The City Council appointed Jael Myrick to fill Gary Bell’s empty seat in a 4 – 1 vote with one abstention Monday, avoiding a special election. Myrick will be sworn in during Tuesday night’s council meeting.
His appointment came at the end of a single-item meeting the council called to vet the 12 candidates who had stepped forward to fill Bell’s seat. It followed weeks of speculation and arguing over the empty seat. In their arguments before the decision, city councilmembers and the public aligned themselves either in favor of appointing Eduardo Martinez, a Richmond Progressive Alliance candidate who received the fourth-most votes in the November election, or for postponing a decision until a special election in June—making Myrick’s appointment something of a surprise.
“It’s obviously very humbling to be given this honor,” Myrick said. “I didn’t want my first elected office to be because of this situation, but that said, I’m going to make the best of it.”
The value of a seventh member was made clear at the beginning of the meeting, as Corky Booze, Nat Bates, and Gayle McLaughlin argued over the council vetting procedure—whether to allow councilmembers to question candidates one at a time, or all at the end, after each candidate had given his or her eight-minute speech. The argument ended with a vote, 3 – 3, short of the four votes needed to pass, forcing them to proceed as originally planned.
Most of the candidates had either run or served in office before: Tony Thurmond and John Marquez have both sat on the council; Martinez, Myrick, Mike Ali Kinney, Bea Roberson, Eleanor Thompson and Mark Wassberg all ran for a seat in the November election; Don Gosney is a familiar face at council meetings.
In their speeches, the candidates talked about their qualifications and goals, at times offering strikingly different visions for the Richmond of the future. “We need a silicon city, an engineering city, a financial district like San Francisco,” Stann Cortez said. “Richmond—a tourist attraction.”
Others just said they hoped the council would get along. “It seems like a waste of time fighting about ideological issues when we have real bread-and-butter issues,” Roberson said. “I want to drive down the street without falling in a pothole.”
Martinez argued that the minimum of $100,000 it would take to run a special election would be better spent elsewhere, and that in past vacancies the council always made an appointment. He also said that his positions and Gary Bell’s positions on many topics were nearly identical, making him a good replacement. But he said he’d rather see someone else appointed than go to a special election, which he said would allow Chevron to re-enter the political process with campaign money. “If you do anything tonight make sure that you appoint someone to the City Council,” he said.
The chamber was packed, and the crowd was unusually feisty, even by Richmond’s standards. Cell phones rang almost constantly, and people glared around at their neighbors with accusing eyes. Throughout the candidates’ statements and the question-and-answer section that followed, tension built.
Booze was the only councilmember who initially wanted to ask questions. He asked Marquez, who sits on the board of Contra Costa College, what would happen if he were elected—would it require an additional election to fill that seat? Marquez replied that the seat could be filled by appointment.
Booze thanked him. Then he smiled. “Is Mr. Martinez here?”
Martinez stepped forward to the microphone.
“Mr. Martinez is actually quite a nice person,” Booze said. He only had one question for him, he said. “Will you remove yourself from the RPA if you are elected?”
Martinez paused a second, appearing a little taken aback. “Um, no,” he said.
The crowd grumbled, some laughing, others shouting in protest.
“Why is that of importance?” Martinez said.
“You’re here every day saying you’re an RPA person,” Booze said, “And you don’t support corporations, but to have money here we need to welcome corporations in to Richmond. You already decided you don’t want to do any business-”
“Corporations are fine,” Martinez said, “as long as they remain good neighbors.”
“Ms. Mayor? Excuse me, Ms. Mayor?” Booze cut in. He pointed over at Jovanka Beckles, seated to McLaughlin’s left. “Beckles is over here–” he made a huffing sound in imitation “–this is totally un-officious.”
Martinez began again, saying that he supports some corporations, so long as they’re community minded—not like Chevron of late, he said.
Beckles, sick with a cold, coughed.
“This is rude, this coughing,” Booze said. “I’m not going to ask any more questions.”
Bates asked the candidates to say which organizations were backing them. Most of the candidates said they hadn’t had time to get any endorsements.
After that the city clerk read a note from Gary Bell’s wife, Shelley Ross-Bell, in which she said she believed that Bell would prefer his seat be filled not by an appointment, but a special election. The letter drew loud applause.
Then McLaughlin welcomed the 45 members of the public who signed up for two minutes of time at the mic.
Roughly half of the speakers supported appointing Martinez. About 10 were in favor of going to a special election. A few got up in support of Thompson, Myrick, or Kathleen Sullivan. One man brought forward a petition he’d gathered of 7,000 people who wanted a special election. Another man stood before the audience and with wide-flung arms shouted his support of God. Then, without having endorsed a specific candidate or strategy, he sat down.
As the last public speakers filed before the mic, members of the audience yelled out or clapped their support. Booze and McLaughlin scolded them repeatedly.
The council then gave their final speeches, starting with Rogers. He said that he wouldn’t mind spending the money for a special election if that would get the best candidate—one who would be able to look at all sides of an issue, and who wouldn’t feel beholden to any one national or local party. That includes taking a measured attitude toward Chevron, he said. “The refinery can ruin us by exploding, at any point,” he said. “Or it could ruin us by leaving.”
The people who voted on the city charter didn’t demand that the council rubber-stamp the fourth-place candidate, but rather that it find the best candidate for the job, Rogers said. “As of now I’m leaning towards Jael Myrick,” he concluded.
Booze pushed for a special election, and said he couldn’t ignore the 7,000 people from the petition. “RPA, if you’re as tough as you say you are, then the voters will put your man in,” he said.
It was Butt’s turn next. “I think the motto of the California Conservation Corps is something like, ‘Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions,’” he said. “It’s also a good motto for the Richmond City Council.” He said he hoped the council could find a suitable candidate and avoid a pricey election.
Like Booze, Bates said he favored a special election, and that the 7,000 signatures were there to back him up.
Beckles and McLaughlin both said they wanted to appoint Martinez.
Then the candidates were given two minutes to deliver their final statements. Rather than restating their own agendas, most of them used the time to ask for unity on the council and for healing of the division in the city. Myrick, who had spent his first eight minutes talking mostly about his experience on political campaigns, talked about Gary Bell—the only candidate who’d treated him as an equal, he said, who mentored him and helped him even as they competed for the seat in November.
The candidates finished. It was almost 11 p.m. by then, so the council passed a resolution to lengthen the meeting by 15 minutes.
The mayor motioned to appoint Eduardo Martinez. Beckles seconded the motion, bringing it to a vote.
For the first time all night, the crowd was silent—no cheering, no muttering, or grumbling, or arguing, no shouts across the room or jokes across the aisle. Silence.
“Resolution fails,” said the clerk. The room deflated. McLaughlin, Beckles and Butt had voted yes. Booze and Bates voted no. Rogers abstained.
With Rogers unwilling to vote for their preferred candidate, the progressive leaders and Butt decided to go with Rogers’ choice. Butt then motioned to appoint Myrick, and Beckles seconded. Again, the room fell silent.
“Resolution passes,” said the clerk. People leapt from their seats, cheering. The council could barely be heard over the noise from the crowd as they read their votes. McLaughlin, Beckles, Butt and Rogers voted yes. Booze voted no. Bates abstained.
“Jael Myrick will be sworn in tomorrow night,” McLaughlin said, and the meeting was over.
As Myrick grinned and shook supporters hands, McLaughlin said that she decided to vote for him as a compromise so that the council could move forward without a time consuming and costly special election. “I felt strongly, and continue to feel strongly that Eduardo Martinez was the best choice,” she said. “But I chose to go with Jael, and I look forward to working with him.”
Councilmember Butt said that he was also happy with the choice, but that Myrick hadn’t even seemed like a contender until Rogers announced his support. “Rogers, he was the key to this thing,” Butt said.
Rogers said that while he has much respect for Martinez, he felt that Myrick would come to the council with comparatively little baggage, and a willingness to work with anybody. He predicted that the people who wanted Martinez will probably find that Myrick isn’t too different ideologically from their candidate.
Even Martinez seemed relieved with the vote. “I’m so, so, so pleased that the city council met their responsibility instead of shirking it,” He was disappointed at not being chosen, he said, but he was glad that the councilmembers didn’t choose to spend money on a costly special election. “The City Council is now equipped to get on with business,” he said.
[Editor’s note: this story has been revised to reflect that Kathleen Sullivan has not run for City Council before.]