An empty chair sat on the dais of Richmond City Hall Tuesday night during the inauguration of re-elected councilmembers Tom Butt and Nat Bates. Outpourings of well wishes for its intended occupant, Gary Bell—who won the November race but is in a medically induced coma following a bacterial sinus infection—dominated public speeches and the hushed conversations in the gallery.
For once, councilmembers agreed on one thing: Bell would have played a dynamic role in energizing a city government fighting against high rates of unemployment, foreclosures and violent crime. But once the council adjourned for a reception, a rift was evident over how to fill Bell’s seat. Apart from being the first official day of business for the new council, Tuesday night also marked the beginning of the 60 days within which the council has to appoint someone to fill the vacant seat.
City clerk Diana Holmes said there is no provision in the city charter for Bell to be sworn in after the second Tuesday of January, making the position effectively open for nominations. The council will officially announce a vacant seat on January 15, 2012, a week after its first day of business. “We will have to wait and see what council members agree to put on the agenda and follow the process from there,” Holmes said.
If the council decides to appoint someone, there will be an application period, followed by nominations from the six sitting members. Then the council will vote to approve a nominee—the nominee needs only a simple majority to win.
According to the city charter, if the vacancy is not filled by March 8, the council will have to call a special public election.
On Tuesday, councilmembers Nat Bates and Corky Booze argued that the issue should be sent back to the voters to choose Bell’s replacement in a special election. But councilman Tom Butt and Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) members Jovanka Beckles and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin support the appointment of fellow RPA member Eduardo Martinez, a retired schoolteacher who came in 518 votes behind Bell in the November election.
Richmond council seats are awarded to the top vote getters, rather than by geographic district or political party. Bates had the highest number of votes with 13,592, followed by Butt with 11,575, and then Bell, who had 11,474. Martinez came fourth with 10,956 votes.
If the council remains divided, the key vote in a nomination may lie with Councilmember Jim Rogers, who said the appointment process should be opened up to all candidates who want to take Bell’s seat. “The best way is to have all candidates come forward make their case and see if anyone has four votes,” Rogers said. “If not then we go to a special election. I do not think that having a six person council for a few months will cause the universe to implode.”
In a recent E-Forum newsletter, Butt said the nomination of Martinez as a replacement for Bell hinges on Rogers’ support, and urged residents to call Rogers and ask him to support Martinez.
“Martinez received 10,956 votes, less than 1% fewer than Gary Bell and only about 3% less than Nat Bates,” Butt wrote in his newsletter. “He may well have won if it weren’t for the $1.2 million Chevron funding of hit pieces against him and a campaign supporting Bates and Bell. Eduardo would provide a currently underrepresented Latino presence on the City Council in a city that the 2010 Census reports 39.5% Latino. If Rogers does not support Martinez, it could very likely steer the process into a special election.”
Responding to Butt in an email, Rogers wrote that while nominating Martinez would increase the progressive majority until the 2014 election, it would make Martinez more vulnerable to heavy campaign spending by Chevron and potentially result in more seats going to Chevron-friendly candidates in subsequent elections.
“The five political consultants observers I have surveyed (representing pro and anti Chevron viewpoints) unanimously believe that Chevron would be very unlikely to prevail in a low turnout special election in June of 2013, and would have much much better odds of defeating Eduardo in 2014 if he is appointed,” Rogers wrote in the email. “If Eduardo is defeated by a Chevron friendly candidate in 2014 Chevron only has to win 2 of the 4 other races to retake control of the Council.”
Speaking at the reception on Tuesday night, Councilmember Corky Booze took issue with Butt’s email campaign for Martinez to take over the open seat. “Tom Butt hasn’t even looked at anybody else,” Booze said, “It’s unfair for Butt to put Rogers’ name out there and ask for people to call him and support Martinez. That’s bordering on the illegal.”
Booze said although he hadn’t made a decision about who should take Bell’s seat, it would only be fair to the people who elected Bell for the issue to be discussed publicly. “We can’t have one group of people controlling the council. It’s unfair to the citizens,” Booze said. “If we can’t come to an agreement, let’s send it back to the people.”
Bates, who has been on council since 1967, said there is no precedent in the recent history of the Richmond City Council for a succession that allows a runner-up to take a vacant seat. Booze, a runner-up in the 2006 election, sought a nomination to take the seat McLaughlin vacated when she became mayor in January 2007, but that seat was filled by Harpreet Singh Sandhu, who was sworn in on January 16, 2007. Booze only joined the council after running for the ninth time in November, 2010.
“Historically, the council has never appointed a runner up to fill a vacancy,” said Bates. “As a matter of fact, they have gone outside and appointed someone who didn’t even run. I don’t see any reason not to follow that established tradition.”
In his support for a Martinez nomination, Butt pointed out that a problem with appointing people from outside the pool of previous candidates was that most of them either resigned or lost races for reelection. Previous appointments to vacant seats in Richmond include Alex Evans, who in 1993 was nominated to fill the seat left by Jim Rogers when he left to join the Board of Supervisors. The runner-up in that year was Tom Butt. In 2001, when Evans left the council, Charles Belcher was nominated, instead of runner-up Steve Harvey. And in 2005, Mindell Penn’s seat was taken by Tony Thurmond after she resigned six months into her term, instead of runner-up Andreas Soto.
“The fact that runners-up were not selected in past situations where a vacancy has arisen is, in my opinion, a bad precedent, not one to be repeated,” Butt said.
Jeff Ritterman, who served his last day on the council Tuesday and left the contested seat behind when he decided not to run for re-election, said while the vacancy would not make a significant difference in the political makeup of the council, with the progressives retaining a majority, replacing Bell would be the first major challenge for new city council. “It doesn’t make that much of a difference in terms of the overall balance of power, but I am interested to see if they can find common ground,” Ritterman said.
“If I were Chevron, I would be pushing for a special election because that way, the money would decide,” he said.
Chevron, the largest corporation in Richmond, spent $1.7 million in campaign contributions on the November election. At least $470,000 of that money was spent in independent contributions in support of Gary Bell’s election, not counting the money spent opposing Martinez. Bell’s victory had paved the way for a shift in the balance of power between progressives and the Booze and Bates duo, which fiercely defends Chevron.
Voting on contentious issues during the tenure of the 2008-2012 council was often decided by a majority of 5-2, with progressives voting in chorus. Booze and Bates, who was also funded by Chevron, worry that the appointment of Martinez to Bell’s seat would strengthen the progressive component on the council and weaken their alliance, which defines itself as pro-business.
“I think Martinez is a very nice guy and he would serve very well, but he has stood at this podium and waved a flag that he is one of the principal organizers of the RPA,” said Booze. “The council is off-balanced by the RPA. How do we move the city forward with just one group?”
“We are back to square one,” Bates said. “Gary was pro-business, and if I am going to support a candidate, it should be a candidate whose philosophy reflects what the voters want. So I wouldn’t support Eduardo.”
Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, who supports the appointment of Martinez, said that in addition to being costly, a special election would not be responsible or fair. Appointing Martinez would be good for the Latino community, she said, which she says is underrepresented on council.
“I find it fascinating that people who are always crying out about being fiscally responsible are now calling for a very costly election,” Beckles said in reference to Bates and Booze’s call for the issue to be sent back to the voters.
As for Martinez, he says he should be nominated by the council for the vacant seat based on his community service record and the votes he won in the November election. “I have been vetted. The people know who I am,” Martinez said. “I have run twice and people know who I am. A special election would use up $200,000 that would better be used in the community. There are so many things we could do with that money.”
Martinez said that even if the seat went to a special election, he would still win it. “I already have an established ground campaign,” Martinez said. Referring to the $280,000 spent by Chevron on campaign mailers opposing him, he said, “A lot of people only had the Chevron fliers to judge me by in the November election. This time they would see that the Chevron garbage was nothing but garbage.”
In the meantime, Bates had his own suggestion for a nominee: Gary Bell. “My preference would be not to move too rapidly with a replacement, in the event that Gary regains consciousness and his doctors clear him within the next 45 days,” said Bates. “If we open the position up for applications and Gary is capable, he can still put his name up.”