Q&A with Cesar Zepeda, new District 2 council member after tie-breaker with Andrew Butt
on January 9, 2023
Editor’s note: After a tie, a tiebreaker and a recount, Cesar Zepeda won the District 2 City Council seat over Andrew Butt, becoming the first openly gay man elected to Richmond City Council. He will represent District 2, which includes Point Richmond and the Chevron refinery. Zepeda spoke to Richmond Pulse before the recount about public safety, housing and community-building. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Richmond Pulse: Having won in such a dramatic fashion, what will you do to ensure that your policies are in the interests of all of your constituents?
Cesar Zepeda: When it comes to policy making, you’re never going to please everyone 100%. The ultimate goal is making Richmond better.
We’re going to have to figure out what works best for the whole community, what works best for all of Richmond. That’s how I’ve always done my policy.
I used to be president of the board for the West County Wastewater District. When I created policy there, I had the same mindset. Before I start creating any type of policy, before I start voting on anything, I’m hoping to get into every community again, knocking on doors, asking for feedback — what’s important to you?
I want to promise more. And then put something in writing, putting those wheels in motion. What’s important in one area of the district may not always be the same in another area.
Parchester, for example. They are in dire need of sidewalks, lights and fixing potholes. You can go swimming there when it rains, in one of those potholes. And at night, every person that I knock on the door, they said “At night, I don’t go out because it is dark. None of the lights are working.”
Cars park on the sidewalks. There’s not enough space on the street. The way those sidewalks were built allows the cars to park on top of the sidewalk. At Hilltop, we have problems with speeding, so we want road calming mechanisms that will help with speed, that will reduce people making donuts, car shows. We’ve got to start putting things on our streets that are going to prevent that. Point Richmond, some of the issues are a little bit different, but sometimes they’re the same. In some places, they’re saying their lights are too bright.
RP: What’ll be your top priority as you begin your term? What will be your first steps as you begin to settle in office?
CZ: First is to build bridges with the community. I want to make myself accessible. I want to reach out to individuals that didn’t vote for me — either because they voted for my opponent or because they didn’t vote at all — so they can get to know me and know that I am looking to represent them as well, regardless of how they voted.
I want to earn their trust, so they’ll talk to me about their issues and concerns and feel that I’m there for them. I want to listen to everyone. We might not always agree. But this is about coming together and trying to resolve issues or concerns.
The vote that’s 50/50 split, it’s very telling. I want to work, if Andrew [Butt] is up for it, with him. People saw something in his position. So he has a part of the community. After every election, a lot of healing needs to happen. We don’t point fingers to say you voted wrong. It’s however you voted, you voted. Let’s move forward. Because at the end of the day, it’s about our community, and we have to work together.
RP: If building bridges is goal No. 1, what would you say goal No. 2 is?
CZ: Having the community help prioritize. I want to have this committee of individuals come forward and tell me what to prioritize. Then, there’s going to be two different things happening. One is short term, hopefully fast turnaround issues: potholes, lights, sidewalks. Those are hopefully easier things that the community can help prioritize and say, “Hey, I need this fixed.”
Then, the bigger policy making issues are going to be public safety. Having a conversation with my colleagues about police, about fire. How do we make sure that we have the right public safety in our city?
Housing: Continue bringing housing to Richmond —affordable housing, work-living housing, housing for everyone. How do we make sure that we’re reaching out to developers to come and build?
I hope we can reach out to the city staff and say, hey, we’ve got some potholes that need to be fixed. That’s not policy making unless it’s got to do with budget, and we have to fix the budget. But that’s sort of how I’m dividing the two — short-term and long-term, immediate things that I have access to versus items that I have to work with my colleagues to create policy to get them accomplished.
RP: Do you have any initial ideas on how you’d tackle the issue of public safety and work to make Richmond a safer place for residents of your district?
CZ: I ran on a platform of “I have ideas and I want to make these ideas work.” I’ve never ran on a platform of “I know everything.” I want to reach out to our police chief and ask her, what does she need? What does she need for our police officers? They need mental health services, for example. We need to backfill some of the positions that are open.
How do we make sure we can do that? How do we make Richmond a place that people want to come and work in? Reaching out to our fire safety people — what do they need? How are we with each fire station? I know that we’re short-staffed there as well. In the fire station, we have three people at any given time. So if you call 911 and you have the fire department come over, you have a whole department. I was joking with my neighbor — she had an accident, and they came, and I was like, “You have the whole fire department here.”
And she was like, “What do you mean?” I was like “We have three people, you have three people here.”
She fell — I was partially joking with her, but you know, it’s a joke but not a joke.
We’re short-staffed everywhere. How do we work with fire, with police on their needs? Then, the other layers of public safety, the individuals in public works that are going to fix those potholes, people that are going to fix the lights and the sidewalks. Can you walk down a street with no sidewalks and feel safe if there’s no lights? Do you feel safe? A pothole — if you’re driving, you try to drive around at night, you crash, that’s public safety.
Public safety is a big realm. It’s not just police, but it’s everything else that creates safety for our community. Police is a very big piece of it, but it’s not the only piece of it. Within the police, what do they need to properly service our community? What do they need as officers? Again, they’re short-staffed and working overtime. I know they’re tired. We have to give them backup. We can’t have them working overtime because it’s to the detriment of our community. Having a person that’s tired, working 20 hours a day — they can’t properly function. We can’t expect them to. They’re running on the fumes. We have to provide them that assistance.
Being a public safety person — I do health and benefits for a living — whether you’re fire or police, you see things most people don’t. That affects your mental health wellness. How do we protect them? We expect a fire person or a police person to come and save us if we need help. But we can’t expect them to be at 100% if their mental wellness is not there. We’ve got to provide them those services. Again, if they’re tired or working overtime, we can’t expect them to give 100%. We need them to be well for them to help our community be well.
RP: What would you do to create more affordable housing and to make it more accessible for residents of your district?
CZ: We have a lot of need for affordable housing in Richmond. The people that live here have kids, and those kids are going to need housing. If we want them to stay in Richmond, we’ve got to provide affordable housing.
To fix, not just affordable housing but any housing — affordable is what we have to focus on — we need to work backwards to see where the issues are that are preventing the building of affordable housing. It’s going to start at the department level. If you want to build in Richmond, you go through a planning department. If they’re not calling back in a reasonable amount of time, you’re going to build somewhere else. These are people saying, “Cesar, I try to do business in Richmond. They don’t call me back. So I’m going somewhere else.’
We’re losing opportunity. We want to bring in more opportunities, but we have to make sure they work when we do. We need to fill the positions that are answering those phone calls and helping these people that want to invest in our community, make sure that they’re able to invest in our community by calling them back. The developers that want to develop, let’s call them back. Let’s talk to them about building affordable housing. What can we do? Let’s use the Richmond property. We have land. Let’s use it. Let’s put it out there for our community.
City Council doesn’t build housing. We create policy to allow housing to be built and we approve it, but we don’t build it. We need that partner that’s going to help build it. And we need to remove the bottlenecks for the partner to be able to come in to build it. Too many bottlenecks, people leave. As president of the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council, I saw many projects try to come to Hilltop. None were built because of too much red tape.
RP: Are there any questions that you wished I would have asked you during this interview? And how would you answer them?
CZ: Maybe it’s not a question, more of a statement. But I want to be the council member that represents all of Richmond and all of District 2.
I want to work with everyone, and I want to build those bridges. I want to bring people together. As cliché as it may sound, bringing people together should be a goal of everyone, regardless of where you are politically, regardless of where you are and your mindset.
Let’s bring people together because we share one goal of making our city better. Let’s put our politics aside and let’s start working together.
This story originally was published in Richmond Pulse.
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