Election recap: Voters seek familiar faces

Richmond residents elected Nat Bates, Tom Butt and Gary Bell.

Richmond residents elected Nat Bates, Tom Butt and Gary Bell.

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.”

4 Comments

  1. We hear so much about the “hit” pieces, the billboards and the number of mailers.

    All are means of getting a message to the people. What’s the real difference between getting you face seen on a small billboard or getting it seen when you get up in front of the TV cameras and speak a half dozen times at the Council meetings? What’s the difference between getting your message heard when you talk to people on their front porch or when you send your message written on a glossy mailer?

    We often hear so much about mailers that describe something bad about a candidate but what we don’t really hear about is whether that bad thing is true or not. Many times these bad truths are important to know about a candidate. Two years ago as well as this year we heard about a candidate that had trouble managing their personal finances but wanted us to believe that they could handle the City’s finances without a hitch. Two years and this year we heard about candidates with beliefs that made some of us consider the character of the candidate and made us wonder if we wanted this to be the voice and face of our City.

    When we learn that a candidate never arrives at a meeting having done their homework beforehand or fails to even show up for meetings they’ve asked to be appointed to participate in this may give us pause to question whether we want that candidate to serve in another capacity.

    Sometimes these can be important matters to consider so bemoaning the fact that this information becomes public may not be as bad as the naysayers try to make it out to be.

    When lies and distortions are distributed, that’s when we should all take a stand but when truths are brought out into the sunshine where everyone can see them BEFORE that person is elected, that may be an important part of the electoral process.

    • Mr. Martin

      Don,

      1. What percentage of Richmond voters watch or attend council meetings, let alone on a regular basis? Its a tiny, tiny fraction. It would shock me if it were more than 5%.

      2. What percentage of Richmond voters collect their mail out of their mailboxes on a daily basis? Pretty much every single one. 100%.

      That being said, I believe that your argument that speaking at council meetings is as effective as the massive Chevron sponsored mailing campaign (in terms of influencing election results) has no validity to it.

      As for your opinion on “bad truths”, you don’t think it would have influenced this election if each voter received 20+ mailers in the month prior to the election attacking Gary Bell for his lame-duck 2004 Vegas trip at taxpayer expense? This may have been discussed in the East Bay Express and here in the Richmond Confidential, but I would bet my life that far fewer than 10% of Richmond voters had any clue about this Vegas junket.

      Bottom line is, money buys media. Media that gets in front of people’s faces influences elections. To say Chevron had no significant influence on this election is absolutely ludicrous.

      • D Joyce

        Amen to this. Especially since with some TV providers you have to search with vested interest to find the City Council meeting programming. And 100% of the “hit” pieces are derived from either Big Business/Big Money or the Police and Firefighter Organizations. None from the non-aligned candidates (except for Corky Booze). I would love for the people of Richmond to never vote for anything or against anything that controls 99% of the billboards and mailers sent to them. Then, maybe, we might get a fair and equal election instead of one where the outcome is controlled by where the most money is spent. And I do challenge the candidates themselves, regardless of affiliation, to publicly renounce any corporate funding of any campaign financing of support of any individual candidate. To instruct, specifically, any corporate entity to cease and desist using their image in any election material. Not to do so, IMHO, is completely unethical.

  2. Jeff Glass

    Nat, Tom- Congratulations on your Re-Elections!

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