On Nov. 4, candidates Charles Ramsey and Donna Powers were defeated in their campaigns for the city council and Nat Bates lost the mayoral election. All three candidates had been supported by the ‘Moving Forward’ campaign committees, which spent $3.1 million – nearly all of it funded by Chevron – advocating their election and attacking their opponents.
One month before Election Day, $351,598 had already been spent by the Chevron-funded committees attacking Gayle McLaughlin. $286,671 had been spent attacking Jovanka Beckles and $286,756.69 against Eduardo Martinez. McLaughlin, Beckles and Martinez, who comprise the ‘Team Richmond’ slate backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), each won a seat in the race for the city council. Tom Butt won the mayor’s seat.
Many were surprised at Team Richmond’s sweep. With such a large amount spent against them by Chevron, at least some challenges were expected for the candidates at the ballot box.
“For the whole [Team Richmond] slate to win, to go 3 for 3, is very, very hard,” Charles Ramsey said. “So, well done to them.”
On an October visit to Richmond, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said, “If you can stand up and beat [Chevron] with all of their money, you’re going to give hope to people all over America.” In the wake of victory, Gayle McLaughlin told television host Bill Moyers on Moyers & Company, “We have a community that’s clear that we can’t be bought.”
It is indeed uncommon for a candidate who has outspent opponents 30-to-1 to lose a race, but the conclusion that money cannot influence an election may be hasty.
Nationally, 2014’s midterms saw the higher-spending candidate victorious in 82 percent of the U.S. Senate races, and in 94 percent of the races for the House of Representatives. The average campaign cost for a winning seat in the Senate was $8.6 million. In the House, it was $1.2 million.
“Richmond stood out as the exception, not the rule, as to what happens on Election Day,” said Sarah Swanbeck of California Common Cause, a political advocacy group. “Those backed by special interests and outside money tend to do quite well, and so Richmond is an anomaly.”
The power of in-person campaigning
“The exception is that we had an ongoing organization that worked in the community throughout the campaign, getting the word out to counter the power of the Chevron money,” said Mike Parker, campaign manager for Team Richmond.
Parker estimates that Team Richmond had “a few hundred” volunteers involved in some capacity over the course of the campaign, going door-to-door, campaigning on the phone and more. No other candidate or set of candidates had anywhere near the same number, according to Parker.
“One of the great strengths of the RPA is that they’re very well organized and ready for battle every day of the year,” said Don Gosney, a long-time resident of Richmond and a former employee of outgoing City Councilman Corky Booze. “For many other candidates, we don’t know who they are, but the RPA candidates make themselves very well-known, well before Election Day.”
Team Richmond indeed successfully familiarized voters with its slate, but Donna Powers and Charles Ramsey were not themselves political unknowns. Powers served on the city council from 1990 to 2000 and Charles Ramsey has been president of the West Contra Costa County School Board for over 20 years.
“I had a hard time raising money for my campaign, because it looked like Chevron was supporting me,” Powers said. “People thought, ‘we don’t need to support you.’”
Powers said the Moving Forward committees’ mailers diminished the impact of others that she had funded, created and sent herself.
“There was so much mail from Moving Forward that when I scraped together to put my own pieces out, no one paid attention. People were throwing everything in the garbage because people were so fed up with it,” Powers said.
Many others have criticized the sheer volume of mailers sent by Moving Forward. “I received 36 mailers on the day before the election alone,” said Gosney. “They were too repetitive, making the same points over and over again. Moving Forward should have been more selective in what they sent out.”
Powers criticized Moving Forward’s attack ads on Jovanka Beckles, which dwelled on a city-funded trip to Florida. “How many times do we have to hear that Jovanka ate lamb chops?” Powers said.
Ramsey was ambivalent about whether the mailers had harmed his campaign.
“I might have got fewer votes [without the mailers],” Ramsey said. “I just don’t know, the mailers may have got my profile out more.”
In a response posted Wednesday on the outcome of the election, a Chevron spokesman defended Moving Forward’s political spending as an effort to make voters aware of the important role that Chevron plays in the economic life of the city. “The amount of money we spent to inform voters must be viewed in the context of the more than $500 million in local taxes, social investment and spending on local vendors from Chevron over the past five years, and our $90 million social and environmental commitment to the city that will follow once our $1 billion refinery modernization is allowed to proceed.”
A referendum on Chevron?
The election of 2014 was the first since the refinery fire of two years ago. Both Powers and Ramsey are aware of the power that event still holds in the city’s memory.
“The RPA were able to define the race as based around Chevron,” Ramsey said. “Getting national attention through [television news host] Rachel Maddow and other people had a big influence on what the conversation of the election was about.”
“It was all about Chevron,” Powers said. “Which is all very well, but what about all the potholes in Richmond, the budget deficit, and eminent domain? Why weren’t people talking about those more?”
Mike Parker rejected the idea that Team Richmond used Chevron to split the community.
“It wasn’t a referendum on Chevron. Most people’s attitude is that Chevron is here to stay,” Parker said. “We want them to be a good neighbor. The question then, for people, is what that means.”
The effect of low voter turnout
It is hard to discern the effect of Moving Forward’s campaigning on voter turnout, which totalled 17,130 for the mayoral race. Both Parker and Powers and Ramsey, Team Richmond’s opponents, said low turnout harmed them.
“Lots of the negative campaigning [from Moving Forward] kept people away from the polls, in a way that might have hurt us,” Parker said. “It’s not definite that these would have voted for the Chevron-backed candidates if they had gone to the polls.”
“The low numbers harmed me, of course,” Powers said.
Charles Ramsey said he would do things differently next time around, though he doesn’t completely regret the barrage of ads in his favor.
“If I had to redo the election, I’d tell all the groups that I didn’t need any more money or support,” Ramsey said. “I’d have been fully independent, and done my own campaign completely – period.”
“I’d have gone out and done more walk-in precincts and neighborhoods [campaigning] too,” he added.
Ramsey pointed also to his lack of city council campaign experience as a factor in his defeat. None of his toughest opponents were new to the ballot.
“They had all run before,” Ramsey said. “Tom [Butt] lost the first time he ran for mayor, Jovanka [Beckles] lost the first time she ran, Jael [Myrick] lost two years ago. This was a good introduction for me.”
Most people agreed that the election outcome couldn’t be chalked up to a single, decisive factor – such as mailer saturation or the 2012 refinery fire – but was the result of a mix of smaller ones.
“Everything matters, like a painting,” Ramsey said. “Every single aspect comes together and is important.”
“In the end, Team Richmond worked harder, smarter,” Ramsey added. “They really earned the victory.”