While the nation swings right, Richmond swings left
on November 15, 2016
As the Republican Party swept into power nationally and the country watched its politics become more conservative overnight a week ago, Richmond had one of its most progressive elections ever—passing a rent control measure and giving the city’s leftist political faction majority control over the City Council.
“The country went one way this time and Richmond went the other way,” said Robert Smith, a Richmond resident and political science professor at San Francisco State University.
The election’s outcome pits the city of Richmond—and, by and large, the state of California—against a federal government that is Republican-controlled for the first time since 2007. Which means Richmond officials must now devise a strategy to govern locally under a president and Congress with goals and beliefs far different than the majority of the city’s residents.
In the local election last week, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) fielded two candidates, Melvin Willis and Ben Choi, in a crowded pool of City Council hopefuls vying for three open seats. The two finished first and second, respectively, in the nine-person race. Along the way, they unseated centrist incumbents Nat Bates and Vinay Pimplé—despite the fact that Bates was Richmond’s longest-serving councilmember.
In a Nov. 9 statement, the RPA heralded the election as another victory in an “electoral struggle” for progressivism and against the influence of corporations over politics.
“In recent years, voters have elected several corporate-free council representatives who brought new progressive approaches to the problems that our city faces,” the statement read. “The grassroots movement that propelled their victories upset the political status quo.”
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said that given the conservative turn in Washington, the city’s work will now be more important than ever.
“I think it’s going to be more incumbent on local government than ever to show the way,” Butt said. “Everybody tells you that the cities are the key to making this work and I’m hoping that Richmond will continue to be a leader.”
There are a handful of ways that municipalities can push back against a conservative federal government, said Smith. This includes passing resolutions condemning the administration’s actions, raising the minimum wage and enacting policies to battle climate change.
Butt said that Richmond will continue to push for climate legislation, particularly in pursuit of more affordable renewable energy. Butt represents Richmond on the board of Marin Clean Energy, a renewable energy provider, and said he has seen renewable energy become more affordable each year.
Butt said that Richmond will continue to focus on these policies, even as a Republican-dominated White House and Congress take contrary positions.
After Donald Trump won the presidential election, California’s legislative leaders issued a joint statement addressing that challenge on a state level.
“California will defend its people and our progress,” the statement read. “We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility.”
The statement, issued by California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León and California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, promised that the officials would “evaluate how a Trump Presidency will potentially impact … the rights of people living in our state.”
But Smith said this isn’t the first time that California, and the Bay Area in particular, has found itself to the left of the nation’s politics.
“When the country is going one way, the Bay Area is always going left,” Smith said.
For a long time, Richmond had been the exception to that rule, Smith said, with its history of industry and a government that was far more centrist than its Bay Area neighbors. But the city, with its new progressive majority on the City Council, now finds itself in a much different position.
“Now, Richmond has put itself at the forefront of this ‘left coast politics,’” Smith said, using a term coined by his colleague, Richard DeLeon, that describes San Francisco and the Bay Area as “The Capital of Progressivism.”
The gap between the nation and Richmond is more profound in this election because of the divide between the city and many of Trump’s supporters, Smith said.
Trump was helped to victory, to a large extent, by “white nationalism,” said Smith. “A large segment of the white population is concerned about the fact that the country is being transformed into something they don’t like,” he said.
Richmond, a “multi-cultural, multi-ethnic” city, “would be the poster city for what they don’t like,” he said.
The day after Trump was elected, many of Richmond’s high school students walked out of class in protest, marching down MacDonald Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Willis, the RPA-backed councilmember-elect, joined the students.
“We can do a lot here locally,” Willis said then. “We can work with other cities to be a defense line regionally, to make sure our communities feel protected and feel like they’re thriving—in spite of what happens nationally.”
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