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Man walking by Obama sign

In Richmond politics, the Obama family brand resonates with the community

on September 19, 2012

Nat Bates was elected for a record seventh time in 2008 and one of his campaign signs featured his face next to the face of another man looking to make history in the same election. This year, Bates’ reelection signs once again link him to the same man. A blue sign in the window of the West Contra Costa County United Democratic Campaign office shows Barack Obama, Nat Bates, and a message: “Let’s do it again.”

Jeff Ritterman was also elected in 2008, and while he is not running for reelection, he’s the sponsor and chief campaigner for Measure N (popularly know as the soda tax) – which has brought him into conflict with Bates. Ritterman has repeatedly encouraged voters to toss Bates off the council and he’s got his own idea about what the president might like. Just down the road from the Democratic campaign office, in the Richmond Progressive Alliance Headquarters, stacks of campaign literature in support of Measure N appeal to voters with the glossy photos of Michelle Obama.

While the infighting in the City Council has increased in recent months, the Obamas are still a popular unifier in the strong Democratic city. Whether it’s the First Lady’s image being used to promote the soda tax, or the president’s name with a City Council candidate’s, the strong national polarization around the Obamas is much different here.

“I think the overwhelming number of people will vote for Obama,” Councilmember Jeff Ritterman said. “I think that cuts through all the communities and social groups.”

The polarized national political scene doesn’t exist in Richmond. More than two-thirds of Richmond’s registered voters are Democrats and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin is one of only five Green Party mayors in the United States. Only 8.5 percent of Richmond voters are registered Republicans.

But the divisions here are just as sharp, name-calling and arguments just as tense – and the Obamas’ image can be recruited in support of both sides. On Sunday, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown spoke at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church about his opposition to Measure N – and his support for Obama.

Corky Booze’s council term doesn’t expire until 2014, but he’s been one of the most vocal opponents of Measure N and a supporter of Bates’ campaign – and he was happy to echo the words of the legendary former mayor.

“Willie Brown brought it home the other day when he said we have to take control of our own destiny,” Booze said. “President Barack Obama is trying to make (a change) and we in the community, not only the African American community, but people who are struggling, believe in Barack Obama.”

Ritterman volleyed right back with his own Obama connection. Ritterman said that Michelle Obama was featured in the campaign literature because, “First of all they have a young family,” he said. “We in Richmond need to focus on our children, and they have two young daughters who eat right and don’t have problems.”

In an interview with Men’s Health magazine, President Obama called a soda tax an “idea we should be exploring” and said “there’s no doubt that our kids drink way too much soda.”

But he also said he understood resistance to the idea on Capitol Hill and that “people’s attitude is that they don’t necessarily want Big Brother telling them what to eat or drink, and I understand that.”

Ritterman compared Obama’s first term in office and contentious relationship with Republicans to the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s battles with Bates and Booze. “Obama was being blocked by the party of no,” Ritterman said. “In Richmond we have our own party of no, who are Obama supporters, but they are on the local level.”

While Ritterman’s foes don’t control a majority of the council the way Obama’s do, the comparison nonetheless suggests that in Richmond, supporters and detractors of Measure N are just as fractured as Republicans and Democrats.



  1. Don Gosney on September 19, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    Too many people here in Richmond are allowing the soda tax and Chevron to be the wedge issues in this campaign. They’re the litmus tests on whether residents should be allowed to stay here in Richmond or be bullied into leaving.

    If you listen to the rhetoric coming from the dais in City Hall, if someone suggests that we should wait until we learn the results of the investigations into the Chevron fire before committing the City to specific actions against Chevron, then you’re almost immediately castigated with allegations that you’ve been bought and paid for by Chevron and that you’re a supporter of big business against real people.

    Likewise, if you believe that elected officials should not be allowed to come into our homes to tell us what we can eat or drink, then in the eyes of some of these same people we’re the lackeys of the soda bottlers and we’re seen as placing the interests of big business ahead of saving the lives of these obese little black and brown children.

    It’s disheartening that considerate and legitimate conversations cannot be held without one side or another going postal and saying things better left unsaid. Where has the right to disagree gone? When was civility thrown out the window and replaced by the “my way or the highway” mentality?

    I used to think of myself as being pretty liberal but in the eyes of many of these people they talk about me like I was Karl Rove or Newt Gingrich.

    Partisan politics has infected this community and the art of the compromise has been buried. You can’t forge a compromise when you refuse to listen to people who have a different opinion. You can’t agree to disagree when you publicly chastise people from the dais who don’t agree with you and complain that they’re wasting everyone’s time by disagreeing.

    Until an effort is made to actually talk and listen, this wedge is going to continue to exist and it will grow wider and wider until the chasm is too wide to repair.

    • Felix Hunziker on September 19, 2012 at 11:00 pm

      Well said as usual Don. Unfortunately there will be no compromise as long as the Richmond Regressive Alliance keeps acting like the Code Pinkos of the Democratic party.

      • Mercy on September 20, 2012 at 7:32 pm

        Oh boohoohoo, the RPA is so fractious and they’re “commie pinkos” too, boohoo.

        It seems to completely escape your attention, both of you, that the RPA is representing what the citizens of Richmond actually want done in this city. They want Chevron held to account for a pattern of negligence that stretches back decades. And they want better food and beverage options available for their children. Their really need be nothing partisan about either, and the fact that their appears to be any debate at all stems only from the facts that monied interests from outside of Richmond are spending hundreds of thousands to create the appearance of “opposition” via Nat Bates and Corky Booze and a citywide ad campaign. It’s embarrassing, frankly, to see private citizens falling for such transparent political chicanery. Fortunately you two are quite clearly amongst the voting minority in this city.

        • Don Gosney on September 22, 2012 at 10:09 am

          The flaw in your argument, Mercy, is that the people are not united in the positions you mentioned. Not everyone hates Chevron; not everyone thinks sodas are poisonous and not everyone thinks that are pets need to be freed from their oppressive masters.

          When you look at many of the votes over the years, the numbers suggest that there are large pockets of the populace that do not share in these same ideals. Even with the casino, while the vote count clearly showed that the majority agreed with the arguments against the casino, 43% of the voters had a different position. That’s not exactly a mandate–not even close.

          Elected representatives are required to actually listen to ALL of the people they’ve been elected to represent. When there’s a clear division of the house when it comes to issues, then there has to be something of a compromise wherein both sides can walk away feeling they’ve been listened to and got something out of the deal.

          Too many times here in Richmond we have ideas, proposals and plans shoved down our throats and that’s never a good thing in a democratic community. Wouldn’t you agree?

          Why do you suppose there’s so much anger voiced from the public–from both sides–at the meetings of the City Council? And I’m not just referring to Corky and Jovanka. People in the audience–once again, on both sides–grow so angry that meetings have to be recessed so the police can calm people down. Do you suppose that this would be the case if people were willing to talk and listen to each other without wanting to go to war on every issue?

          And don’t think that it’s the “monied interests” that is the root of these problems. On the soda issue, it was when it was first proposed that things got stirred up–long before the bottlers even knew what was being proposed. How do you think they even found out about it? Do you think that maybe some of us who were against the idea from the very beginning might have contacted them to alert them to what was being planned against them?

          And why do you think that we all have to embrace your ideals and that if we do not that we’re evil, corrupt, stupid or have been bought off? It wasn’t that many years ago that relatives of mine bought into the whole idea that everyone had to follow their exalted leaders and when they finished drinking their Kool-Aid they fell to the ground dead. I have to believe that had more of those 912 souls resisted and tool “Father” that he was wrong, that the carnage would have been lessened.

          A few months back a member of the Council angrily chastised us for resisting what he was proposing and kept asking why we were wasting his time. Even then I had to rise from my seat and shout out “Because someone needs to tell you that you’re wrong”.

          A healthy debate is a good thing and there’s nothing wrong with opposition. Blind obedience is the bad thing–at least in democratically run societies.

  2. Tony Suugs on September 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Mr Ritterman,

    The president had 2 years of Democratic control of Congress. He focused on health care and got it passed without anyone reading the whole bill.

    So don’t blame the Republicans for blocking anything the President wanted to do. He still has control of the Senate which rejected his budget without a single vote from a Democrat in favor of it.

    Mercey, You mean to say that the only food choices in Richmond are unheathy ones? Food Co, Target, and many corner markets carry fruits and vegetable. If people are making “bad” food choices, then they are making that choice. It is not being forced on them.

    I thought Democrats, Progressives, liberals, etc wanted people to have the “Right to Choose.”

  3. Dennis Dalton on September 23, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Chevron and the bev industry support and sponser Bates and Booze, witness the billboards and mailers. When the council votes policies, watch these Pepsi and Oil twins. I admire Obama and plan to vote for him, but agonize over Bates claiming he is a Democrat having the best interests of the Black Community. He must know excess sugar and toxic gases are not good for individuals. But money has a strong appeal.

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