Can Big Oil Retake Richmond, California?
As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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On a weekday evening in mid-April, retired autoworker Mike Parker, a community organizer in Richmond, California, was among the concerned citizens signing up to speak at a local planning board hearing. The topic was a much-delayed refinery “modernization plan” that the city’s largest employer, Chevron, claims will make its 112-year-old facility cleaner and safer.
Local critics of Chevron, including Parker, rallied before the meeting under the banner of grassroots groups like Communities for a Better Environment. Also on hand, but in smaller numbers, were representatives of Contra Costa County building-trades unions who support the company. They want Richmond to approve the $1 billion project, with few questions asked and no conditions attached, so that 1,000 new construction jobs will be created as soon as possible.
This being an election year, the Chevron officials in attendance paid close attention to what Parker had to say. That’s because, several months ago, Parker announced his own plan: to run for mayor as part of a citywide slate of progressive candidates that includes Gayle McLaughlin, the current mayor and nationally known California Green, who is prevented by term limits from running for re-election as mayor and will run for City Council instead.
“The proposed way that Chevron wants to run its plant is unacceptable,” Parker, 73, told the planning board. He pointed out that the modernization project will increase “both local toxic emissions that damage our health and greenhouse gas emissions that damage our planet.” Why, he asked, “would we, as residents of the community, accept more pollution so that Chevron can use dirtier and cheaper oil to make another $500 million in profits every year?”
This is not the kind of talk that brightens the day of Chevron managers, either in gritty Richmond or at the corporate headquarters in upscale San Ramon. That’s why Richmond watchers see a big battle brewing over its future as a much-heralded “progressive city.” For seven years, McLaughlin and her allies on the City Council have governed Richmond with a movement-style mix of idealism and activism. Backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a coalition of community groups and activists, they have mounted brave challenges to some of the city’s biggest power players, from banks and casinos to Big Oil. Now, as elections loom in the fall, these same powers—led by America’s third-most-profitable company, Chevron—want to make a political comeback by defeating the activists who have curbed their influence.
Nat Bates, one of Parker’s two business-friendly opponents, laid out the corporate calculus. “Chevron has been under attack by the RPA, and they’re going to protect their turf,” he said. “If modernization is denied by the RPA, you better bet Chevron is going to favor someone with more sensitivity and compassion for what they’re trying to do.”
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Chevron has long dominated local politics. But it claimed center stage in this year’s election after a big explosion and fire ripped through the Richmond refinery in August 2012. A dozen workers were nearly killed and more than 15,000 East Bay residents sought medical attention. Since then, questions about refinery safety, pollution and Chevron’s role in the community have been key election-year themes, and McLaughlin, Parker and the RPA have been driving much of the conversation.
On the first anniversary of the accident last summer, McLaughlin and the City Council spurned a $10 million settlement offer from Chevron; instead, they filed suit seeking greater compensation for the damage suffered locally. A day later, McLaughlin welcomed 2,500 people to a rally in front of the refinery, where speakers like Bill McKibben of 350.org linked the local struggle for refinery safety to the national campaign against global warming.
Such unflinching advocacy has been a hallmark of McLaughlin’s tenure. A social activist since the 1980s, McLaughlin, 61, has been elected mayor twice, each time with the help of the RPA. Since its founding in 2003, the RPA has grown from a small core of progressive Latinos, African-Americans, unaffiliated activists and Greens into a combination membership organization, electoral campaign apparatus and year-round facilitator of grassroots organizing.
During McLaughlin’s two terms, Richmond has begun to shed its old reputation for gangs, gun violence and drug-related crime. The city of 100,000 is 80 percent nonwhite, with one-fifth of its residents living in poverty. In recent years, it has gained national attention for creative initiatives on behalf of low-income workers, homeowners and victims of industrial pollution. Lately, Richmond has been debating whether to set its own minimum wage. Business lobbying is leading to many exemptions opposed by progressives, but if Richmond’s measure gets final council approval, the city’s minimum hourly wage will rise to $9.60 next year and $12.30 by 2017.
Richmond also created a municipal ID card for undocumented residents and passed a “ban the box” ordinance to reduce job discrimination against those formerly incarcerated. To increase public safety in high-crime neighborhoods, Richmond’s popular top cop, Chris Magnus, has employed much-applauded “community policing” methods. Most famously, the city threatened to use its powers of eminent domain to block home foreclosures and seek debt relief for holders of underwater mortgages.
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