A leader who confounds convention
on October 28, 2010
Councilmember Maria Viramontes does not shy away from conflict.
Viramontes, now running for her third term, frequently spars with the mayor at council meetings. For her vigor, the city’s progressive politicos have labeled her a corporate shill and an automatic “yes” vote for all things related to Chevron and the proposed casino at Point Molate.
Despite the rhetoric, Viramontes is capable of making votes that confound both her supporters and opponents:
“Actually, I voted for Gayle McLaughlin when she ran the first time in ’04, as a councilmember,” Viramontes said. “And I did because I wasn’t threatened by her environmental optimism — I thought it was a good thing! I just thought that would round out the council even more.”
Over hot dogs in what was essentially enemy territory — rival candidate Corky Booze’s unofficial campaign headquarters, Casper’s Hot Dogs on MacDonald — Viramontes makes it clear that she considers herself a moderate and is not driven by politics. During the interview, “balance” was a go-to word for the city’s first Latina councilmember: the city needs it, the mayor lacks it, and the council’s is off-kilter.
The biggest problem with the city’s civic leaders, Viramontes said with a jab at the table, is that they cannot juggle three key issues: the environment, social equity and education.
Although Viramontes said the councilmembers all agree on the importance of education, some politicians “say: ‘environment, at every other price’ — and that price always falls on African Americans, Hispanics and low income communities.” As a minority and a lifelong resident, she said, she is in a better place to understand the plight of Richmond’s poor, mostly minority population.
Viramontes’ progressive opponents say she’s not as independent as she likes to portray herself. They’ve nicknamed her “both-ways Viramontes” for declaring opposition to Chevron, even though the company has spent $230,000 to support her campaign through a political action committee.
Viramontes maintains that she has fought hard against Chevron, and said she has only supported a proposed expansion to the refinery because it would mean replacing old equipment with new, more energy efficient machines. And despite mailers from the progressive alliance, Viramontes also recommends a “no” vote on Measure U and the proposed casino at Point Molate.
Viramontes said that the city’s politicians too often act as if Richmond can only protect the environment or grow economically — never both at the same time.
“I keep telling people over and over again, it isn’t a question of either or,” she said. “We can do both responsibly. I passionately believe that. And it drives me crazy when people say that we can’t.”
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