After a month of arguing over how best to fill the seat left empty by Gary Bell’s illness, the Richmond City Council met on February 4 for a one-item agenda. The council could either choose to wait for a special election in June, or it could appoint one of the 12 people who applied for the position.
Two factions had emerged—councilmembers Corky Booze and Nat Bates were publicly in favor of a special election, while Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and councilmembers Jovanka Beckles and Tom Butt had all come out in favor of appointing Eduardo Martinez, a Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) member and the runner-up in the November election.
But it would take four votes for an appointment. Neither side seemed likely to budge. That left Jim Rogers.
Rogers, who ran as an environmentally-minded progressive, has long been known as an independent voter on the council. But after the departure of Jeff Ritterman last fall, Rogers was left as the sole swing vote. At earlier meetings, he’d justified the cost of a special election without explicitly endorsing it. But nobody knew exactly what Rogers would do.
With his fingers woven in front of him, Rogers watched as the last public commenter concluded her speech and sat down. McLaughlin thanked the more than 40 members of the public who’d spoken, then invited Rogers to respond.
The audience applauded when Rogers said that a special election would be worth paying for if it was the best way to get a good councilmember. They applauded when he declared his respect for Martinez on a personal level and as November’s runner-up.
But the loudest applause came when he said that the voters who approved the council charter didn’t ask the council to “rubber-stamp the runner-up”—they asked the council to vote for whom they thought would be the best councilmember. “So having heard the discussion—and I’m certainly open to hearing the final arguments—as of now I’m leaning towards Jael Myrick being that person,” he said. “Thank you.”
He got his way. By the end of the night, Myrick was appointed with a vote of 4 to 1, with Booze voting no and Bates abstaining.
In many ways, it seemed like an unlikely outcome—Myrick is only 27, has never held public office before, and got only five percent of the vote in the November election, coming in eighth out of 11 candidates.
Even Myrick, a former field representative for California State Assembly member Nancy Skinner, didn’t know for sure what was going to happen. But he said that before the meeting, he was cautiously optimistic. “It’s not necessarily that I knew what was going to happen,” he said. “But I could see that, going into it, I had the easiest path to four votes.”
Some people viewed Myrick’s appointment as a much-needed compromise. Others smelled a conspiracy and said the whole thing was pre-arranged. By every telling though, Rogers had an outsize role in deciding between an appointment and a special election.
From Myrick’s point of view, his biggest challenge among the appointee hopefuls was Tony Thurmond, who’d served on the council before. He didn’t think Rogers would vote for Martinez because of his public affiliation with the RPA. He guessed that Bates and Booze would either vote for appointee candidates Kathleen Sullivan, Eleanor Thompson or Don Gosney—all of whom they’d spoken about favorably—or would push for a special election. Indeed, at the February 4 meeting, both councilmembers said their first choice would be to go to a special election.
Meanwhile, Myrick figured, Beckles, McLaughlin and Butt would try to avoid a special election. They’d all publically spoken out against a special election, calling it a costly waste of time. All three wanted to appoint Martinez.
But, Myrick thought, they would probably vote for him as a compromise, someone who was progressive without being tied to either of the council’s factions—if only he could get Rogers’ vote.
Councilmember Tom Butt said that on the other side of the dais, the outcome was equally uncertain. He wanted to appoint Martinez to the seat, but he said he would’ve been okay with appointing either Myrick or former councilmembers John Marquez or Tony Thurmond. The important thing, he said, was to avoid a “long, expensive, bitter” special election. “I was ready to take a bird in hand rather than a bird in the bush,” he said.
The problem was, he said, Rogers had been talking like he wanted an election. Butt said that before the meeting, he figured that that the council only had 50-50 odds of appointing someone. He thought a special election was likely.
Butt said he hadn’t expected Rogers to announce his support of Myrick. “What Rogers did was totally a surprise to me,” he said. “Once that was done, it was clear to me it was either Jael or an election.”
What Butt and Myrick both say they didn’t know was that the Richmond Progressive Alliance had decided that Myrick was their second choice after Martinez. (In the last minutes of the February 4 meeting, McLaughlin did indeed motion to appoint Martinez. Her motion failed with three votes.)
“We had some internal discussions and determined that we would support the appointment of Jael as our second choice,” said Marilyn Langlois, a senior member of the RPA. Langlois, herself a former council candidate, said that the RPA had worked with Myrick on projects in the past, and saw him as easy to work with.
“Part of it was, it looked like Jael was someone who had a chance of actually getting the appointment,” Langlois said. They knew Rogers had endorsed Myrick for the November election and thought it was likely that he would again. And as the only uncommitted councilmember, they knew he would likely decide between an appointment and another election.
Avoiding a special election was equally as important as appointing Martinez, she said. The all-volunteer organization would have struggled to raise funds for a campaign to support their candidate, she said, and the city didn’t need the distraction of another election. But without knowing what Rogers would do, Langlois said that an election seemed like a possibility. “It was absolutely suspenseful,” she said of the February 4 meeting.
But councilman Nat Bates said he doubts there were so many gaps in the daisy chain. He’s skeptical that any of the four councilmembers who voted for Myrick were actually surprised. “If you believe that, I got a Golden Gate Bridge I’ll sell you for a dollar,” he said. “This thing was obviously brokered between Butt and between Rogers, and it included the mayor.”
The real benefactors of the appointment were the members of the RPA, who knew they couldn’t raise enough funds for a special election, Bates said. “They didn’t want to chance another resounding defeat,” he said, referring to November, when voters had chosen the more pro-business Gary Bell.
He thinks Myrick will be a good councilmember, though, with his close ties with Nancy Skinner, wide support from African-American political groups and his independence. “Jael brings a lot to the table,” Bates said. “He brings some balance.”
As for Rogers’ role, Bates said that while he feels Rogers did play kingmaker in this instance, with Myrick on the board, Rogers is no longer the only independent vote, meaning it probably won’t happen again.
Booze said that Rogers, as the deciding vote, should have let the vote go to a special election. “As far as I’m concerned, Jim Rogers let the people down,” he said. Myrick is a good candidate, he said, but that if the voters wanted him, they would have voted for him in a June election. Booze said he thinks that Rogers had decided on Myrick long before the special council meeting, and had made his intention clear to the majority of the council.
As for Rogers, he said the appointment wasn’t put together beforehand. “I’m glad they knew, because I sure as hell didn’t,” he joked.
He agrees it’s true that as a swing vote he had a lot of influence on the appointment, but he doesn’t expect it to become a lasting pattern. “As Andy Warhol said, ‘We all have our 15 seconds of fame,’” he said.
Rogers said he’d heard about the RPA’s second-place endorsement of Myrick, and said that figured into his decision—he took it as an affirmation of Myrick’s environmental and progressive qualifications.
He said that like himself, he expects Myrick to approach issues with an open mind. “He’s going to approach things case by case,” Rogers said. “Not based on which team or faction is pushing something, not based on some ideological thing.”
The people who supported Martinez also will probably find Myrick to their liking, he said. “I think when they look back on this, my prediction is that they’ll find Jael has delivered on a lot of things,” he said.
Butt also thinks Myrick will be a good councilmember, although he said he doubts that he’ll have a big impact on the fractious dynamic of the council. “He sees himself as a potential peacemaker between divisive factions,” Butt said. “While I applaud him for that, I’m skeptical.
In the end, Bates said, Myrick’s appointment was something that everyone on the council can live with, and he says that his own abstention wasn’t a vote against Myrick, but rather a protest against the mayor for not giving himself and Booze a chance to nominate their own candidates. During this Tuesday’s meeting, he plans to motion for a reaffirmation vote to give Myrick unanimous approval. “He needs to be welcomed,” Bates said.