Scenes from an upset: At RPA headquarters, exhaustion and doubt turn to exhilaration
on November 6, 2014
Just after 10p.m. on election night at the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) on Macdonald Avenue, a volunteer called Bill wore a Chevron logo mask on his face, handing out fake bills to people, shouting “Have some money, I want your vote!” and “This is my town, corporations are people!”
Getting easy laughs at an RPA gathering during the tense lull between the closing of the polls and the release of voting results, this isn’t the time to expect the most sophisticated political discourse.
The joke outfit was evocative of the widespread awareness of what Team Richmond were up against. Going up against more than $3 million in spending doled out by of one of the world’s largest corporations (that came to about $250 per active voter), the RPA were plucky underdogs in comparison right from the start.
However, the work and resources of the RPA-backed Team Richmond were not insubstantial themselves. If not in financial terms, Team Richmond was competitive in human resources, with a sizeable team of an estimated fifty to sixty volunteers and supporters. A large board stood at the back of the center with a five-foot table listing all the polling stations around the city, detailing which set of RPA volunteers would be stationed at which precinct. Throughout the day Team Richmond campaign co-ordinator Mike Parker paced around the room, moving boxes, making phone calls, orchestrating the final day’s logistics with Margaret Jordan.
From mid-morning, Parker had been anxious. He had been told by the Contra Costa voting registrar that there had been just under 8,000 mail-in ballots received, which seemed an unprecedentedly high number. Usually a far lower number vote by mail, so where had all these new voters come from, Parker thought?
At 6pm, volunteers at the RPA were trawling down the list of potential supporters, calling them to check if they had voted.
By the time the polls shut at 8pm, a crowd was growing in the large room. Media from the Richmond Standard, KQED, Bill Moyers’ show and Richmond Confidential mingled among the supporters, volunteers and the candidates’ friends and families. Any moment the first results would start trickling through and the future of the city would start to look a lot clearer.
City Council candidate Eduardo Martinez sat down on one of the couches, taking off his sneakers and stretching his legs. “It’s been a long day,” he said. Martinez’s last two runs for city council in 2010 and 2012 ended in defeat. In 2013 he was over-looked for the seat vacated by Gary Bell’s passing away, despite being the next highest vote-getter in the previous election.
Jael Myrick took the vacant spot in early 2013, and now Martinez was hoping it was ‘third time lucky.’ But with only three council seats up for grabs, Martinez and the rest of Team Richmond knew it would take a huge victory to deliver all three into the hands of this progressive wing, given the financial forces they were up against. While he said he was optimistic, Eduardo also said “I wouldn’t say I’m confident.”
Both Gayle McLaughlin and Jovanka Beckles had large bases of support, after multiple election wins behind them. A successful night for Martinez would entail fighting off all three of incumbent Jim Rogers, and the Chevron-backed Donna Powers and Charles Ramsey.
“Truthfully, I’m a very shy person. So this whole campaigning thing has been hard for me,” he told us as he stretched out his legs again. The crowd had grown to fill the whole room, and the first by-mail ballots had been counted. This put Jim Rogers first, with Donna Powers joining Gayle McLaughlin in the top three positions. Eduardo Martinez was far behind in fifth.
McLaughlin’s four years as mayor were in the final few hours, and she was moving about the room frantically, giving mini-interviews to various media outlets. Beckles came in joyfully having spent the day at Easter Hill United Methodist Church. The room was buzzing with equal parts anticipation and equal parts exhaustion.
Most of the volunteers were in their fifties, sixties and seventies, and had been through many elections before. Big business was a familiar foe for these volunteers, as was negative campaigning from the opposition backed by financial might. But few elections had seen opposition on the same scale as this one.
At about 9pm McLaughlin went to the center of the room, now filled with nearly 100 people, and addressed the crowd as television cameras pointed in her direction.
“We can leave today knowing that we are a movement, knowing that grass-roots democracy is alive and well in Richmond today,” she proclaimed, with cheers and applause after each statement.
“It is still early so we will watch the polls, standing together knowing that we have made so much progress in the last decade,” she said, before adding optimistically that “We feel very, very strongly that we are going to get three wins!”
Beckles was called up to join her, and her voice boomed across the room. “A lot of people are saying ‘I love Richmond, I love the direction Richmond is going, I refuse to allow corporations to buy my city and my government!’” she said.
“Regardless of the outcome, we can feel good that we fought hard, we did not give up, we can be proud. We didn’t just lay down, we went down fighting!’ she said to laughter, before adding “If that’s the case [that we lost]! But I believe we will prevail, all power to the people!” she said, raising her fist in the air.
Eduardo Martinez joined them to say some words before McLaughlin ended with “We will celebrate whatever the result! It will be a victory regardless.” Clearly the need to be ready for disappointing results was foremost in many people’s minds.
The three posed for photos. “I had better put my beer down before y’all take photos of us!” Beckles said. “That will be in the next mailer! ‘Jovanka the drunkard!’” to rapturous laughter.
Around 10pm the first few precincts’ results started coming in. Beckles joined McLaughlin in the coveted top three positions along with Rogers, but Eduardo Martinez still lagged behind. Moving Forward-backed Nat Bates and Corky Boozé were getting comfortably beaten in their races, so there was a sense that even if Team Richmond did not sweep the council, at least the council was not going to be dictated completely by big business.
The carnival atmosphere continued, with dancers taking to the floor, and music by Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and The Emotions getting old-school spirits up on their feet.
Around 11p.m. with both McLaughlin and Beckles gone home for the night but Eduardo Martinez still present, almost half of the 53 precincts’ results were counted, and Martinez edged ahead of both Donna Powers and Jim Rogers into the third available council seat. Whoops and cheers went up, with many very, very surprised at the incoming results and repudiation of Chevron that was staring back at them on the computer screens.
The final 26 precincts came in well after midnight, with some twenty supporters still watching. Eduardo Martinez had held onto third-place behind McLaughlin and Beckles. While more celebrating ensued, Mike Parker warned that there were uncounted mail ballots still out there. These would not come in until the morning at the earliest, or the following few days
Still, Martinez’ pleasure was palpable. He turned to the circle of friends still huddled around a computer, and shouted “Team Richmond 5, Chevron – zero!”
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