Democracy & Government

What A California Refinery Town Can Teach America

A soon-to-be-published book by a longtime labor organizer chronicles how a grass-roots democracy movement overcame corporate money.

What a California Refinery Town Can Teach America

In Richmond, California, a refinery town near San Francisco, a vibrant community coalition is proving that democracy is powered by votes, not money. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When longtime labor activist Steve Early moved to Richmond, California, he thought San Francisco’s gritty neighbor would be a good place to observe and participate in a vibrant local political community whose battles against corporate neighbor Chevron have been chronicled by Bill Moyers. What he didn’t know was that he’d find the topic for his latest book — one that is all the more timely following the results of last month’s elections. In his forward for Early’s Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Making of An American City, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) writes: “Our country obviously need a a great deal of change at the state and federal levels. But laying a solid local foundation, like activists in Richmond have done, is an important first step.” Early’s book will be available next month; in an interview with Kathy Kiely of BillMoyers.com, he provides a sneak preview.

 


 

Kathy Kiely: So tell me why you decided to write this book.

early-refinerytown-sanders

Steve Early: Well, I moved to Richmond five years ago, after working as a labor organizer and a union representative in New England for about 30 years. I immediately got involved in the Richmond Progressive Alliance in 2012 and —

Kiely: So let me stop you there. What made you move to Richmond? Did you move because you knew what was going on there, or was it just happenstance?

Early: I knew, through the labor movement and a national network of labor activists called Labor Notes, some folks in Richmond who were very much involved in the Richmond Progressive Alliance and who had moved here earlier from Detroit. And I had stayed with them. I had seen some of the campaigning that had gone on in 2008 and 2010 before we moved out. And it just seemed to me to be a very exciting place where good things were happening politically, where there was a terrific sense of community, and where progressives were really succeeding in building a kind of multiracial working class-oriented progressive political organization at the local level.

As you know, I’m sure, much of our activity on the left is marginalized and involves symbolic protest activity and casting often third-party votes, which I’ve done many times myself [laughs] in the past. But here we had a group that was actually contesting in local elections and winning them, electing people to city council, electing a member of the Green Party mayor, and then using City Hall as kind of an organizing center to link up with local grass-roots movements and unions and community organizations to strengthen and support their activities and involve many of the leading activists in the function of city government.

Kiely: So that’s really interesting. It sounds like what you’re saying is that you and a number of other people in your network deliberately chose to move to Richmond because you saw something interesting happening there. Is that accurate?

Take A Look: Bill Moyers talks to a Richmond leader and student journalist

Early: Yeah, I would say most of the migration isn’t from as far away as Boston or Detroit. But because of its historic problems with crime and violence and industrial decline, you know, the city’s housing prices and rents until recently were more reasonable than in other parts of the East Bay and certainly a cheaper place to live than across the bay in San Francisco. So as gentrification has become a bigger Bay Area problem and people have been pushed out of San Francisco and forced to move to Oakland and then forced up the coast from Oakland, a number of them have landed here. And I think part of it is economic necessity, finding what may be the last refuge for people with moderate incomes in the East Bay. And also, because they’re attracted to the idea that political activism here was making a difference, making the community better, and the scale of the city 110,000, which is much smaller than both Oakland and San Francisco — would enable people to have perhaps a greater impact than they had in previous political community or even union activity they were involved in, in other parts of the Bay Area.

Kiely: So getting back to my original question, did you move out with the idea that you were going to make a book of this or did that come later?

Early: No, not at all. I redeployed, as I say — retired from my full-time job as a national union staff member in 2007, and my objective then was to write about labor, and I did produce over the last 10 years three labor-related books. But I did not have any immediate plan to kind of stray from the labor beat and start writing more about municipal politics, about community policing, about housing affordability, about environmental issues. But I was confronted with all of them here in Richmond and started to cover these things locally and turned that reporting over the last three years into the book that’s coming out next month.

 
Sanctuary city

Kiely: What do you think are the lessons that this book has for people who are dismayed by the 2016 election?

Early: Well, sadly, but it’s going to turn out to be good timing in terms of readership interested in the book, since Nov. 8 there’s been a big discussion about the need to go local. People are realizing that in the next four years at least, avenues, pathways to progress at the state level in many states and certainly the federal government are going to be blocked and so much of the focus of progressive political activity is going to have to be in various forms at the municipal level. And I don’t want to make too much of a virtue out of necessity, but the Richmond experience over the last decade and a half really shows that you can simultaneously block kind of a reactionary tide coming from inside the Beltway, whether it’s the Bush administration or the forthcoming Trump years, and you can also be a source of progressive policy innovation at the local level.

And we’re seeing right now that there’s emerging resistance to what people expect will be Trump policies on immigration, the whole sanctuary city movement has revived. Richmond actually was one of the pioneer sanctuary cities more than 20 years ago, declaring it would not cooperate with federal immigration officials rounding up undocumented immigrants in the city. And that position was reaffirmed 10 years ago when there were major problems created by ICE coming into the city, rousting people out, identifying themselves as the police and undermining work that was already underway to reestablish closer ties between the Richmond police department and foreign-born residents of the city. So our new mayor, Tom Butt, just issued a very strong statement stressing the fact that this city is not going to cooperate with the Trump administration on any crackdown on immigrants, is not going to be an agent of federal law enforcement, and that protecting the immigrant community here is a foundation of more than 10 years’ worth of community policing reform that makes the city safer for everybody.

The lesson of the Richmond progressive movement is that you have to dig in.

Kiely: Do you think people have the patience to reenact and replicate the Richmond experience? Talk a little bit about what it took to turn that city around.

Early: Well, I think you put your finger on a key element: patience and persistence. In many ways, engaging in politics at the local level is not as glamorous and exciting as being involved in larger national or international causes or campaigns. One of the challenges I think that Bernie Sanders faces in rallying his supporters now and trying to redirect them to electoral politics at the level of local school boards and city councils and mayoral races and county supervisory boards and state legislative campaigns is many people may find that there’s not the excitement and the big issues that led them to support him when he ran for president.

But the lesson of the Richmond progressive movement is that you do have to dig in, you do have to develop expertise about local problems, you do have to develop an agenda for reform that’s driven by the needs of local people and not necessarily your own political priorities, though they may largely overlap. And as I describe in the book, the Richmond Progressive Alliance started out not really with an electoral focus. Initially, the group conducted campaigns around single issues objecting to police brutality, to mistreatment of immigrants, to the longstanding problems of pollution coming from the Chevron refinery — a whole range of issues, and then people decided that if they were really going to have an impact on these local problems, they had to have some people on the inside. They had to have city council members and a mayor who would support demands for change and for reform of how the city operated and for a different approach to dealing with its largest employer, Chevron.

 
An ecumenical movement

Kiely: One of the things that struck me in reading your book is how often sort of ideological purity clashed with pragmatism, and sometimes you had the labor movement disagreeing with some things or there were different groups representing African American constituents who disagreed with certain things within the alliance. Can you talk a little bit about how that worked out and are there larger lessons for other communities and national politics out of that?

Early: Well, I think the success of the Richmond Progressive Alliance as an electoral force really is due to the fact that it has taken an exceptionally ecumenical approach. It has welcomed people who are left-leaning Democrats, who are independents, who are registered members of third party like the California Greens or the California Peace and Freedom Party. There are members of different socialist groups. But it’s a broad charge, and under the banner of a local progressive movement, people have agreed to set aside disagreements that they or the organizations they belong to nationally might have about some issues in the interest of getting things done in a kind of united front at the local level. And that’s, as I’m sure you know, not characteristic left behavior in this country. Too often, people can’t get beyond their petty factional squabbles and ideological differences and compete rather than cooperate. So creating that kind of united front and kind of rebranding as the Richmond Progressive Alliance and welcoming people with different views and organizational affiliations on a left-liberal spectrum was really important.

The politics of the city, as you know from the book, are very complicated. The corporate influence, mainly from Chevron, has really shaped African-American politics in the city for decades. Chevron has been a major benefactor of conservative African-American Democrats on the city council for decades and the African-American political establishment in the city, connected to some of the leading churches, for a long time was very hostile to the emergence of a new political force that was multiracial, that tried to rally younger African-Americans and Latinos under the RPA banner.

I think our most recent election was a real turning point. The oldest member of the council, an 86-year-old conservative African-American Democrat by the name of Nat Bates, was defeated and the top —

Kiely: This is just this past November you’re talking about?

Early: Yeah, Nov. 8. He’s been on the council for four decades, the leading —

Kiely: Yes, and he figures largely in your book.

 
A new generation

Early: Yeah. Yeah, well, he ran for mayor two years ago and it was assumed that he was going to be a shoo-in for reelection. I think he’s been on the council for close to 40 years. And he lost. I mean, he was on the wrong side of rent control. And the top vote getter was Melvin Willis, who’s 26 years old, was inspired to run by Bernie Sanders, was endorsed by Bernie’s post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, was the leading campaigner in Richmond for rent control that was passed on Nov. 8 here by a 2-to-1 margin, and who’s been a community organizer for the last four years for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the successor to ACORN. And so I think that’s really a generational shift in the city that’s tremendously significant. Because in the past, politicians like Bates were able to take corporate money. They were able basically to race bait their white leftist opponents. They were able to rally the black community with a kind of reverse dog-whistle politics. And that started to fail two years ago and it really flopped this year.

Kiely: You talk in the book, or some of the people you talk to in the book talk about ceding their leadership roles in the progressive alliance to younger people because they worried that they were perceived as kind of these white outsiders. What is happening there and does that tension still exist and do you think they’ve negotiated it successfully?

There’s been a wonderful and successful and really inspiring generational passing of the torch.

Early: No, I think there’s been a wonderful and successful and really inspiring generational passing of the torch within the organization as well. Our two successful city council candidates this fall, Melvin Willis, who I just mentioned, and Ben Choi, who’s a fellow planning commission member and environmentalist — they were both part of the new RPA steering committee elected about a year ago. It’s predominantly — that body is now predominantly people of color and women. And again, it’s very rare that in a political organization on the left, people in leadership who built an organization are willing to turn the reins over to a new generation. I mean, we see a lot of dysfunctional organizational behavior flowing from founder syndrome problems. We see certainly in the labor movement, unions I’ve worked with for years, too much leadership concentrated among people who are in their 50s, 60s, even 70s. And so this is a very important model for an organization to kind of reinvent itself, recruit new people, become more diverse. And I think that had positive electoral impact this fall as well. I mean, it’s a little hard to bait the Richmond Progressive Alliance as the Richmond Plantation Alliance when the candidate slate is people of color and, you know, in one case a Richmond native. So I think the outsider baiting has subsided as the composition of the leadership of the organization has changed.

 
Rent control

Kiely: And what do you see happening in the future? Is the Chevron influence tamed or is it a sleeping giant? What’s it doing in Richmond these days?

Early: Well, Chevron kind of stepped back this election cycle. There was, thanks to the reporting of Moyers and many others, tremendous public opinion backlash against its huge amount of independent spending on the council races and the mayor’s election two years ago. The company really did get a lot of bad press for that. It was criticized by some shareholders. This time around, they ceded the field to the landlord lobby. The big corporate spender this fall in Richmond was the California Apartment Association and related real-estate interests that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars unsuccessfully trying to defeat rent control. And by a 2-to-1 margin, voters made Richmond one of the first cities in 30 years to reintroduce, or to introduce rent regulation and a new form of legal protection against eviction of tenants without just cause.

Kiely: So that was a ballot measure in the City of Richmond?

Early: Yes. And it was a ballot measure that was necessary because after the city council democratically by a majority vote introduced rent control a year ago, the Apartment Association, as I describe in the book, went out and spent tens of thousands of dollars on paid canvassers and they got enough signatures to nullify the city council’s adoption of rent control, which forced us to put it on the ballot and run a referendum campaign. And it’s an 80 percent non-white city, predominantly poor and working class with rising rents, and so this was a very, very popular issue and the landlord lobby was defeated. So one of the challenges going forward is creating an effective rent control board and making this important stopgap measure a first step in the direction of greater housing affordability, which ultimately requires building more low-income housing, not just restraining rent hikes.

 
A vibrant local media

Kiely: You’ve mentioned the media coverage and I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Reading your book, it sounded to me like Richmond just had a plethora of local news outlets, some of them funded by Chevron, but others, the Berkeley site of course, and then it sounded like there were some other local sites. Is it unusual in that respect, from your experience, and how important was that?

Early: Yeah, well, we do benefit from our proximity to the University of California journalism school and they have a wonderful community journalism project called the Richmond Confidential, which is essentially an online community newspaper. And every semester, we get a new crop of enterprising young would-be student journalists who cover the city, and as was the case two years ago, they did some of the best investigative reporting on Chevron’s political spending and other election issues. This year they’ve covered the rent-control fight. And I think it’s a great experience both for the young journalists in training who get to write for the Richmond Confidential and the city benefits from coverage that you’re not going to get from the San Francisco Chronicle or the East Bay Times, which is a kind of a countywide daily newspaper and part of a corporate-owned chain.

We also have a monthly community newspaper hardcopy called the Richmond Pulse. That is a wonderful outlet for Richmond-based young people — black, Latino, Asian — who write about the city themselves. They’re not in journalism school. They’re in high school or going to Contra Costa Community College or they’re working, and under the leadership of a wonderful editor by the name of Malcolm Marshall, they put out a great and very lively community newspaper.

The Chevron news site that you mentioned, Richmond Standard, has been much criticized by media watchdogs because it does present itself somewhat deceptively as a source of news and commentary that’s nonpartisan, when in fact it is funded, as the site acknowledges, by Chevron and is a mouthpiece for its own views about local politics and policy questions.

Kiely: And it sounded like there were some local bloggers as well?

Early: We have a mayor, Tom Butt, who is a very prolific blogger and commentator on local politics. We have another site called Radio Free Richmond, again, more conservative, tends to side with Chevron more on environmental issues and is more critical of the progressive movement in the city. So yeah, I think Richmond benefits from a variety of political voices, and thanks to the internet, they’re able to get their message, for better or worse, out to many people and people can pick through the competing versions [laughs] of local reality and choose the one that fits their own experience best.

 
Public campaign financing

Kiely: Do you feel that this experience can be replicated, and if so, what would the handbook look like? What would you tell people who say, “I’d like to do something like that in my community?”

Given the contacts that we’ve had recently from people in other cities in California and out of state, there definitely is a lot of interest in the Richmond model.”

Early: Well, I think given the contacts that we’ve had recently from people in other cities in California and out of state, there definitely is a lot of interest in the Richmond model. And I think it can be replicated. One key thing that people need to do in other places, however, is do more than just get involved in elections every two years. What has made the Richmond Progressive Alliance effective is its year-round program of organizing on a multitude of issues. It functions as a membership organization. People pay dues, they elect a steering committee, they go to meetings, they participate in committees and they do this all the time. They don’t just come together as kind of a pickup team in election years and run candidates. They’re holding those candidates accountable and they’re starting much earlier than electoral political campaigners do in many other places when there is a vote coming up.

The other dividing line really between Richmond progressives and their opponents, both liberal, centrist and more conservative, is that the RPA candidates do not accept corporate contributions, no business donations. And that has really helped distinguish them from the rest of the pack, both in this most recent election and the 2014 election. People respect the fact that our candidates are corporate-free. They may disagree with them on particular issues but they know that their votes are not going to be influenced by the landlord lobby, by big oil, big soda, big banks — whoever is banging away on something in Richmond that they don’t like.

The other thing that makes it possible for people here to run and win, refusing the usual source of campaign funding, is a program of public financing, partial public financing, where if you raise $25,000 in private donations, you qualify as a city council or mayoral candidate for $30,000 in city funds. So it’s not the most generous match in the world, but having a program like that is a very, very important reform for people in other cities who want to try to replicate the electoral success of the RPA.

Kiely: And how long has that program been in place?

Early: That’s been in effect for about a decade now. And, you know, it was controversial initially. Those who have tried to shut it down argue that it’s a drain on the treasury. Actually, the expenditures are not that great because a number of candidates who run don’t have a significant enough grass-roots base of their own to be able to raise enough money to quality for the incremental matching grants.

Steve Early

Author and retired labor organizer Steve Early (Photo by Robert Gumpert)

Kiely: So it sounds like what you’re describing is a very active community in which the political results are kind of the side effect of a very active community rather than someone who went out and started to try to get a political result and developed community around it.

Early: Yeah. I think that the other interesting organizational feature of the RPA is it’s kind of a hybrid organization. There’s about 300-400 individual dues-paying members, but there’s also organizational affiliates, several local environmental organizations, Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. There’s also several unions that have a representative on the steering committee. So I think that there’s an attempt to be an umbrella organization, not to replicate the work of existing single-issue groups, but to keep them in a coalition structure that’s going to make everybody stronger.

Kiely: Okay. Any single moral of the story you’d like readers to take away?

Early: I think we have to do this kind of work in more places, as hard as it is, because if we don’t create a progressive populist alternative that’s multiracial and working class-oriented, we’ve just seen on Nov. 8 who fills that void and what fills that vacuum and it’s not pretty and we’re going to be suffering greatly from it for the next four years due to what’s coming out of Washington. So I think communities like Richmond are going to continue to be a beacon of light and hope and hopefully creating more models for the kinds of public policies that in more places over time will be adopted at the state and federal level.

Kathy Kiely

Kathy Kiely, a Washington, DC-based journalist and teacher, has reported and edited national politics for a number of news organizations, including USA TODAY, National Journal, The New York Daily News and The Houston Post. She been involved in the coverage of every presidential campaign since 1980. Follow her on Twitter: @kathykiely.