Uche Uwahemu: Fighting an uphill battle for Mayor of Richmond
on November 1, 2014
With the election less than four days out, Uche Uwahemu greets his volunteers by name as they trickle in to start their day’s work of phone banking and outreaching to voters.
Up against Tom Butt and Nat Bates, two local politicians with a combined experience of 55 years, Uwahemu stands out as an outsider to Richmond’s politics. This is both a curse and a blessing. He presents Richmond a fresh candidate for mayor, yet has the challenge of facing two local stalwarts with widespread name recognition.
“The two front-runners for mayor have done their best to ignore Mr. Uwahemu,” said Charles Smith, a resident who met Uwahemu and was impressed by his knowledge of Richmond’s politics.
Originally from Nigeria, Uwahemu has tackled the Richmond political scene head-on with his experience outside Richmond, including working on Barack Obama’s campaign. His campaign works to reach as many voters as possible within all the precincts, which demands long nights and early mornings.
“There is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among Richmond voters with the current council,” Smith said. “If Mr. Uwahemu is seen as a viable candidate for change, I think he could win the mayoral election.”
From Africa to Washington D.C. to Richmond
Born in eastern Nigeria, Uwahemu came to the U.S. in 1987. He lives in Marina Bay.
Uwahemu attended public school in Washington, D.C., where he got involved in community engagement.
“When I was in high school, myself and another guy, we started a coat drive,” Uwahemu said. “Because it’s pretty cold in D.C., when you come out, a lot of people don’t have coats, you know they are shivering, so we started a coat drive out of a high school.”
Uwahemu attended the University of Maryland, studying criminology and criminal justice. Before moving to Richmond, Uwahemu was involved in community organizing to re-elect Marion Barry to the Washington D.C. mayor’s office.
In 2002, Uwahemu moved to Richmond because he wanted “to focus on school.” He started his law studies at John F. Kennedy Law School, took some time off in between and finished at East Bay Law School in 2007.
From 2007 to 2011, Uwahemu worked as a social worker for two companies. One is STARS Community Services, part of the Stars Behavioral Health Group. The other is Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), a Berkeley-based nonprofit that combats homelessness in East Bay.
In 2011, Uwahemu started his own company, the Cal Bay Consulting Group in Richmond, but the company now mostly operates in Oakland and Haywood.
“We do work with small businesses, to expand their businesses, and nonprofit,” Uwahemu said. “We work with a lot of churches in Bay Area.”
Uwahemu’s work with the company has become fodder for his political opponents. Daniel Butt and Andrew Butt, Tom Butt’s sons, have repeatedly accused Uwahemu of not having a business license for the Cal Bay Consulting Group, pillorying the candidate in a popular Facebook forum.
According to the California Secretary of State website, Cal Bay Consulting Group is registered with the state as a limited liability company with an active status. Its agent for service of process is Uche Justin Uwahemu. The company’s address is on 3302 McBryde Ave in Richmond, CA.
But according to a staff member from Richmond Finance Department, the department has not issued any business license to that address. Cal Bay Consulting Group is also not in the department’s system as an active business. She said that if the company is in Richmond jurisdiction, it has to file for a business license since that’s a requirement for companies in Richmond.
When messaged about the business license issue, Uche J. Uwahemu for Mayor of Richmond Facebook account replied that “if & when Tom Butt releases the documents his campaign had requested regarding his shady business deals in Richmond, then Uche will respond to your already deliberated question about his business license.”
Uwahemu’s campaign coordinator Angelique Holmes gave the same answer over the phone.
After being approached to run for a seat in the State Assembly last September, Uwahemu decided Richmond needed him more than Sacramento.
“I don’t want to be a policy guy just sitting in Sacramento and not get anything done. I would probably not last there,” Uwahemu said. “But I really want to focus on what I am good at like the community work and using my global connection to build something in Richmond.”
Uwahemu’s campaign experience comes from his days spent working on the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 and in 2012. He participated in the grassroots effort by traveling to Nevada and Ohio to train volunteers.
Uwahemu uses the same tactics in his own campaign. He said he saw other candidates have their door hangers placed on car windshields, flowers and trees. It would never happen in his campaign.
Door hangers are designed to be taken off from the door handles and people will read them. If the hangers are placed on cars, people will just throw them away, he said.
One day in May, Uwahemu was driving around and he saw some door hangers misplaced.
“I said stop the whole precinct that day, and we brought them back and trained them again,” Uwahemu said.
A fellow Obama volunteer, Karen Davis, joined the Uwahemu campaign after realizing that she shared the candidate’s vision for Richmond.
As Uwahemu’s volunteer coordinator, Davis focuses on data. Sitting in Uwahemu’s campaign office, faced with a large map of all the precincts in the City of Richmond, Davis researched where are the voters located and what precincts have the most voters and the highest turnouts.
“So the stuff is just looking at publicly available information, and determine how best we can use that for our campaign,” Davis said. “The road to victory doesn’t lay in one precinct, but all over. That’s why our focus is on all of Richmond.”
The campaign recently faced some challenges in regards to two incidents at the campaign headquarter. One morning in September, Uwahemu arrived to his campaign office to find an empty garbage can with all of its contents blocking the door.
Another time, the volunteers found an old mattress outside the campaign headquarter. Complaints were filed at the city council and with the police department.
Despite the security issues, Uwahemu said his campaign has more than 400 volunteers. Almost one third of them are young students from Kennedy High School, De Anza High and Richmond High.
One of the youth volunteers recently moved to Ohio, where his work experience with Uwahemu’s campaign helped him secure a job in a political campaign. The sister of the young man recently called Uwahemu to share her brother’s exciting news.
“When you get involved in this, you are hoping to change some lives, hoping to impact people,” Uwahemu said. “Like listening to some of the young folks getting inspired that they want to go to law school or run for office in the future.”
Richmond’s port as a centerpiece of a new economic vision
A large basis of Uwahemu’s vision relies on his innovative economic plans for Richmond. But there are questions about how feasible these plans are.
One is to expand the Port of Richmond.
“We don’t want our port to be filled with just cars,” Uwahemu said. “The more you expand our port, the more you have opportunities.”
He added that an expanded port would bring more high paying jobs like longshoremen, that don’t require a college degree.
Uwahemu wants to achieve that by removing the Port of Richmond from the control of City Council and to establish a Richmond Port Commission. And he has someone with experience to help him. Chuck Foster, former Oakland port executive director, is the “chair of my kitchen cabinet,” Uwahemu said.
Butt is critical of Uwahemu’s port expansion plan. In his popular e-forum, Butt wrote “the Port is not going to win the lottery for Richmond.”
Butt is not alone in his criticism.
“He hasn’t said anything concrete, of which that would show you that he really understand how Richmond government operates,” Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) Richmond community organizer, Andres Soto said.
Uwahemu has also talked about attracting technology startups to Richmond at almost every candidate forum.
“45 miles away from Silicon Valley, there’s no technology here,” Uwahemu said during one forum. He plans to use the space in Richmond such as the 32 miles of shoreline and the downtown area to attract tech companies and to establish a “501(c)3 joint tech incubator venture.”
When asked if it is a problem that the Silicon Valley startup folks are usually rich people who might perceive Richmond as a dangerous place to work, Uwahemu sidestepped the question and said he brings a new way of doing business to Richmond.
Uwahemu said he did meet up with several startups in the South of Market (SoMa) area in San Francisco. When asked when he met with those startups in SoMa, were they interested in moving to or having some business in Richmond, Uwahemu said, “I’m not the mayor, you know that right? So I was talking to them as business person to business person.”
When asked the question again, Uwahemu said, “the incubator is very attractive to a lot of them, I’ve visited several of them in San Francisco, it’s a no brainer that we can easily do that.”
An election that has turned negative
Uwahemu has been under Butt’s attack since September, when Butt questioned his education credentials.
“He’s attacking me because he wants to minimize my impact in his [voter] base,” Uwahemu said.
Uwahemu questioned where the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which has endorsed Butt, raises money to put up several billboards in Richmond. He also said he doesn’t believe that the best way to move Richmond forward is to fight Chevron, a main plank on the RPA’s platform.
“Chevron is here to stay,” Uwahemu said. “We want to work with them to continue to be a responsible tenant. We want to work with them to continue to improve on their environment issues. So as a mayor, I will work with them on that.”
Uwahemu said he will bring a fresh perspective to working with the city’s biggest taxpayer than either of his opponents.
“And then as you work with them, you also want to bring business, that’s really how you reduce their control of Richmond,” he said. “But you can’t reduce it by fighting with them.”
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