The Progressive City on the Bay (And It’s Not Berkeley or S.F.)

When we sat down to talk with 60-year old Gayle McLaughlin, the mayor of Richmond, Calif., she had just been through a summer media whirlwind. Policy innovation and political controversies landed McLaughlin and her East Bay city of 100,000 on the front page of The New York Times, on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, and on Democracy Now with Juan González and Amy Goodman. Even Fox News recently hosted a debate between two Richmond city council members about the merits of a new “ban the box” ordinance passed to ease the re-entry of former prisoners into the community.

The national media’s rediscovery of Richmond began last fall when the Times informed an unsuspecting world that McLaughlin’s “small, blue-collar city best known for its Chevron refinery has become the unlikely vanguard for anticorporate, left-wing activism in recent years, having seized the mantle from places like Berkeley, just south of here, or San Francisco, across the Bay.”

Since 2007, Richmond has approved a business tax increase and defeated a casino development scheme; opposed Immigration & Customs Enforcement raids in the city and created a municipal ID card to aid the undocumented; sought fair property taxation of Chevron and sued the giant oil company over the damage done by a huge refinery fire and explosion last year; and supported “community policing” initiatives introduced by Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, which have helped reduce violence.

In 2012, Richmond progressives failed to win voter approval for a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, a public health measure bitterly opposed by the beverage industry. And since Richmond became the first city in the country to threaten the use of eminent domain to avert foreclosures, major banks have sued to block the plan and some investors have shunned the city’s municipal bonds. Homeowners without mortgage problems have been flooded with banking-industry funded mailers claiming that their property values will be adversely affected. At a Sept. 10 meeting attended by 300 people, the city council voted, by a 4 to 3 margin, to resist these pressures and pursue McLaughlin’s anti-foreclosure initiative. (Actual use of the city’s eminent domain powers will require five council member votes.)

While the outcome of the anti-foreclosure fight has yet to be decided, the city’s expanded bike lanes, urban garden network, public art displays and worker co-op initiatives are all flourishing. On August 3, a crowd of 2,500, joined by McLaughlin, marched to the Chevron refinery gates in the largest environmental justice protest in Richmond’s history.

We asked McLaughlin about her own background and the recent changes in a city better known, in the past, for its problems with drugs, crime, gangs and industrial pollution.

How did you first get involved in politics?

McLaughlin: I was born into a working-class family; my dad was a union carpenter and my mom worked in factories and as a housewife. Most of the work that I had done prior to coming to Richmond [in 2000] was for causes that had a national and international focus. I was involved in the Central American solidarity movement and campaigns against racism and sexism and for education and jobs. I decided once I moved here that it was time to put down roots and get involved in local work.

You’ve accomplished a lot in 12 years, including winning three consecutive elections (one for city council and two for mayor). How did that happen? 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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We do it by reaching out, door-to-door and one-on-one, to fellow community members. Precinct walking is the way we have won all our campaigns and the way that we have continued to build a base. Having real relationships with our neighbors gives us an advantage over Chevron, which has started to recognize our success with door-to-door campaigns. They’ve actually started hiring people to go door to door, with lies and misinformation. But these aren’t authentic relationships they’re building. So while Chevron has a lot of money, we have values, principles and better communication with the people.

You have an African-American community, a Latino community, and now many Asian immigrants living in Richmond. Has it been a challenge reaching out to so many different constituencies in a majority non-white city?

We have beautiful diversity, people coming together from various cultures and backgrounds. It’s been an incredibly enriching experience for me to work with all sectors of our community. I think I’ve won all three of my campaigns because people see me as a regular person, as someone who really cares. Richmond’s overall demographics makes our progressive movement very special but, hopefully, also an example for how we could move forward in our country.

The sector of the African-American community that sometimes will side with old-guard politicians, who are taking money from Chevron and not serving our collective interests, still exists. But it is shrinking, and we have a younger African-American community that is rising up and taking a stand against old-guard leaders.

Our community is 39 percent Latino, and they have been very strong in siding with progressives. We have stood for immigrants’ rights and been a leading city in the area of immigration reform, before it even reached the national stage. And we have a municipal ID that’s going to be rolled out pretty soon for everyone, including immigrants.

What about organized labor—how have local unions related to the Richmond Progressive Alliance?