Pastor William Coleman addressed a panel of Richmond City Council candidates seated beneath a large wooden cross at the Praise Fellowship Bible Church on Central Avenue last week.
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” said Coleman, paraphrasing Luke 4:18. “What good news do you have for the poor in this community?”
The event was a “meet the candidates” forum focused on boosting voter engagement among Richmond’s faith-based community. The city’s chapter of Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) political action committee (PAC) co-sponsored the forum.
Voter turnout in Richmond trails behind the rest of the state. In the city’s 2014 mayoral and city council election, only one-sixth of the city’s population went to the polls, while 42 percent of registered voters in California turned out for that year’s general election. BWOPA’s Richmond chapter president, Kathleen Sullivan, said it is important for churches to “step in and be involved in rallying members” to vote.
Eight of nine city council candidates sat on the panel, which was held last Wednesday night. Incumbent candidate Nathaniel Bates did not attend. Audience members included sitting councilmember Jovanka Beckles, BART District 7 Director Zakhary Mallett, and Bay Area attorney Pamela Price, who is one of the attorneys representing the young woman, formerly known as Celeste Guap, who is connected with the sexual misconduct scandal involving the Oakland and Richmond police departments.
Sullivan asked the candidates to give their positions on issues important to Richmond’s black community, including restoring the public’s trust in law enforcement.
Coleman pushed the candidates to address issues of morality and integrity. At one point, he asked the panelists what they would do to “bring dignity back to the city council meetings”—an issue that seemed to resonate with many in the audience.
Jane Lundin, a Richmond resident and member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, said that she is not happy with the “level of rudeness” at the city’s council meetings.
The current city council is full of people “fighting and arguing and acting stupid,” Sullivan said, speaking before the forum began. She said her husband, who prefers to give council meetings a wide berth, often asks her, “as a person of faith, how are you going in there?”
Others at the forum expressed impatience with council candidates who seem to pander to the religious community during election season just to get votes.
“I don’t like the idea that you use the church to get the vote, especially the black vote,” said Jackie Thompson, a Richmond resident and member of the Independent Holiness Church. The sentiment isn’t purely local; earlier this month, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received an icy welcome when he visited Great Faith Ministries in Detroit, Michigan.
Alvin Tillery, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said he thinks it is up to voters to change this dynamic between self-interested politicians and black churches. According to Tillery, voters need to make local elections more competitive in black communities by demanding that candidates engage with the “hard conversations” that are typically ignored in electoral discourse.
Praise Fellowship Bible Church is one of several in Richmond to co-sponsor voter education events this election season. Earlier this month, the West Contra Costa County Circuit of the United Methodist Church hosted a candidates night and voter registration drive at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on Barrett Avenue.
But Coleman and Sullivan are not doing anything new, as black churches in the United States have a long history of political action and mobilization dating back to the Jim Crow era, said Laura Olson, a professor of political science at Clemson University in Atlanta, Georgia.
“The civil rights movement in the South was started by [and] was run by the African American clergy,” Olson said.
After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, giving African Americans the right to vote, churches continued to function as what Tillery calls “get-out-the-vote organizations.”
Coleman, however, is concerned that church-based voter education events and registration drives are no longer as effective at rallying black voters through the religious community as they once were.
“Church attendance, church membership is down nationwide,” said the pastor. So even if churches host voter events, their reach is limited because “congregations aren’t thriving.”
According to Olson, however, the country’s religiously-affiliated population is on the decline, but the drop-off has not been as dramatic in black communities as it has been among white Catholics and mainline Protestants.
Tillery added that polling data over the last twenty to thirty years show that African Americans are one of the most reliable constituencies when it comes to voter turnout.
“Do I think that the decline of religiosity is going to change that?” said Tillery. “No.”
Coleman remains hopeful that Richmond’s faith-based residents will turn out to the polls in November.
“They’ve lost faith in the national process,” said the pastor, “but they still believe in voting in the local process.”