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Richmond council divided over proposed Congressional redistricting

on June 20, 2011

By August, Richmond may have a new representative in Congress – and the city’s leaders are divided over whether that’s a step in the right direction.

Democrat George Miller has been Richmond’s Congressman for more than three decades, but that run could effectively be over this fall. A state commission created to redraw state and federal district boundaries has proposed moving Richmond out Miller’s 7th District and into Democrat Barbara Lee’s 9th District.

nat bates in north richmond

Nat Bates, pictured last year in North Richmond, is adamantly opposed to the proposed Congressional reapportionment. (photo by Robert Rogers)

Reaction at City Hall is mixed. Supporters of the proposed redistricting see Lee as a courageous Congresswoman and the coastal East Bay as more culturally and politically aligned with Richmond. Opponents on the council say Miller, a Richmond native, has represented the city well and that he and his staff have spent years building a network of relationships with local leaders and knowledge of local issues –  which would not be easily replaced.

“Bad, bad, bad … bad idea,” said Richmond Councilman Nat Bates, the city’s longest-serving elected official. “There is no way we are going to get the same kind of service and attention [from Lee] that we can count on from George Miller.”

Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who was elected last year, takes a starkly different view. “I like the idea, and I have received several emails from people who are excited about possibly being in Barbara Lee’s district,” Beckles said. “I also think we have much more in common with the cities to our south than those to the east in Miller’s district.”

Bates and Beckles represent opposite poles in the seven-member council, which is divided over California Citizens Redistricting Commission’s June 10 release of proposed maps for Congressional, State Assembly, State Senate and Board of Equalization district reapportionment.

In a series of telephone interviews and emails, five council members and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin weighed in on the proposed redrawing of the Congressional lines.

Bates was joined by Corky Booze in adamantly opposing moving into Lee’s 9th District, and Councilman Tom Butt expressed concern that losing Miller, a longtime representative and Richmond native, would be a step back for the city.

“Nothing against Barbara Lee, but I would sure regret going out of George’s district,” Butt said. “He has been our (Congressman) for 30 years, and we have been extremely well served.”

Beckles was alone in a full-fledged endorsement of a switch, but Councilman Jeff Ritterman and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin both expressed admiration for Lee while stopping short of any suggestion that Lee would be an upgrade over Miller in representing Richmond.

Both McLaughlin and Ritterman expressed support and admiration for Lee’s anti-war stance in Congress, which included being the lone vote in Congress against the Patriot Act in 2001.

“I’d like to thank Representative George Miller for all he has done for Richmond …” Ritterman wrote in an email Thursday, adding that “I also warmly welcome the opportunity to work with Barbara Lee who has been an inspiration to me personally for her courage in opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

McLaughlin also touted Lee’s opposition to the war.

“I have a lot of respect for Barbara Lee being the only Congressperson who voted against George Bush’s War Resolution in 2001,” McLaughlin wrote in an email last week.

Butt also expressed respect for Lee, but said he was concerned that changing Congressional leadership during such a pivotal time in Richmond’s history could be a step back. “Our leaders here have built strong relationship with Miller and his staff, they know all the issues and all the players here in Richmond,” Butt said. “To have to start from scratch, that would be tough.”

Councilman Jim Rogers did not respond to requests for comment.

Aside from the question of which House member would represent Richmond in Congress, the council is divided over the benefits of a geographic and cultural shift that would shift Richmond away from its inland Contra Costa County neighbors like Martinez, Concord and Pittsburg and into the political sphere of bigger East Bay cities like Berkeley and Oakland.

“This would be the worst thing that could happen to Richmond,” Booze said. Booze made a point to say that he had no qualms with Lee personally or politically, but warned that her “district is so big that Richmond would be lost. The Oakland and Alameda County area is not a good area for us to be lumped into, we would be an afterthought to their concerns.”

Bates echoed Booze, saying that Richmond is in “direct competition” with Oakland and other cities in Alameda County, especially over expanding operations at its fledgling port, which may compete for some of the same clients as Oakland’s.

Richmond is also seen as the frontrunner site for a new University of California research lab and campus, a development that would draw millions in public and private dollars to the area. Albany, Oakland and Alameda have also submitted proposals to lure the lab.

But Beckles, who consistently allies with Ritterman and McLaughlin in environmental policies and other matters, said Richmond has grown into a city that has more in common socially and politically with Bay Area locales like Berkeley and Oakland than the more conservative inland reaches of Contra Costa County.

“Culturally, and policy wise, we are closer to Oakland than we are to Martinez,” Beckles said. Beckles mentioned green initiatives, including a ban on plastic bags, where she said she has sensed that Richmond is moving farther and faster than its more conservative suburban neighbors.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is scheduled to put out a second draft of district maps next month, must approve new districts by Aug. 15. In the meantime, the public can provide feedback to the process here.


  1. tsuggs on June 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    If Ms Lee does not provide for the residents of Richmond, then the voters will have to show their disapproval by not voting for her!

    • Don Gosney on June 21, 2011 at 10:22 am

      In theory you’re absolutely right. In reality, though, we may never see an electable opponent to the incumbent in that district. We could just not vote for her to send a message so instead of getting 84% of the vote she may only get 83%.

      Does anyone really think she’d notice?

  2. Jean Womack on June 21, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Miller has been a big supporter of parks. Richmond has more waterfront parks than any other city in the Bay Area. whatever federal money is available, Miller has been able to bring it to Richmond, including Mainstreet and the Social Security Building, and now possibly another Lawrence Lab campus. Obviously Oakland commands most of Barbara Lee’s attention and Richmond will be the poor sister. My preference is no reflection on her courageous political positions protecting free speech in Congress and her protection of women’s rights.

  3. Don Gosney on June 21, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Perhaps Ms. Beckles, Ms McLaughlin and Mr. Ritterman might have different opinions if they could recall how poorly Ms. Lee represented Richmond when she was in the State Assembly back in the early ’90’s. Oh wait! None of these people were here in Richmond back then so they wouldn’t have any first hand knowledge of the history of our representation (or lack thereof).

    This was at a time after the 1990 census when the powers that be decided that since Oakland was Black and Richmond was Black so they should lump all of the Blacks together so they would get representation from a Black person.

    Just as they did back then, the people drawing the lines are looking at the numbers and not the people. To suggest that the quarter of a million people in West County have the same needs and interests as those in Alameda County shows how little they know about the area.

    Yes, Richmond and Oakland have many common areas of concern such as gang violence, a large percentage of undocumented residents, residents of color, a lack of employment, an educational system that needs help and a failing infrastructure but the way we deal with those issues is different.

    Can anyone honestly say that the people of Port Costa at the northern end of this new Congressional District have the same concerns as those in the southern end near the northern end of San Leandro?

    For those that are saying that Richmond is more aligned with Alameda County they need to get out of those Berkeley suburbs they hang out in (Point Richmond, the Annex and the Marina) and talk to the people in downtown Richmond and points north and east.

    It’s true that Richmond is far different than Solano County and even Central Contra Costa which are included in the current Congressional District so saying that politically we’re closer to Bezerkeley than we are to Martinez has some validity. Nonetheless, these past thirty years we’ve had a representative in Congress that shared our politics, knew his people and made great efforts to stay connected with the people here in West County. The same cannot be said about Ms. Lee when she was our representative 18 years ago. She was, for lack of a better way of describing her, an absentee Assemblywoman.

    Once the stamp of approval has been made on these new lines we will, once again, be treated much the same as we have been in the past by elected “leaders” who are supposed to represent us.

    I’m reminded of something said at an overpriced fundraising luncheon about ten years back when our outgoing State Assemblywoman announced to us that “We all know that Berkeley is the center of the political universe in the Bay Area and only a woman from Berkeley can represent this area.” Of course, being a male hailing from West County I was insulted on so many levels. This is the philosophy, though, by too many people that have been representing us and will continue to “represent” us at every level for the foreseeable future.

  4. suburbjoe on June 22, 2011 at 8:04 am

    This is all about funding and money. The people of Richmond DEPEND on Miller to fund them and the city. It’s just more welfare really, and without it the city and her people will be loud and angry when Oakland “takes Richmond’s share.” Time for Miller to go ruin another area. The last 30 years have seen a stark decline in Richmond. Look at photos from a decade ago and then look around now. San Pablo avenue looks like 23rd street did. It has car lots and tire stores, homeless, graffiti, prostitutes, tattoo parlors and is filthy. You can thank Miller and Casino San Pablo for this.

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