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How the race for Richmond’s new mayor is shaping up

on November 22, 2021

With more than a year to go until the election, the Richmond mayoral race already promises a tense and tight competition.

Buoyed by a premature endorsement from the Richmond Progressive Alliance, Councilmember Eduardo Martinez has already set up a campaign finance committee, public records show.

In a race that will determine his political survival, Martinez braces for a potential challenge from Vice Mayor Demnlus Johnson III, who told Richmond Confidential he is considering a run.

Councilmember Nat Bates, who is often at odds with the RPA, has not ruled out a run, either.

And political insiders say Councilmember Melvin Willis is being encouraged to run.

Referendum on the environment

For the RPA, the largely symbolic chair of mayor will bolster its control of the City Council — one which its nemesis, Mayor Tom Butt, will not preside over. Butt must leave office after his second term expires in January 2023, and he has said he won’t seek another public office. With the shift, the powerful RPA bloc also sees an opportunity to press ahead with its “green” agenda in the city.

From Chevron refinery’s toxic pollutants and the cleaning up of hazardous materials from the former Zeneca site to the fight over the Point Molate shoreline, environmental concerns have shaped politics and conversations in Richmond for many years, cementing the city’s status as a stronghold of the Green Party.

Unsurprisingly, RPA’s favored candidate, Martinez, also plans to center his entire candidacy on the environment.

“I am an environmentalist,” he boasted in a recent interview with Richmond Confidential. “And I believe that Richmond is in need of someone who has an eye on how the city develops in the future, so that we can become even more environmentally safe.”

While the RPA will want to capitalize on the vacuum created by Butt’s departure, it may have to compete with Johnson, who will likely look to grab support from the mayor’s base. Asked recently to evaluate the outgoing mayor’s legacy, Johnson refrained from “talking about my colleague on the council.”

In his first term on the council, Johnson, 29, hasn’t announced whether he will throw his hat into the ring. But he did say he is considering running for mayor. He promised a heads-up, “if and when I decide on my next political move in regard to campaigning.”

The prospect of a challenge from this young and charismatic councilmember has already unnerved some RPA supporters.

Last week, Andrés Soto, one of the RPA co-founders, called Johnson Chevron’s “latest stooge to run for Mayor.” On his Facebook page, Soto also alleged that the oil giant’s “local mouthpiece,” Eric Zell, was hosting a fundraiser for Johnson. The post was shared by the RPA’s Facebook page and then called out by Mayor Butt’s son, Daniel Butt, as “a slander.”

When contacted, Zell, a well-known political operative who worked for Chevron, swiftly denied the assertion that he was involved with organizing of any such fundraiser.

Johnson said there was no fundraiser. “That was my birthday party my family had for me. RPA decided to pervert a family celebration [to] score cheap political points,” he said.

Shortly after sharing Soto’s post, the RPA removed it, saying the group “erroneously” reposted “unsubstantiated rumors.”

Soto, however, has not retracted it.

He doubled down on the claim on his KPFA radio show Friday. One of his guests, Sherry Padgett, a cancer survivor whose impassioned activism fueled public debate over the Zeneca site cleanup, accused Johnson of siding with Tom Butt and Bates, a former Chevron-backed mayoral candidate, on the Zeneca site and Point Molate.

RPA’s early endorsement

Despite his credentials for environmental activism, Martinez isn’t just fighting to protect Richmond’s environment. He is racing to preserve his own political career after his term expires at the end of 2022.

First elected in 2014, Martinez, 72, stepped aside — some say, reluctantly — in 2020 when the council shifted from at-large seats to districts, allowing former Mayor Gayle McLaughlin to run in District 5. In return, he demanded a guaranteed endorsement from the RPA for his future mayoral campaign.

And the RPA complied.

RPA co-chairs, Councilmember Claudia Jimenez and BK Williams, did not respond to an emailed question about whether the RPA had promised Martinez its support.

However, both Martinez and Melvin Willis, an RPA-backed councilmember who lost to Butt in 2018, acknowledged that the RPA has endorsed Martinez, albeit not yet publicly.

Martinez played down the internal friction during the 2020 race. “I decided to let Gayle Mclaughlin run … allow her to have a better chance of winning, because I’m a team player and also more focused on progressive politics, progressive ideas advancing more than myself advancing,” he said.

Since he did not seek reelection in 2020, Martinez must run for mayor to remain on the council. “I think I could have won, and that would give me two years, and then I could have continued,” he said. “But the path I chose to take only gives me one option to stay in city politics, and that’s to run for mayor. So that’s why I’m considering that.”

Worried about Martinez’s electability against a potential challenge from Johnson, allies have pushed Willis to consider another run for mayor, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

Willis said he would run only if Martinez did not.

“Because he has the support and endorsement of RPA already, it wouldn’t make sense and it would be in bad taste for me to run against him and pretty much cause problems with a group of folks that I’ve worked with for many years,” Willis said.

Willis also defended the RPA’s early endorsement of Martinez, saying “They run corporate-free candidates. They don’t have the luxury or resources to completely go out there, reach out to many people to let them know about the candidates that they support or do not support.” To launch a successful campaign, he said, candidates without the backing of corporations “need to get their name out there years in advance to even have a shot to win a race.”

Moderates in disarray

While progressives are rallying behind a candidate early on, the moderate camp is far from fielding a unified candidate. Aside from Johnson, contenders that could run in the more moderate lane include Bates. In a political career spanning over 50 years, the former mayor is the most reliable moderate vote on the City Council, along with Butt, though not as vocally critical of the RPA.

Right now, Bates, 90, is on the fence. “Much too early to make a commitment of yes or no,” he told Richmond Confidential.

There are few signs that following Butt’s departure, Johnson may take on the mantle of the moderate camp. As liaison to the city’s Economic Development Commission, Johnson isn’t averse to interacting with businesses. While he often sides with the RPA, he seeks to reconcile with Butt or Bates, too. On a divided City Council, he sometimes tries to position himself as the voice of unity and reconciliation.

“I would say our City Council isn’t any more divided than the city of Oakland or, you know, the city of Vallejo or the city of Antioch,” he said. “We have very passionate constituents. We have even more passionate City Council members who represent them.”

Butt has been openly critical of Johnson, equating him with the RPA.

“He says he’s not [part of the RPA] but he might as well be,” Butt said recently. “He votes exactly the way they vote every time. So he may not have a card, but for all practical purposes, he’s the same.”

As the current moderate flag-bearer, Butt also sees a grim future for moderates like him. “I think it’s an RPA future in Richmond,” he said.

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