Eduardo Martinez: Shy person turned into powerful city councilman
on November 13, 2014
Three minutes past midnight, Eduardo Martinez walks out of the Richmond Progressive Alliance office. He turns around and stares back in. Still no final result. He waves goodnight to his supporters.
It’s Martinez’s third time running for the Richmond City Council. In 2010, he lost. In 2012, he thought he would win. He lost again.
Minutes later he leaves, the unofficial final result for the 2014 election pops up at the Contra Costa County Elections Department website.
Highest vote getter: Gayle McLaughlin. Second highest: Jovanka Beckles. Third highest: Eduardo Martinez. He wins by a margin of 300 votes.
To everyone’s surprise, Martinez storms back in.
“Team Richmond 5, Chevron – Zero!” He shouts to a roar of cheers.
Richmond’s newest elected leader, Martinez was a school teacher for 18 years. When he retired in 2010, he turned to politics. He speaks at every council meeting. His calendar brims with appearances at community events. He’s friendly and well-liked. When he canvasses, he bumps into former students, often not remembering them. Martinez’s teaching experience made him a good listener, but he’s built the guts to stand up for what he thinks is right.
Among the three Team Richmond candidates, Martinez is the least experienced.
He’s no born politician. He is shy. While Beckles and McLaughlin address crowds of people frequently and eloquently, Martinez stutters. He’s Latino, but not fluent in Spanish.
His lanky build, shy smile and bespectacled face mask a man with a fierce sense of what he thinks is right and the policies that will improve Richmond.
Martinez’s success on Election Day is itself a power move. It enables the RPA to control half of the newly elected city council, and sets the stage for the council to appoint to itself another RPA member.
Martinez is passionate about controversial policies like imposing rent control and using eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages from banks. He’s eager to sue Chevron over the 2012 refinery fire that sent thousands to the hospital. He says he will advocate for new county taxes on refineries and bargain hard with public safety unions to drive down pension costs.
Martinez’s victory means Richmond will likely stick to its progressive route and possibly enact radical options like eminent domain, which requires a super majority.
Born in Dumas, Texas, Martinez moved to Richmond in 1993. He lives in the Richmond Annex neighborhood.
Martinez’s family has been in Texas since the state was part of Mexico. Dumas was a natural gas town. Everyone drove in Dumas when Martinez was there. Not many Latinos lived there.
Martinez was raised in a Spanish speaking family, but he had speech problems.
“I was so made to feel embarrassed to speak that I only spoke to my sister,” Martinez said. He didn’t have many friends, but the ones he had were loyal.
In high school, Martinez overcame stuttering in English, after he discovered the trick of beginning every sentence with the word “but.” However, he didn’t overcome stuttering in Spanish because he didn’t have much practice speaking the language outside his circle of family members and relatives.
That experience contributed to Martinez’s awkwardness in public events.
“Truthfully, I’m a very shy person,” Martinez said after the Tuesday election at RPA office. “So this whole campaigning thing has been hard for me.”
When he was in ninth grade, the town changed its farming from grain crops to truck crops, which meant more manual labor was required. Migrant families flocked to Dumas every summer.
Martinez had both Caucasian and Latino friends. Both groups kept asking him what he was.
“I felt like I was an outsider, someone who belonged to both groups but wasn’t part of either,” Martinez said. “That was really difficult.” His interests weren’t aligned with either group. Martinez liked books, especially science fiction. He also loved music. He remembers when he was seven years old, he got turned on to Rock ‘n’ Roll after his brother introduced him to Elvis Presley.
But at home, Martinez’s father played the song “El Camino de Guanajuato” while cooking. Even now, sometimes when he’s driving, Martinez plays Spanish songs. His favorite is “Cuatro Caminos,” he said. He spelled it “Quatro” in an interview.
Martinez moved to the Bay Area in the 70s. He worked at a few jobs, including USPS mail handler, hospital orderly, house painter and carpenter. While doing all these, Martinez took classes at Laney College in Oakland.
On Nov. 11, 1977, Martinez met his wife Liz Watts. He fell in love with her at first sight. Six years later, they got married. Martinez lights up when talking about his wife.
“She’s made me very very happy and will continue to do so. She’s fantastic,” Martinez said. “I get happy just talking about her.”
After they got married, Martinez and Watts decided he should find a more stable job. The couple discussed the possibility for Martinez to become a lawyer or a teacher.
“We liked the idea I become a lawyer because it would be a lot of money,” Martinez said, “but then we decided that we would rather to have the ability to spend more time together.”
Thanks to his classes taken at Laney College, Martinez earned his bachelor degree and teaching credential at San Francisco State University in only three years.
In 1989, Martinez started his teaching career in West Contra Costa Unified School District. After one year, he was laid off. He blames the layoff on financial mismanagement by the district.
He immediately got a job working in Juvenile Hall in Alameda County. Martinez worked there for a summer. After that, the Juvenile Hall asked him to help set up a self contained community day school for pre-expulsion kids who just came out of Juvenile Hall and were not ready to go back to school.
Martinez clashed with his supervisor over teaching methods. Martinez wanted to focus on the social skills of the students. His supervisor wanted the kids to focus on academics. Martinez ignored his supervisor’s recommendation because he “didn’t think they will focus on their studies until they develop social skills.”
According to Martinez, not only the kids’ behavior but also their academics improved significantly after the program. Despite that, Martinez was fired in 1992, after two years. His supervisor didn’t appreciate that Martinez ignored his recommendations.
That experience took a toll on Martinez.
“I was really disillusioned with the educational system,” Martinez said, “because here I am, I’m doing a great job, the students are actually improving, and they laid me off.”
From 1992 to 1994, Martinez returned to house painting and carpentry. But he wasn’t making enough money to pay the bills. He took on debt.
“So I used my credit cards to pay my credit cards until I got to the point that my wife said that okay, you can’t do that any more, we have to pay everything off,” Martinez said.
He started missing payments and his interest rate soared.
In 1994, he went back to teach at the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Although he tried hard to pay back the credit card debts, the interest rate was so high that he was unable to reduce his principal. So he called his banks and wanted to negotiate a more realistic plan to pay the money back. The banks turned him down.
In 1998, Martinez finally filed for bankruptcy. The banks started offering him plans that they repeatedly said they couldn’t do before.
“At that point, I said I already filed for bankruptcy, so if I withdrew, how can I trust you to not change your mind?” When Martinez went to court, no one showed up. So all his credit card debts were forgiven.
The bankruptcy would come back to haunt him during his political campaigns, as opponents painted him as financially irresponsible.
Until he retired in 2010, Martinez had been teaching 4th, 5th and 6th grades elementary school students in Richmond. Subjects he taught included Math, English, PE, Social Studies, Science and Art.
His financial troubles didn’t stop him from teaching about finance to school kids.
“I remember he did teach us stocks, that was one class he tried to introduce us to the whole stock market,” Abriana Mebina, one of the students Martinez taught at Downer Elementary said. Mebina is now in college. She said that although they had a large classroom, Martinez was attentive to each and every of the students. In after school programs, he would also teach different activities.
“He was one of the teachers my mother really engaged with, and he took time, engaged with her, sit down, talk to,” Mebina said. “Overall he’s a good teacher. He’s someone that stands out for me when I think back about elementary school ”
As a teacher, Martinez stood up for the benefits of students and schools.
“He participated in the march to Sacramento to advocate for the release of debt for the school district,” education activist Scottie Smith said. “He was very instrumental in that. He lobbied the legislators in Sacramento trying to get the bill to completely reduce the interest rate.”
Martinez was also known as one of “The Downer 5,” the five teachers at Downer Elementary who publicly objected several instructional requirements at the school.
In 2010, Martinez retired as a teacher. He considered running for the school board. But members of RPA approached him and asked if he would be interested in running for city council. After a lot of discussion with his wife, RPA members and others he respected, Martinez decided to run.
In the 201o city election, Martinez lost. He tried again in 2012, when he got 10,956 votes, only to be beaten by Chevron’s candidate Gary Bell by 518 votes. Shortly after the election, Bell fell ill and died. In a political play, the council overlooked Martinez, who was the highest vote getter after Bell, and appointed Jael Myrick to Bell’s seat.
Martinez didn’t give up.
“I figured if I am going to run for city council, I need to learn the city,” Martinez said, “and the best way to learn the city is by being in the community, and being in service.”
In the last four years, he volunteered for different community organizations and served on city commissions.
As a board member of the local nonprofit Self-Sustaining Communities, Martinez helped pick up, deliver and distribute 16,000 fruit trees. He also worked on one of the organization’s farms and helped plant a street orchard of fruit trees.
“He’s a friendly and easy going fellow but he also has a strong conviction to doing what’s right,” founder and executive director of Self-Sustaining Communities Linda Schneider said. She laughed and added, “I think once in a while, he forgets his calendar.”
Since May 2013, Martinez has served on the city planning commission. The commission exposed him to Richmond city development and how the city plan is being implemented. The position also enabled Martinez to start conversation with businesses because people who want business licenses or want to remodel a particular building for business have to come before the planning commission.
“He works very well with the planning committee colleagues, we have very good discussions at our meetings,” city planning commissioner Marilyn Langlois said. “I think he’s very good at problem solving but with an eye to finding solutions that will really work the best for the residents of Richmond.”
But he has his detractors. Long time Richmond resident Don Gosney is critical of Martinez’s ability to lead the city.
“I served with Eduardo on the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee, and we didn’t always agree on substance or style,” Gosney said. “I felt he could be better prepared when he showed up at meetings. He could pay more attention to what was actually being said and being done.”
While Gosney didn’t serve on Point Molate Community Advisory Committee, he attended the meetings quite often, usually as the only one from the public. He said that although Martinez was on the committee, Martinez’s attendance was “less than stellar” to the point where “they were ready to remove him from the committee because he missed too many meetings.”
Gosney looks at Martinez’s city planning commissioner experience more as a resume builder.
“It’s a common practice in politics to have your mentor appoint you to all these committees, so that when you run for office, you can put down on your resume, look at all these things I have done,” Gosney said.
In 2014, Martinez was finally “third time lucky.” Although Chevron spent $304,000 opposing him, and sponsored a candidate named Al Martinez, Martinez won.
Vision for Richmond
As a newly elected city councilman, Martinez is passionate about getting to work on several policies.
He’s a proponent of the Richmond CARES program, which seeks to use eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages to reduce loan principal and to prevent foreclosures on families in Richmond. He also wants to set up a policy to protect renters, and isn’t averse to using rent control.
“Richmond is going to see an upsurge of gentrification, so when Richmond gentrifies,” Martinez said. “I want to make sure people who are living here aren’t pushed out of their neighborhoods.”
Martinez is also interested in infill developments in the city’s core.
“I’d like to start a project of finding out who owns what properties along MacDonald Ave, along 23rd St and coming up with a program that will invite developers to infill,” Martinez said, “as opposed to allowing developers to decide at their whim, what shoreline they want to develop.”
Chevron has been a huge player in Richmond politics. In an election-day interview, Martinez said that the corporation should stick to what they do, which is producing energy, not investing in politics.
As a councilman, Martinez will pursue the lawsuit the city filed against Chevron, the first ever lawsuit the city has filed against its biggest taxpayer.
“I do believe that Chevron has not been forthcoming and accepting responsibility for the fire,” Martinez said. “So I think it is time for it to be heard in court.”
Martinez also wants to make sure Chevron lowers its pollution. He will start with the recommendations of US chemical safety board to “put the onus of accountability on Chevron,” which means before Chevron does anything, the corporation has to prove to the community that what it’s going to do is safe and beneficial.
For the Chevron modernization program, Martinez said he will honor the deal the city had with Chevron. But he wants Chevron to be more transparent with the modernization plan.
“I was very disturbed by the fact that Chevron did not mention Praxair at the hearings, and that Praxair who is going to be running the hydrogen plant, never once showed up in any of the hearings, even though they are the ones who are actually fronting the money for the hydrogen plant,” Martinez said.
The city is facing a $7.6 million deficit, which Martinez blames on Chevron’s fire and the lowering of property taxes. He also thinks that the pensions of the police and fire departments contribute to this deficit.
According to Martinez, the fireman and police pension is practically equal to what they make when they are working, which is not the case for a lot of other unions and jobs. Martinez wants to negotiate those pensions down, which could be a tough battle.
“If they are true team players, and truly concerned about the city that they are protecting and serving,” Martinez said, “then they might be interested in making some kind of sacrifice.”
Martinez also has plans for Doctors Medical Center San Pablo, the only public hospital in West County, which is facing possible closure.
He wants DMC to be admitted to the county hospital system, and said the county should levy a tax against Phillips 66 and other refineries in its unincorporated area to provide the funds.
Since Tom Butt is elected as the new mayor, the council member seat Butt vacated will be up for the appointment by the majority of the council. Martinez will have a pivotal role to play in filling that seat, and he knows what he wants.
“I think if we are going to appoint someone, it should be a young person, and it should be a person of color,” Martinez said. He said that if necessary, he would be willing to compromise.
Although he campaigned as part of Team Richmond, Martinez said that he would not limit himself to only supporting Beckles and McLaughlin, which many of his opponents expect.
“It’s going to be a fluid council and I think that the alliances will be based on issues as opposed to loyalty,” Martinez said.
Tom Goulding contributed to this report.
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