Despite loss, Phillips’ political star still rising
on June 14, 2010
As an up-and-coming young politician, Mister Phillips should be spending the weeks following last Tuesday’s failed bid to replace John Gioia on the County Board of Supervisors plotting his next political move. But first things first: He’s got a wedding to get to.
“Yeah, that’s the next big thing on my plate,” said Phillips, whose first name is, indeed, Mister, and who will tie the knot with his fiancée Saturday in Oakland. “I told people during the election that whether it turns out good for me or not, next week I have something big to look forward to.”
But after Phillips and his bride-to-be, Angela McClain, whom he met while the two were campaigning together for President Obama in 2008, get back from the honeymoon, Phillips will have to re-assess his near future, and whether he holds any more political aspirations. For now, though, the Richmond High alumnus says his mind can’t stray too far into the future.
“Anything’s possible,” he said of another bid for office. “Right now, I’m just focused on my wedding. I’m still going to be active in my community — I still live here, and it’s still a place I’d like to help. You don’t necessarily have to be an elected official to do that.”
Phillips, a Richmond-born attorney and political newcomer, spent much of his childhood in Richmond and now lives in unincorporated Montalvin. Despite his political novice, Phillips, a fourth-generation West County resident, brought an impressive resume into the County Supervisor race: He received his J.D. from Hastings, lobbied Congress on consumer advocacy issues as an Esther Peterson fellow, worked at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition in Washington, and is a Navy Reserve Lieutenant. But he made his biggest mark in Contra Costa in 2009 when he represented five claimants in suing the county over drainage issues on Lettia Road that flooded several homes in Montalvin Manor. The county and a private developer ultimately paid out $45,000 in damages to each of the claimants.
Following the lawsuit, Phillips ran a yearlong campaign to win Gioia’s District 1 seat on the Board of Supervisors. Gioia won Tuesday’s direct primary election with close to 80 percent of the vote.
District 1 includes the cities of Richmond, Kensington, El Cerrito, El Sobrante and San Pablo.
But with little money — he was out-fundraised 20-to-1 — and a popular 12-year incumbent in front of him, Phillips faced long odds from the get-go. A last-minute attack ad mailer detailing Phillips’ 2009 arrest for crossing a police line at the scene of a murder-suicide didn’t help, either. Phillips later pointed out that he was never prosecuted, and that the Sheriff’s Office ultimately found that the arresting deputy committed “unbecoming conduct.”
“I was encouraged,” he said of the final poll numbers. “… And we did it with a nasty hit piece going out right before the election, which, unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources to respond to. But there were definitely some positive sides to this.”
Phillips’ campaign raised and spent close to $5,000, according to campaign finance records, while Gioia’s team raised nearly $100,000 (not including the ad, which was produced by an independent expenditure committee). Phillips’ campaign focused on how the quality of life for West County residents has not improved since Gioia took office in 1998, and he also pledged to protect commercial and renter-occupied real estate from being seized by the county and handed over to large developers under Prop. 99. That measure, which was approved by state voters in 2008, protects owner-occupied residences from eminent-domain seizures, but not other types of property.
“People who actually sat down and really listened to what we had to say were able to see that what we were talking about was reasonable, practical, and something I could put into effect,” Phillips said. “The platform we were putting forth was something that not only could our campaign stand on, but the community at large could stand on, too, and was something they would benefit from.”
Should Phillips decide to throw his hat back into the political ring – particularly for state- or county-wide office — he may have to look hard for a suitable position to open up. Because Richmond is on the border of the county, as well as the state assembly and senate district lines, it tends to produce fewer regional politicians than places like Berkeley and Oakland in Alameda County, or Martinez and Concord in Contra Costa.
“I don’t have my eye on any particular office,” Phillips said. “I’m just going to focus on my wedding for now, and continue with my community advocacy. If sometime down the road there’s a position … we’ll see.”
For now, Phillips says he’ll return to his law practice in Pinole, where he specializes in civil rights issues and personal injury cases. But at least one of his supporters fully expects to see him back on the political scene sooner or later.
“I think [Phillips’] political future is bright,” said the Rev. Andre Shumake, the president of the Richmond Improvement Association and one of the most influential figures in Richmond politics. “I’m sure at some point [Gioia] will ascend to the assembly or even the state senate, and how encouraging it is, particularly as an African-American man, to see someone like Mister Phillips coming up through the ranks and willing to serve his community.
“[Phillips] was an inspiration, particularly to young African-Americans in Richmond, who saw in him a sense of hope in that he has been successful in life, and he was willing to make that civic commitment to serve the citizenry of Richmond,” he said.
Shumake said he believed Gioia and other politicians like Congressman George Miller (District 7) and Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (AD-14) would do well to invite Phillips into their inner circles.
“That’s the kind of nurturing that needs to come out of West County,” Shumake said. “We need to nurture these young men and women to take on that kind of leadership. So yes, I’m sure he’ll be on the scene for some time.”
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