‘To a lot of us, Mayor Butt represents politics as usual’: Richmond reacts to Butt’s decision to leave public life
on October 14, 2021
There was a time when most Richmond voters would have been disappointed by Mayor Tom Butt’s decision to make this term his last in public office. That was before they elected a slate of progressives whose majority on the City Council drowns out many of Butt’s opinions and initiatives.
“To a lot of us, Mayor Butt represents politics as usual: Connected to the big businesses, protecting big developers, and against progressive taxation and social policy,” said resident Benjamin Mertz. “Richmond is a majority-minority city. We are diverse and working class. This older, powerful, long-established white man doesn’t represent the city anymore. I never got the sense he understood those of us who walk these streets.”
In an interview with Richmond Confidential last month, Butt, 77, revealed that he won’t run for another office once his tenure is up in early 2023. That will end a 27-year political career that included two terms as mayor. Some see Butt as more of a pillar than a fixture in the community and were hopeful he would remain in office for years to come.
“Tom should not waste his talent in Richmond,” Richard Katz, Butt’s Point Richmond neighbor, said a week before Butt broke the news. “I want him to run for higher offices. I want him to run for governor of the state of California.”
Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin won’t be sad to see Butt leave the council. His most valuable political legacy is in the stances he took early in his public life, most notably, against the influence the city’s largest employer, the Chevron refinery, exerted, she said.
“Unfortunately, soon — particularly after becoming mayor — Tom abandoned that stand and many promises, joined the ‘business as usual’ camp, and increasingly confronted a growing progressive movement determined to reduce pollution and to have Chevron and others pay their fair share of taxes to our city,” added McLaughlin, a former Richmond mayor who co-founded the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
Reimagine Richmond, which is allied with the RPA, was more direct after hearing that Butt would not run for another office: “Good, because we have work to do,” the organization posted on Instagram
In recent years, the RPA has bitterly opposed Butt, and after the last election, its members filled a majority of council seats, leaving Butt on the losing end of a lot of votes. The way the mayor sees it, the RPA is “obsessed” with derailing his agenda.
“In a way, they’re either not interested in, or they oppose everything else that is related to a successful city,” he said. “They don’t like businesses. They don’t like corporations. They don’t like anybody that has any money. They’re against housing. Many of the things that are critical to a city, you know, they’re just dead set against.”
In 2018, Butt was reelected by defeating RPA-backed challenger Melvin Willis, following a contentious campaign. He also has had a particularly fraught and hostile relationship with Claudia Jimenez, an RPA steering committee member who was among the candidates who swept the City Council in 2020.
Jimenez did not respond to Richmond Confidential’s request for comment about Butt’s impending departure.
In the past few months, Butt has found himself even more cornered after his unsuccessful bid to get rid of City Manager Laura Snideman and City Attorney Teresa Stricker. He accused them of using unauthorized taxpayer money to investigate whether he steered city business to his architectural firm — a claim that hasn’t been made publicly and which Butt denies.
The only person on City Council who often sides with Butt is Nat Bates — who ran for mayor in 2014 and lost to Butt. Chevron had backed Bates, dumping about $3 million in an effort to get him, and other candidates, elected. Butt ran on a comparative shoestring, a David to Bates’ Goliath.
“Tom has worked hard. He has done a lot for the city [that] many people don’t know about or honestly appreciate,” Bates said. “He has worked hard to try and make Richmond a better city.”
Richmond Confidential reached out to all City Council members through their official emails. Only Bates and McLaughlin responded.
An architect by trade, Butt repeatedly sought to set up new housing units across Richmond, a city undergoing an acute housing crisis not unlike the rest of the Bay Area. While his willingness to ignore environmental concerns in that pursuit was criticized, his image as a proponent of housing earned him admirers, too.
Joe L. Fisher, a Realtor and president of the Coronado Neighborhood Council, said Butt has served with integrity and transparency, and is going to be missed.
“His entire family has shown only true love for the city of Richmond,” Fisher said.
Butt’s son Andrew who also is an architect, previously served on Richmond commissions and boards, as did Butt’s wife, Shirley. His son Daniel is a local attorney. Tom and Shirley Butt moved to Richmond in 1973, after Butt earned a degree in architecture and served in Vietnam. He continues to work at Interactive Resources, the firm he started in Richmond nearly 50 years ago.
Over the years, Butt came to be more associated with politics than with his trade. And for more than a quarter of a century, he has been an elected official.
Still, some residents such as Mertz found him out of touch. Marco Lemus, an official with the all-volunteer Richmond farm Urban Tilth, shares a similar sentiment.
“I just wish he more often joined with other volunteers and got his hands dirty, you know, without any camera present,” he said.
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