In June, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wound up his presidential primary campaign by urging his supporters to run for office themselves.
About 20,000 volunteered to do so–in this election cycle or future ones. And, since then, the Sanders-inspired organization known as Our Revolution (OR) has endorsed about 100 like-minded candidates across the country. They include Sanders fans running for seats in Congress and state legislatures, on city councils and local school boards, and mayoral positions.
In Richmond, the scene of an epic electoral battle between local progressives and Chevron-backed candidates in 2014, two would-be city councilors are getting OR fund-raising and publicity help (including a photo op with Sanders during his visit to San Francisco last weekend). Melvin Willis and Ben Choi are leaders of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a force for change in their city for the last 13 years. During that time, RPA candidates have won eight mayoral or council races while losing only six local contests. Two of those initially unsuccessful candidates now serve on the city council after getting elected on their second or third attempt.
Unlike most first-time candidates, Willis and Choi have the benefit of existing political infrastructure of the sort OR hopes to foster in more cities and states. The RPA has a bustling downtown office and dues paying membership of several hundred; its most active volunteers publish a newspaper mailed several times a year to 30,000 Richmond residents and support a year-round program of multi-issue organizing. The group’s election campaign coordinators have a large data-base of past progressive voters.
Like political insurgents elsewhere who identify more with Sanders personally than the Democratic Party, Willis and Choi are clashing with local Clintonites. In Richmond, leading Democrats, including Mayor Tom Butt and his longtime council rival, Nate Bates, are against rent control. As an organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), 25-year old Willis helped spearhead the effort to get a city council majority to approve rent regulation in 2015, before a California Apartment Association (CAA) petition drive triggered suspension of that ordinance. Rent control is now on the Richmond ballot, in revised form, as Measure L and the CAA is spending heavily to defeat it.
Candidates Divided on Rent Control
The field of nine seeking three open seats on the Richmond council is split 5 to 4 between foes and friends of rent control. Five candidates are past or present city councilors, with higher name recognition than Willis or Choi. RPA opponents include three lawyers, a local businessman, and a neighborhood council leader who, despite being a rent control critic, is backed by state Assembly member Tony Thurmond and six different Democratic Party clubs or bodies.
No one else in the race, except Willis and Choi, refuses contributions from corporations or industry associations like the CAA—a stance that both RPA activists stress at every candidate forum. The Willis and Choi campaigns are using house parties to attract enough small donors, of the Sanders variety, so both candidates can fully utilize public matching funds. In Richmond, that system provides a maximum of $25,000 to office seekers who can raise $30,000 in private contributions.
A graduate of Amherst College, Choi comes from a Korean immigrant family in Los Angeles; he works for Marin Clean Energy, a non-profit renewable energy provider responsible for reducing fossil fuel dependence among local utility users. The son of a low-income single mother, Willis graduated from a local high school but opted to become a full-time community organizing, rather than pursue further education. Three years ago, in recognition of his tireless Richmond canvassing for refinery safety, soda taxation, tenant and home-owner protection, plus a higher minimum wage, Willis received the prestigious Mario Savio Young Activist Award at UC-Berkeley.
Willis and Choi have both been city planning commissioners, a background they tout in candidate night debates about balanced development and access to affordable housing. Both were appointed by Gayle McLaughin during her eight years as the city’s Green mayor. McLaughlin was termed out two years ago but now serves as a Richmond councilor and leading proponent of rent control.
RPA Majority—Dream or Nightmare?
McLaughlin’s election night dream is a first-time ever RPA majority of four or more on the city’s 7-member council. That is not a November 8 outcome favored by her 72-year old successor in city hall. A decade ago, Mayor Butt welcomed the “Greens, Latinos, progressive Democrats, African-Americans, and free spirits” in the RPA as valuable political allies. In 2014, he joined McLaughlin on the stage with Bernie Sanders at a Richmond rally organized to protest Big Oil’s $3.1 million campaign to elect Chevron-friendly candidates rather than Butt and that year’s three-member RPA slate.
Since then, Richmond’s left-liberal united front has fractured over rent control, reform of the city’s police commission, and various water-front development controversies. After ACCE organizers like Willis, local unions, ministers, and RPA activists pressed the University of California for concessions related to a proposed campus expansion in Richmond, Butt blamed them for “killing the golden goose” when that project was suspended due to stalled private sector fundraising for it and UC-B Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ recent resignation. When Richmond tenants got rowdy at a Sept. 13 city council meeting–where a 45-day moratorium on evictions failed to win a necessary super-majority vote–Butt accused the RPA of “riot and bullying.”
In email blasts to several thousand readers of his E-Forum, Butt now condemns the RPA for its “ideological purity” and raises the specter of “bloc voting” by progressive councilors who, in his view, have “almost no interest in economic development and job creation.” As he told me recently, “if they get a fourth member on the council, it would be an absolute disaster for Richmond and would make my life miserable.” In some past interviews, Butt has even hinted he might resign if his own council vote was rendered irrelevant.
On the campaign trail, Melvin Willis reminds voters that, “before the RPA, Richmond was a terrible and dangerous place.” The city council was dominated by “a voting bloc called the Chevron Five,” politicians bought and paid for by the city’s largest employer (an arrangement that some present-day RPA critics, although not Butt, had no problem with then).
Addressing a crowd at Richmond’s Washington elementary school on Sept. 28, Choi disputed the “perception of RPA as unyielding and uncompromising,” saying that neither he nor Willis “fit that stereotype.”
In the closing days of their campaign, Choi and Willis are both counting on the RPA’s much-tested GOTV capacity—plus additional voter-turn out help from Our Revolution.
The outcome of Richmond’s referendum on rent regulation will directly affect about 25,000 people in 9,000 residential units; if enough voters in those households participate in the election, they may favor candidates most strongly identified with tenant protection. The coat-tail effect of a big pro-rent control vote could give the RPA its largest city council delegation ever—in an election cycle where its fiercest corporate adversary in the past, Chevron, has been laying low and avoiding the “independent expenditure” over-kill that back-fired so badly for its favored candidates two years ago.
(Steve Early is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and author of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, a book about Richmond available in January from Beacon Press.)Filed under: Bay Area / California