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.