect on the council dynamic — and Butt agreed.
“While I am disappointed with some of the results, I don’t expect to see a sea change in the political direction of the City Council,” Butt said in his Wednesday e-forum. “Only one face will change and I don’t anticipate Gary Bell to represent a radical departure from many of the policy decisions that have been moving Richmond forward over the last four years.”
Rogers stressed that the council’s dynamic–which at times is contentious–does not get in the way of its ability to get things done. He pointed to the city’s reduction in crime and increase in jobs despite the economic recession of the past four years as an example of this.
“It appears that we are dysfunctional and fight,” he said, “but when you get down to it, Richmond is on a roll.”