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Last minute turnout drive: Richmond election likely to be decided by few voters

on November 3, 2014

If recent history is any indication, the fate of Tuesday’s Richmond municipal elections is likely to rest in the hands of about a tenth of its roughly 107,000 residents.

The two front-runners for mayor, Nat Bates and Tom Butt, won seats on the city council in 2012 with only 13,592 and 11,575 votes, respectively. That year there were 43,687 eligible voters in Richmond.

Mike Parker, the campaign coordinator for Richmond Progressive Alliance, an organization running a slate of three council candidates and independently supporting Butt for mayor and Jael Myrick for council, estimates that its council candidates will need between 11,000 and 12,000 voters to win.

Parker said RPA “expects to have support all across Richmond.”

The organization has been campaigning “very hard” in the north and east parts of town, as well as El Sobrante, Hilltop, Sante Fe, and Belding Woods, Parker said.

The key to their campaign, Parker said, has been a volunteer effort to knock on doors, make face-to-face contact with voters and distribute campaign literature. While he estimates RPA volunteers have knocked on between 10,000 and 15,000 doors and left literature, Parker said they have made actual contact with between 3,000 and 5,000 voters. That, he said, is the only metric likely to matter, due to the torrent of campaign mailers that have flooded Richmond mailboxes in recent months.

RPA is counting on its grassroots tactics to counteract $3.1 million of spending to support its political opponents by local oil giant Chevron, which needs municipal approval for plans to modernize its Richmond plant and faces an ongoing lawsuit from the city over a massive 2012 refinery fire.

Chevron has supported Bates and city council candidates Jim Rogers, Charles Ramsey, Donna Powers and Al Martinez, whom Parker identified as RPA’s principal opposition. Myrick also received early support from Chevron.

Chevron’s spending, funneled through its “Move Forward” PAC, has inundated local airwaves with television ads, plastered the faces of Chevron-friendly candidates on every billboard in the city—and attracted national media attention in the process.

A mile down MacDonald Street from the RPA headquarters near the Richmond BART station, Bates said he wasn’t sure how many votes would be needed in the election. Turnout normally falls in a mid-term election, Bates said, but he detected “a lot of attention” during this fall’s campaign season in Richmond.

“There’s been a lot of campaigning going on in this one,” Bates said. “So I suspect it’ll be a little bit stronger turnout.”

About three-dozen Bates supporters were calling homes and walking in precincts to get out the vote, he said. His strategy was to stick to his base, mentioning in particular the African-American community.

“I’ve always done well on the Southside, Hilltop Green, all of Hilltop,” he said. “I don’t do well in Point Richmond, that’s Tom Butt’s area. I don’t do well in the Annex, that’s Gayle [McLaughlin]’s area. So I go where I’m the strongest.”

But Parker said RPA believed that an “elaborate” get-out-the vote operation by Chevron could add a late twist to the campaign.

Parker alleges Chevron has used data analysis to identify its candidates’ likely voters, and on Election Day will arrange for cars to pick the voters up and take them to the polls. Through a network of Richmond churches, Parker and RPA believes Chevron will also offer free pizza and coupons for pizza to residents who vote.

Chevron spokesman Kurt Glaubitz said Tuesday that Parker’s allegation is untrue.

“Claims of improper and illegal election activities are categorically false,” Glaubitz said in an email to Richmond Confidential.

“It’s really a question of whether we can get enough people out through our door-to-door face-to-face contact to match what they can basically buy to go to the polls,” Parker said.

For his part, Bates said he was unaware of Chevron’s activities. Moving Forward is an independent committee; it is illegal for him to have contact with them and he’s focused on his own campaign.

He also questioned the effectiveness of door-to-door efforts by RPA volunteers who come from cities outside Richmond.

“The best walkers you can get are obviously people who live in the neighborhood, knock on the door, ‘Hi I’m Mrs. Johnson, I live around the corner, I’m walking for Nat Bates.’ And that’s what we try to focus upon,” he said. “But, bringing in outside people and just walking the streets, I don’t think that resonates very well. But each person has a way of doing their own thing.”

Parker said some RPA volunteers do come from out of town, but “our attitude is look, Chevron is basically run from San Ramon. There’s nothing wrong if we get help from people that live in Oakland and Berkeley.”

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Chevron contributed directly to the campaigns of Nat Bates and city council candidates Jim Rogers, Charles Ramsey, Donna Powers and Al Martinez.]

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Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.

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