Richmond Council candidates speak to environmental and health issues at forum
on October 23, 2014
Local environmental and health groups got their turn to challenge Richmond’s City Council candidates Wednesday night, peppering them with questions on issues including pollution, Doctors Medical Center and the local minimum wage.
The candidates were each given one minute to respond to questions posed by the evening’s moderator, community organizer Sandy Saeteurn of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.
The first question asked of the candidates was how they would hold polluters accountable. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who is seeking a City Council seat once she is termed out as mayor, said the city needs to tightly regulate corporations and “not settle for peanuts.” She pointed to the lawsuit that the City of Richmond filed against Chevron last August, in response to the 2012 Richmond refinery fire, as an example of holding the corporation accountable.
Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles stressed her refusal to accept corporate money as “the most important start” to holding polluters accountable and being beholden only to citizens. “I was in Parchester Village the other day, came back home, blew my nose, and there was soot,” Beckles said. “That is unacceptable.”
The Environmental Justice Candidates Forum was attended by about 80 people at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium, and hosted eight of the nine full-term candidates for City Council, with Donna Powers absent. The audience included a large showing of Richmond’s Asian and Pacific Islander community, thanks in part to the APEN, one of the forum’s co-sponsors.
Along with APEN, the forum was sponsored by Communities for a Better Environment, the California Nurses Association, SEIU Local 1021, Urban Tilth, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization.
“Electoral campaigns have such a huge impact on the city’s communities,” said Vivian Huang, APEN’s campaign and organizing director. “We wanted a candidates forum was that accessible. It was important for the audience to have access to translators.”
Translation was provided for Mien and Khmu, languages spoken by two Laotian ethnic groups. According to the 2010 Census, about 14 percent of Richmond’s population is Asian, native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
All of the candidates supported keeping Doctors Medical Center open as a full-service hospital, though the candidates differed on how to achieve that goal. Al Martinez called for other Contra Costa County cities to “do their part” to save DMC, saying that “nobody wants to play but Richmond. We can be the advocate and the champion, but we want to hold [other West Contra Costa municipalities] accountable.”
Jim Rogers championed Measure U, the half-cent sales tax that will be on the November ballot, as a way to funnel money towards DMC. “We don’t have some rich uncle to put in the money” to keep DMC open, Rogers said. “We need to understand how to go out and work with other people.”
In his response, King highlighted his status as a lifelong Richmond resident and political outsider. “I was born there [at DMC]. My mother passed away there,” King said. “But let’s be realistic – we’ve been having this issue since 2005, and if we keep the doors open, what’s the long-term plan? How long has leadership known about the DMC issue? How long was that information withheld from the common people?”
A question about raising the minimum wage revealed some dissent among the candidates. While all supported a minimum wage increase, Rogers said the city needs to strike a balance between a living wage and the cost of doing business in Richmond. He cited Galaxy Desserts as a local business that has expressed reluctance to take on the cost of higher wages.
In a challenge to Rogers, Beckles said that she had heard the same threat that Galaxy would leave Richmond if forced to pay a higher minimum wage. “I’m not easily intimated,” Beckles said. “Maybe Galaxy needs to go. Maybe then we’ll have room for companies that want to pay their workers fairly.”
The night’s most divisive question centered on Richmond CARES, a city program that would use eminent domain to acquire homeowners’ underwater mortgages in an effort to keep residents in their homes. The program, which was proposed by McLaughlin and approved 4-3 by the City Council last year, put Richmond on the map as the first city in the U.S. to try what is widely considered a risky gamble against Wall Street.
The three progressive candidates – McLaughlin, Beckles and Eduardo Martinez – voiced support for Richmond CARES, while the other candidates’ responses ranged from ambivalence to disapproval.
“I’m very sympathetic to this challenge in that I lost my home in 2008 after making balloon payments,” Henry Washington said. “However, no other city in the U.S., to my knowledge, has done this successfully. If you’re losing your home, do you want to go to court, too?”
Charles Ramsey was more succinct in his opposition to Richmond CARES. “I don’t support it,” he said. “If that is your litmus test, I’m not going to pass. I don’t think the city is able to implement it.”
The forum wrapped up following two audience questions about the Citizens United court decision and food justice, during which Rogers and Washington left early to attend prior commitments. After the forum, candidates and organizers mingled and posed together for group photos.
“We partnered with so many different organizations that we were able to bring in a lot of different constituencies,” Huang said after the event, “and diverse constituencies are important to a thriving city.”
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