What Does it Take for One Small City to Vanquish an Oil Giant?

What Does it Take for One Small City to Vanquish an Oil Giant?

What Does it Take for One Small City to Vanquish an Oil Giant?

Progressives in Richmond, California, trounced Chevron on Election Day, but the company remains a powerful local force.


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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In this era of Citizens United and unlimited election spending, the outcome shocked everybody: on November 4, as voters across the country succumbed to the hard-right tug of dark money groups, the residents of Richmond, California triumphed over an oil giant.

Chevron poured $3.1 million into this year’s municipal elections in Richmond, a Bay Area city of 107,000 where the company owns and operates a massive oil refinery. Its goal was to take back local government from a slate of progressive politicians that it views as unfriendly to its interests. These politicians had won a majority on the city council in 2010, after nearly a century of control by Chevron and its predecessor, Standard Oil. Led by current mayor Gayle McLaughlin and the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), they had reshaped the city’s relationship with Chevron, and sued the oil giant after a 2012 fire at its refinery sent 15,000 residents scrambling for medical attention. The company was not pleased.

In an attempt to unseat McLaughlin and her allies, Chevron supported a handful of favored candidates during the election, led by mayoral hopeful and longtime city councilman Nat Bates. Chevron’s candidates touted their pro-business approach to local government. “If I’m the mayor one of the first things I’m going to do is sit down with Chevron,” said Bates during his campaign. He added that he would try to “work together for Chevron’s benefit and for the City of Richmond’s benefit.”

Chevron also spent a vast sum attacking the progressives directly, accusing them of irresponsible conduct and lavish spending.

Chevron funneled its millions through a web of independent expenditure committees, all part of what it called the Moving Forward campaign. Publicly, Moving Forward touted itself as a “coalition” of small business and unions, but more than 99 percent of its money came from Chevron. It hired fancy PR firms and spent its money on a ceaseless barrage of billboard ads, shiny full-page mailers, signs, television spots and Internet propaganda promoting its own candidates and attacking the RPA.

The company spent approximately $180 for each ballot cast in the election. But the strategy didn’t work.

In the end, despite Chevron’s over-the-top effort, or perhaps because of it, voters rejected the company’s attempt to buy their local government. Every candidate Chevron supported lost, and every candidate it attacked won. McLaughlin, who is term-limited as mayor, won a four-year seat on the city council. Tom Butt, a left-leaning councilman, was elected to replace McLaughlin as mayor. Progressives now occupy five of the seven seats on the city council, and they are sure to appoint a sixth ally to fill Butt’s vacated seat. Chevron’s failed mayoral candidate Nat Bates will be its only friend on the council.

In a mid-term election that was disastrous for progressives around the country, Richmond has become a hopeful example of organized people overcoming big money. Nevertheless, as the city’s leadership prepares for another term in office, no one expects the company will back down.

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Despite the drubbing it took during this year’s election, Chevron’s influence over the city’s affairs is still immense. The company’s Richmond refinery has about 1,200 full-time employees and its taxes support approximately 10 percent of the entire municipal budget. These facts alone make it the biggest economic interest in the city. Add to that the oil giant’s concerted effort to win public support through aggressive philanthropy, savvy public relations schemes and an array of well-positioned supporters, and the tentacles of its influence reach into every household in Richmond. Standard Oil, which once owned the Richmond refinery, would be proud.

This enduring power could prove challenging for Richmond’s newly elected progressive majority, which has big ambitions for what it hopes to accomplish in the long-struggling city. Richmond is a microcosm of the troubles that plague post-recession urban America. It has deeply entrenched poverty, a cash-strapped local hospital, and high—but decreasing—rates of crime and unemployment. Pollution is a serious problem.

During the last ten years, however, the lives of Richmond residents have gradually begun to improve, and most give due credit to McLaughlin and her allies. The city’s crime rate has declined dramatically. Earlier this year, the city council passed one of the country’s highest minimum wage laws. And Chevron, which once held so much sway over local politics that a company executive had a desk in the city manager’s office, has been held to account for the first time in decades.

Eduardo Martinez, the newest RPA candidate elected to the council, says his coalition’s goal is “to keep moving in the direction we’ve been moving for the past few years.” Toward these ends, there are plans for setting up community schools, preserving the financially troubled local hospital, further reducing crime, and resuming the push to use eminent domain to help struggling homeowners. There are also, of course, plans to keep the pressure on Chevron.

In an e-mail to The Nation, McLaughlin listed some of the new leadership’s top priorities for bringing the company into line. She wrote that the they would like to see more safety improvements, more local emissions reductions, sustainable quality jobs for Richmond residents and payment by Chevron of its fair share of taxes. They would also like to see damages from the terrifying refinery fire that sent a plume of toxic smoke into the Richmond sky and, according to the city’s complaint, caused significant damage to the local economy. A lawsuit filed by the city in 2013 alleges the incident was “a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight, and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs that were known to have caused numerous other fires and explosions.”

McLaughlin is hopeful that the suit, which is currently in discovery, will prevail in state court. “We want to have assurances that [Chevron] puts health and safety before its profits,” she says. But, she acknowledges, “That’s a tough thing to get a corporation to do,” particularly when that corporation continues to exercise outsize influence over city life.

With so much at stake, Chevron is unlikely to release its grip on Richmond anytime soon.

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Chevron has a long list of tricks for bending Richmond opinion in its direction, but its most time-honored tactic revolves around money—giving it, sharing it, currying support with it. While the company spent a small fortune to meddle in Richmond’s elections this year, the amount it doles out annually to local non-profits, trade groups, and community institutions is even greater. In 2013, for instance, the corporation spent at least $6.5 million on “community giving,” according to its monthly newsletter. In 2012, the last year the company provided a detailed breakdown of such efforts, it spent more than $5 million.

The 2012 money was spread out all over town: $37,000 to the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, $10,000 to the Richmond Police Officers Association, nearly $450,000 to the local school district, $15,000 to a local Latino merchants association, money to neighborhood councils and church groups and music festivals, to the NAACP and the YMCA and Teach for America. In Richmond, Chevron’s cash is everywhere.

Some see its largesse as an unequivocal benefit, and a Chevron spokesperson says the company makes “social investments in the community” to expand the local economy and improve quality of life. Others, like mayor-elect Tom Butt, who has spent years in Richmond politics, view Chevron’s generosity with skepticism.

“They just infiltrate everything that is going on in the community,” says Butt. “They spread around a lot of money to non-profits and most non-profits have community leaders on their boards, so they influence the community through co-opting community leaders.” Yet this money comes with a catch, he says. Once Chevron becomes a major donor, “it sort of buys loyalty from people who might otherwise be critical.”

This fact was on display last year when the company sought the city’s approval for its proposed $1 billion refinery “modernization plan.” Chevron launched a full-throttle PR campaign called “Richmond Proud” hoping to publicly pressure the city to agree to the plan without negotiating further regulations and requirements.

During the campaign, the company ran billboard, TV and Internet ads that showcased support from trusted community leaders. One ad featured the beloved executive director of the Richmond Police Activities League, an organization that lists Chevron as a major donor. Another ad used the executive director of Familias Unidas, a non-profit that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chevron.

Under public pressure, the city council ultimately allowed the modernization to go forward, but included a provision that will not allow Chevron to increase emissions at the refinery and negotiated a $90 million community benefits package as part of the deal.

Beside philanthropy, the oil giant relies on creative, and sometimes creepy, public relations techniques to win hearts and minds and influence local discourse.

Consider the two “news” websites that Chevron’s consultants have set up in Richmond in the last year. One, called Richmond Standard, purports to offer “community-driven news” to the city’s residents. The site’s editor, however, is an employee at Singer Associates, Inc., one of Chevron’s principal public relation firms. And Richmond Standard admits on its main page that one of its goals is to provide a “voice for Chevron Richmond on civic issues.”

The other Chevron-linked news outfit is called Radio Free Richmond, though it is not, in fact, a radio station. It is a website named in tribute to Radio Free Europe, the CIA-sponsored, anti-communist news service that broadcast Western propaganda into the homes of Soviet-bloc citizens during the Cold War. On its masthead, Radio Free Richmond claims to offer “independent Richmond news, without fear or favor.” The site fails to mention, however, that Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners (BMWL), a PR firm owned by the consultants who helped run Chevron’s “Moving Forward” campaign, administers the website and pays its sole staff writer.

Radio Free Richmond features all kinds of content, from restaurant reviews to weekly event listings, all interspersed with articles by Chevron-backed politicians and community leaders that lambast local progressives. In a particularly embarrassing snafu, employees at BMWL were caught ghostwriting an article critical of the mayor and publishing it under the name of a well-known community activist, who later disavowed the piece.

To round out its media efforts, each month Chevron sends its newsletter “Richmond Today” to the city’s residents, touting its charitable giving in Spanish and English.

Chevron, for its part, says it hopes to make nice with the new city leadership. “Chevron will work hard to find common ground with this city council to push for sound policies that allow Richmond to grow and thrive,” wrote company spokesperson Braden Reddall in an email.

Few believe that the oil giant has given up its bad habit of intervening in this small city’s politics. The company has built an infrastructure of influence that’s meant to last, and it isn’t afraid to use it. But the scrappy team of progressives who trounced the neighborhood Goliath on November 4 have also built an impressive infrastructure during their brief but energetic tenure. And they, too, are not afraid to use it.


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