The mayoral race: the traditional liberal versus the young progressives
on November 4, 2018
The race for mayor has featured constant debate between the two candidates about what is best for the future of Richmond.
The incumbent Tom Butt describes himself as a “realistic progressive” and remembers a time in the 1990s when he was considered one of the most politically leftist city council members.
His opponent, Melvin Willis, is backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, the left-leaning political group that has transformed local politics by supporting a slate of candidates in 2014 who defeated another group supported by Chevron Corp., the biggest refinery in California that had dominated local politics.
Willis, the current vice-mayor, is supported by the RPA and was the top vote-getter in the last city council election. Butt was previously supported by the RPA, but no longer favors the group and frequently rails against it.
While the two men espouse the same political ideologies and discuss the same issues, their positions on them are very different, as was clear at a candidates’ forum in October when they were questioned about whether Richmond should increase its police force.
Butt said the city needed to increase its police presence to create “a robust police force.” Willis favored reducing the police force by 20 percent, later adding that crime should be approached, “in a holistic way besides just penalizing people when we are in a community of poverty, trauma, and systemic racial oppression.”
In this way, their differences reflect the fierce debate underway at the national level between the traditional liberals and the young progressives.
Butt made his first run for the city council in 1993 and lost, but rebounded two years later and won. Now 74-years-old, Butt, a white man, has been on city council since 1995.
Butt was born in Arkansas and spent time in the United States Army before graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1973. He moved north when his wife enrolled in a graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley, and then they bought a home in Point Richmond.
He says he ran for city council because he believed Richmond could “do much better.” When he decided to run for mayor for the first time in 2014, he did so with the backing of the RPA. Today he is known for often butting heads with the RPA, which he said changed the year after his first mayoral election.
While rent control has controlled much of the RPA’s narrative for years, Butt says the issue was not central to its politics when he was backed by them in 2014.
Butt is a businessman. He opened an architectural firm in Richmond in 1973, and he believes the city needs business in order to grow. While he believes residents need affordable housing, he does not think rent control is the way to do it.
In a November 2017 newsletter, Butt said, “What Richmond needs is more housing, period, including affordable housing, not more rent control.”
His proudest achievement in office, he says, is securing funding for Richmond Promise, a scholarship program that encourages Richmond students, particularly those who are low-income, to attend college and provides them with scholarships.
Willis, a 28-year-old African-American man born and raised in Richmond, attended local schools and eventually graduated from El Cerrito High School. He went on to Contra Costa Community College but he left after being unable to pay for basic school necessities, like books.
He then began working as an organizer with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a grassroots organization that supports policies and programs such as rent control and a higher minimum wage. His focus has been on housing rights and healthcare access for people from low-income communities.
Willis says he most enjoyed the gratefulness and joy of knowing he could make a difference in people’s lives. That’s what kept me in it,” he says, “because I always said I wanted to help people.”
Willis ran for a council seat for the first time in 2016 at age 26, and he won with the most votes that year of any candidate.
He says his greatest achievement since then was pushing forward a city ordinance increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and seeing it pass. The ordinance ultimately passed with the majority of council, including Willis and Butt, voting to adopt it.
This year, Willis successfully helped negotiate a lower rent hike at a Richmond senior housing complex called Heritage Park at Hilltop. Property owners intended to hike up the rent by 12 percent for senior residents on a fixed monthly income.
After hearing residents’ pleas for help at a city council meeting, Willis says he organized assistance from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. The community empowerment group was able to negotiate a lower rent increase of 3.4 percent.
“Folks were able to stay there and not worrying about moving out,” he says.
An earlier version of the story said Mayor Tom Butt voted against a minimum wage increase. In fact, after initially remarking on reactions from business owners, Butt voted for it.
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