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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.


  1. Don Gosney on November 4, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    When Mr. Willis mentions “a community of poverty, trauma, and systemic racial oppression” when discussing crime, does this mean that if an evildoer is poor, is not white and has lived a rough life, they should be given a pass and the police should ignore the crimes they’ve committed?

    Ask anyone who has been the victim of a crime how forgiving they are. As someone who has had a nephew murdered, a brother shot multiple times, had a gun stuck in my face five times, had my home set on fire, my home broken into three times, my car broken into more than two dozen times and had my life threatened repeatedly, when I look at the people that did this to me, I don’t see color, past history or socioeconomic status. What I see is a bad person that I want removed from my community.

    I couldn’t help but notice that this reporter seems to think that the candidate’s ethnicity is a factor that should be considered. She points out that Mr. Butt is White and Mr. Willis is Black. If that’s the case, why didn’t the reporter dig deeper to ascertain that Mr. Willis’ mother is White and his father was Black. Since this isn’t Mississippi where all you need is 1/16 part non-white to be considered something other than White, would this be a disqualifier in the eyes of this reporter? There are many of us—including myself—that don’t care what color a person’s skin is. Is this important to the reporter?

    Something that should be of critical importance to everyone in Richmond is having access to our elected officials. One of the hallmarks of the RPA backed elected officials has been their lack of accessibility. Emails are left unanswered as are phone messages and texts. Are they ignoring everyone or just the people that tend to disagree with them? On the other hand, I know that Mayor Butt has been extremely accessible either personally or through his staff.

    I’m always amused when people refer to themselves as “progressive”. It has a different meaning to different people. Few people are aware that the first elected official that was labeled a progressive was Republican President Teddy Roosevelt. Does anyone believe that he practiced the same kind of progressive attitudes as the people who congregate at the RPA headquarters?

    In the Assembly race you have Progressive Buffy Wicks and RPA Progressive Jovanka Beckles running head to head against each other. Because Buffy isn’t progressive enough—and worked for Obama instead of Bernie, they try to paint her almost as being conservative. Everything is relative.

    • Scott on November 5, 2018 at 6:36 am

      Don, the amount of crime and violence that you and your family have personally suffered is shocking and I’m sorry for your loss. Did this all occur in Richmond? Any talk about cuts to police is absurd.

    • David on November 5, 2018 at 9:58 am

      I appreciate your question about the candidates’ races. It seemed like Tom Butt’s identity as a white male was tacked on as an afterthought, almost as if the reporter has some sort of quota to meet. I am mixed myself, with a white mother and Mexican father, and I find it very off-putting that the media’s narrative is to pick the “ethnic” side of mixed people and run with it. In the case of Obama, for example, he is “dark enough” that people just label him as African-American even though he was raised by his white mother. Considering he’s 50/50 to begin with, why automatically pick his dad’s side for an identity label? In reality, “mixed” people don’t belong in one category or another. It may be 2018 in America, but even the “liberal media” has a long way to go.

  2. Sandra Davenport on November 4, 2018 at 9:45 pm

    Melvin Willis is probably a well meaning individual who has very little skills, if any, to run a city of this size. Just thinking of it gives me the shakes. I have my disagreements with the Mayor, but there’s no doubt that Richmond is a thousand times better since Tom’s been in charge. He is educated, skilled in fiscal management, and has a vision for Richmond that has in many ways been fulfilled. I can’t even get an answer if Melvin graduated from high school! Heaven forbid he have a four year college degree! OMG we have to stay poor in Richmond, huh? poor and uneducated? If Willis wins you will see lawsuits from here to the ying yang!

  3. Samantha on November 5, 2018 at 5:02 pm

    Wow. So Mr. Willis is good enough to be on the City Council . . . but not mayor. He has the chops enough to be Vice-Mayor (a position that would put him in the Mayor chair in case the current mayor can not do his job) . . . but not mayor. He can make fiscal decisions for the city of Richmond . . . but not as mayor. For people who profess that they don’t see “color” they seem to not have consciousness at some of the “unconscious” bias and derogatory statements of your comments to Mr. Willis the candidate. I’m very disappointed in these citizens of Richmond, CA. This is beneath you.

  4. […] The future of Richmond could be influenced by the outcome of the mayoral race between incumbent Tom Butt and Vice Mayor Melvin Willis. Both candidates are known for their liberal platforms but differ considerably in their goals. For more details on both candidates, check out our story: The mayoral race: the traditional liberal versus the young progressives. […]

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