A look ahead at November’s mayoral prospects
on January 18, 2010
Since early 2007, Richmond has held the distinction of being the largest United States city with an elected mayor identified as a member of the Green Party.
Whether that is still the case after November, when Mayor Gayle McLaughlin faces re-election, remains to be seen.
About 10 months out from the Nov. 2 election, the only thing that seems clear is that McLaughlin will run for re-election, but she’s leaving it at that for the time being.
“Right now I’m very focused on moving forward ongoing issues and policies in my day-to-day work as mayor,” McLaughlin wrote in an e-mail response to inquiries about the coming election.
McLaughlin indicated in the same e-mail that an official announcement that she will seek re-election is coming sometime in the next few months.
As for who will challenge her, no one has officially declared. Rumors are rampant, however, about two current City Council members.
Nat Bates, the city’s most experienced politician and one with long-cultivated constituencies, has been privately talking with close friends and aides about making a run, according to sources who declined to speak on record. Speculation is also swirling about Vice Mayor Maria Viramontes, McLaughlin’s consistent political foe and a politician whose blunt personal style and work, particularly on children’s issues and in support of the city’s growing Latino community, could translate into a formidable candidacy.
Bates, who was reached by telephone while in Southern California last week, acknowledged the possibility that he could run for the office he held during two separate stints in the 1970s.
“It is too early to make a decision with respect to the upcoming election,” Bates said. “At this point, I’m undecided.”
Bates, who was first elected to the public office when Richmond voters sat him on the City Council in 1967, has developed strengths and liabilities over a career that has made him the longest-serving councilmember in the city’s history.
Bates supports an investment in facility upgrades at the local Chevron refinery, which McLaughlin opposed and is currently winding through court. He has also called for tougher policing strategies, such as sobriety checkpoints, a measure which has unsettled many city residents, particularly immigrant communities. Bates has also had rubs with election law. In 2005, he paid fines to the state Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to disclose contributions to his campaign.
Bates supports the Point Molate Casino project, as does Viramontes.
On Jan. 11, the City Council voted 4-3 to extend a developer’s deadline to produced a plan to develop an Indian gaming casino on the former Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot. Bates and Viramontes headed the narrow majority, with McLaughlin on the other side.
With three City Council seats also up for grabs in what are expected to be competitive races, some city leaders are reluctant to cast their lot in a particular direction at this early juncture.
Councilman Jim Rogers, who faces his own re-election battle this November, acknowledged that he and McLaughlin have frequently seen eye-to-eye, but declined to weigh in on the race.
“The mayor and I, we have our similarities, particularly on the issues involving Chevron and our schools … certainly overall more similarities than differences,” Rogers said. “But I’m not going to endorse, I have my own plate full.”
Viramontes, who did not return calls seeking comment, has strong support among the city’s Latino residents and has sat on the council since 2002. A fourth generation Richmond native, Viramontes frequently clashes with McLaughlin on the dais, leading some to believe the two harbor personal animus toward each other. She is seen by many as pro-business and pro-casino, a diametrically opposite foil to McLaughlin, who never wavers from her green credentials and uses phrases like “social justice” as often as a street-level activist.
But Viramontes also touts youth-related issues and community policing along with her pro-business stances.
McLaughlin, who came to the city from Chicago earlier in 2000, relied on significant support from both black and Latino communities in 2006, when she narrowly defeated the incumbent, Irma Anderson, by barely 300 votes.
Councilman Tom Butt said he’ll “probably” support McLaughlin for re-election.
“She thinks close to the way I do on most subjects,” Butt said. Both have been critical of Chevron Corp.
But they have differences as well. McLaughlin voted against a $350,000 pool divider for the Plunge in Point Richmond, a project Butt adamantly supported.
Butt has written in his own e-newsletter about how Bates would complicate the race, possibly siphoning off sizable numbers of both McLaughlin and Viramontes’ supporters.
However, McLaughlin has generally performed consistent with the expectations that preceded her term. She has vociferously battled with Chevron Corp. over taxes, fees and pollution. She is also among the most well-traveled elected officials in the city, often being sighted at multiple community events in a given day, giving crowd-pleasing speeches at events ranging from homicide memorials to a small gathering last week protesting the possible closure of a local post office.
“Word on the street is that she maintains an electable popularity that may have even expanded since her razor-thin win” in 2006, Butt wrote on Jan. 10.
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