The nation’s eyes will be on Richmond today as voters not only elect a new mayor and four city council members, but pass judgment on the efficacy of unlimited local political spending.
Chevron Corp., which runs a major refinery in this city of 107,000 residents, has spent more than $3 million to defeat their opponents and elect their favored candidates. The spending spree has drawn the attention of media, pollsters and political analysts across the country.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) , a fervent critic of corporate political spending, swung through Richmond last month to rally support for the slate of local progressive candidates and to let voters know the nation is paying attention.
“If Chevron can roll over you, they and their buddies will roll over every community in America,” he told a downtown crowd. “If you can stand up and beat them with all of their money, you’re going to give hope to people all over America that we can control our destinies.”
The election season has been fierce, even for the bare-knuckle standards of Richmond politics. Campaign signs for both sides, the Chevron and progressive slate, have been vandalized and stolen in a block-by-block battle for the hearts and minds of Richmond’s voters. Social media is abuzz with tit-for-tat arguments, and political theater has marred recent council meetings. On Election Day, both sides are expected to shift into high gear, driving voters to polling places and getting out the vote. The final tallies should come in late tonight, kicking off celebrations at some campaign parties and concession speeches at others.
When the dust clears, a new governing coalition could emerge.
Progressives gained political power in Richmond by tapping into resentment of Chevron’s role in the city, then embarked on an ambitious plan to change the city from a docile host of the West Coast’s second largest refinery to a bastion of progressive initiatives, including banning plastic bags, increasing bicycle lanes and greenlighting marijuana dispensaries. They’ve also gone toe-to-toe with Chevron over a range of political issues.
Now their fate is in voters’ hands.
Voters in Richmond will also elect three members to the West Contra Costa Unified School District, and decide on Measure U, a proposed half-cent sales tax increase.
The three candidates for mayor are Nat Bates, Tom Butt, and Uche Uwahemu. Bates has been the beneficiary of almost $500,000 in billboards, flyers, canvassing, and radio, internet, and TV ads paid for by Chevron’s campaign committee, Moving Forward.
“This is an important election for Richmond” Moving Forward’s spokesperson Alex Doniach wrote in an email. “Moving Forward continues to support candidates who are best suited to continue to improve the local economy and therefore the overall quality of life in Richmond.”
As of Sept. 30 Chevron had transferred $2.9 million to their campaign committees. On Oct. 28 Chevron transferred another $200,000, bringing its total political spending this year to more than $3.1 million.
Butt and Bates are current city council members, and both would retain their seat if not elected mayor. If either is elected mayor, the new city council would appoint a replacement for their seat. Uwahemu is a local businessman, former social worker, and a political newcomer in Richmond.
Outgoing Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party member and staunch progressive, has termed out after serving eight years. She is running for City Council.
“Chevron wants to control the City Council so it can pollute more and avoid paying its fair share,” McLaughlin wrote in an email. “It’s essential we tell Chevron our democracy is not for sale.”
McLaughlin has been the target of more than $350,000 in negative spending from Chevron, after she and her progressive allies challenged Richmond’s 100-year-long status as a company town.
After a 2012 refinery fire, McLaughlin and the City Council sued Chevron for the first time in the city’s history. Many observers believe Chevron’s investment in this election is an effort to ensure a more favorable settlement. The City Council also recently negotiated $90 million for the city while approving a $1 billion refinery “Modernization Project.”
McLaughlin and eight other candidates are vying for three four-year positions on the council. The other candidates are current councilmembers Jovanka Beckles and Jim Rogers, Dameion D. King, Al Martinez, Eduardo Martinez, Donna Powers, Charles Ramsey, and Henry Washington.
The top three vote-getters will join the city council.
Powers and Ramsey are backed by Chevron, which has spent more than $285,000 supporting each. Al Martinez was supported to the tune of $61,000 until mid-September, when Chevron’s campaign committee stopped making expenditures in support of him. Recent reports suggest Al Martinez left the Richmond Police Department in 1984 after allegedly stealing cocaine and a firearm from the evidence locker. He was later acquitted.
There is also one two-year seat up for grabs. The candidates are incumbents Jael Myrick and Corky Boozé, along with Anthony Creer. Myrick was appointed by the council to fill the seat vacated when Gary Bell died shortly after being elected in 2012.
Richmond Confidential reporters will fan out across the city throughout the day, dashing off photos, videos and news from Richmond communities as they make their voices heard. Stay tuned to our Election Day page for up-to-the-minute updates.
On Twitter, follow @riconfidential and #Richmondvotes for fresh updates.