Back in 2004, Richmond voters saw local election posters encouraging them to “Reach for a better Richmond” and promising them “New Leadership, New Ideas, New Ethics.” Now, six elections later, the up-and-coming political faction behind those fliers, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), could wield more influence over City Hall than ever before.
With three RPA members already on City Council, just one more needed for a majority, and two more vying for this election’s open seats—along with an RPA-spearheaded rent control measure on the ballot—today’s election could deliver the group its biggest win to date.
“If that initiative was to win and if one of their candidates was to win then I think it will establish them as the dominant force in the city’s politics,” said Robert Smith, a Richmond resident and political science professor at San Francisco State University. “It would be quite extraordinary.”
A clear City Council majority would allow the RPA to reliably pass legislation that addresses the issues the organization is most concerned about, such as increasing the minimum wage, developing more affordable housing and combating racial injustice, said RPA co-chair Marilyn Langlois.
“For us, it’s not about winning a popularity contest,” Langlois said. “It’s about the end result: delivering services and solutions to our residents.”
Rent control—which has been an RPA priority since the group’s inception, Langlois said—is one of those solutions. The current proposal to enact it, Measure L, has become the most contentious topic of this year’s election.
Because the RPA backed the effort to put Measure L on the ballot—and, in doing so, went toe-to-toe with much of the city’s political establishment—the rent control campaign will be the best test of the group’s strength and organizing capability, Smith said.
“They have been the strongest advocates in the city for this initiative,” he said. “This is their signature issue for the last year and if it wins, it’ll be victory for RPA. And if it loses it’ll be interpreted as a defeat for the RPA.”
For Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who strongly opposes Measure L and has taken to lambasting the RPA in his e-forum newsletters, an RPA majority on City Council would mean a voting bloc that pushes for more legislation like the rent control measure.
“I think it would be disastrous for the city of Richmond,” Butt said.
“I really fear for the city because instead of having individuals debating things and compromising,” he said, “we’ll have one group that essentially takes charge of the city of Richmond and runs it the way they want to run it.”
Butt said the RPA has a history of rigid ideology, pointing to RPA candidates’ positions on business and development in the city.
“I think they have a bias against the business community,” he said. “To them, all corporations are evil and I think they project that onto business in general.”
Butt also said that an RPA majority on the council would negate the need for compromise.
“Why even bother going to a City Council meeting, because our vote’s not going to count anymore,” he said. “It would basically make the minority irrelevant on the City Council.”
RPA members have contested Butt’s view of the organization. The RPA has its positions but it isn’t a political party, and each of its councilmembers vote as individuals, said Steve Early, an RPA member and author whose book, Refinery Town, chronicles the group’s battles with oil giant Chevron.
“While they’re supporting the broad RPA program, they tend to vote on them based on their individual decisions,” Early said, “not as the result of some binding political caucus.”
Ben Choi—who, along with Melvin Willis, is one of the RPA-backed council candidates this year—said Butt’s characterization is incomplete.
“I do not see us voting lockstep on every issue,” he said. “Even with the existing RPA councilmembers, you see a difference in how they’re voting.”
Choi cited the City Council vote in July that approved the bayfront Terminal One development; RPA member Eduardo Martinez opposed the project while his fellow RPA members Gayle McLaughlin and Jovanka Beckles supported it.
Choi said Butt and others are overemphasizing the consequences of an RPA voting bloc.
But Smith said such rhetoric isn’t the RPA’s only challenge.
More voters go to the polls during presidential election cycles, and more of those voters tend to be democrats, he said. However, in a heavily liberal city like Richmond, increased voter turnout generally means a higher number of more moderate or center-left voters, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for the RPA’s progressive candidates, Smith said.
In the 2012 presidential election, RPA candidates Martinez and Langlois were defeated in an election that saw more than $4 million in campaign spending—much of it from Chevron and the American Beverage Association, which at the time was opposing an RPA-backed soda tax on the ballot.
Early said it was this barrage of spending, largely directed at the RPA-backed candidates, that derailed their bids rather than a higher voter turnout.
Even if both Choi and Willis lose today’s election, the RPA, because of its three sitting councilmembers will continue to have a large influence over the council, Smith said.
Every election since the group’s first, in 2004, has been very important, Langlois said, and win or lose, there will still be plenty of work to do.
“If the RPA candidates are successful, that’s great,” Langlois said. “But it doesn’t mean we can relax or that we’ve got it made. The challenges are constant and we may have even bigger challenges two years from now.”