OPINION: Why a Jovanka Beckles victory is crucial
on November 2, 2018
“We the People,” says the preamble of the American Constitution. But for years, this apparently democratic phrase has mainly meant upper-class predominantly white citizens.
Tuesday’s elections in the 15th Assembly District might change the meaning of who “We the People” really are in the Trump era. The race is a microcosm for the larger political battles in the United States, with possible echoes for decades to come.
Buffy Wicks is the traditional candidate, a white woman born in California and raised in a trailer-park. She has a political science and history degree from the University of Washington. Clear spoken, smart and articulate, she used to be a protester against the Iraq war, until she became a politician and participated in both of President Obama’s campaigns.
She has been endorsed by the traditional power centers in the Democratic establishment, including Obama himself. In 2016, she led Hillary Clinton’s campaign to victory in the state of California, earning the nickname: “Buffy, the Sander’s Slayer.”
Now, less than one week before the election in which she is herself the candidate, she has raised $1.4 million in donations, according to the California Secretary of State. The amount is three times what has been raised by her opponent Jovanka Beckles, who has collected less than $500,000.
Beckles could not be more different. She’s lesbian, black and a Latina immigrant, a working woman who has never stopped advocating for civil rights. She immigrated at age 9 from Panama, and holds a job as a mental health professional. She does not have the personal wealth to stop going to work to fight her campaign.
Her team is small: only nine people are on payroll and the rest are volunteers. Her wife, Nicole Valentino, manages her campaign. Richmond has been her hometown for the past 20 years. Endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, Beckles is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and her campaign has been supported by the group locally and nationally.
Her city itself is an icon of grassroots organizing through the Richmond Progressive Alliance, known as the RPA. This alliance won a majority of Richmond City Council seats in 2016, toppling the political power structure in the city that had long been close to Chevron Corp., the biggest oil refinery in California located in the heart of the city. Supported by the RPA, Beckles has been on the city council since 2010.
Beckles’ punchline slogan is catchy: “Corporate free, people powered,” and she means it in a impressively coherent way. Not only she does not accept any corporate donations, but as a city council member she has also been at the forefront of workers’ and minorities’ rights, along with the RPA. It led Richmond’s effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour; eliminated the box that people had to check on housing applications if they had criminal records and got the city to adopt one of the first rent control measures in 30 years.
In this race, the underlying question for voters should be: Who better represents what “We the People” means in 2018?
Win or lose, the challenges that Beckles faces as a candidate reflect the structural inequalities that independent socialist candidates face when running for office. They have far less money. A total of $1,425,633 is being spent to support the candidacy of Wicks, about three times the $478,897 fueling the effort to elect Beckles. Like Beckles, many socialist candidates do not have the personal wealth to be able to campaign full-time and lack the support of well-established party structures. Ultimately, such inequalities serve to exclude them, or, as in Beckles’ case, make it very hard for “We the People” to rise to positions of power.
Both candidate’s platforms are very similar and can be deemed “progressive” in a place where that concept has changed over time. Today, California is the free-market haven steeped in the ideology of Silicon Valley: a mixture of the libertarianism and unrestrained corporate power that enabled the growth of internet companies.
In this context, both candidates call for the state to become 100 percent reliant on renewable energy, adopt a single-payer healthcare system and expand public education. But they differ on the essential question of how to solve the area’s housing crisis.
The flip-side of the tech boom are steeply rising rents and increasing homelessness. To confront the problem, we are in this election offered the choices of the free market versus benefactor state. This battle of ideologies is embodied in the choice we have to make on how to vote Election Day on Proposition 10, a ballot measure which would allow cities and towns to impose rent control locally. Beckles fully supports it. Her goal is also to push for building affordable housing on public property paid for with public funds. Wicks, on the other hand, opposes Proposition 10, saying that it “will stop construction and development” of the houses that people so desperately need.
Wicks’ argument is flawed. The East Bay does not need more construction sites. New developments target wealthy people who can pay for housing at a market rate. Displacing and evicting lower-income people who can no longer pay the rents to make as much of a profit as possible is the essence of gentrification. This particularly hurts communities of color.
All you need to do is talk to people around the Bay Area to understand that some serious government intervention is needed.
“They are pushing us out to make money out of our homes and neighborhoods,” says Mara López, a waitress from North Oakland who I met recently on a bus. “The rents are too damn high.”
In other words, the housing problem is not about development but about long-term and affordable housing for minorities who are being pushed out of their communities by rising market prices. The invisible forces of Adam Smith cannot solve this one.
Tony Samara, the program director of Housing at Urban Habitat, an Oakland-based organization that works to overcome structural inequities, argues that it’s no surprise that Wicks shares the position of real estate developers who oppose local rent control. Her contributors include many of the same billionaires who created the housing crisis. Indeed, Silicon Valley billionaires like LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman are part of the effort to get Wicks elected. So have corporate trade associations and real-estate groups, like the California Association of Realtors.
“They see housing as a commodity that is traded for profit instead of treating it as a basic human right,” he said in an interview.
Referring to the grassroots organizing of the RPA, Bernie Sanders has written that “to change U.S. politics, we need more cities like Richmond, California.” Will he say the same about California if Beckles wins the race?
Rather than a political party, her candidacy seems to be part of a larger movement in a country that has been afraid of socialism since the Second World War. If she sits in the California State Assembly, she might not have the required votes to pass her proposals, but she will be a powerful dissenting voice to represent the majority of people living in the East Bay rather than the few wealthy and privileged.
Indeed, if Beckles wins, her victory would reflect a century-long battle to overturn power structures that have been falsely deemed as democratic in favor of more grassroots, people-over-profit people and policies. “We the People” would be more empowered to act on behalf of the people.
Gisela Perez de Acha is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. This is her opinion and not necessarily that of Richmond Confidential.
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.