Chevron’s “Company Town” Fights Back: An Interview with Gayle McLaughlin

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Amidst all the noise of this year’s midterms, in the middle of all the charges and countercharges, attack ads and spin control, barnstorming and whistlestopping, one of the most interesting and significant elections in the country is happening not at the state or federal level but in the small city of Richmond, California, population just over 100,000.

What makes Richmond such a big deal is the enormous influence of Chevron, the multinational energy company that keeps a problematic oil refinery in the city — problematic in the sense of its tendency not only to generate handsome revenues but leaks, fires and explosions, too. Complaints about its environmental impact have built for decades.

Chevron was accustomed to dominating the economy and politics of Richmond, treating it like an old-fashioned company town, but in 2007, Gayle McLaughlin, candidate of the Green Party, became mayor. She and her allies on the city council began calling Chevron out, especially after a 2012 refinery fire that sent 15,000 people off to area hospitals for treatment.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and community prior to big vote on eminent domain to save homes. (Credit: Office of Mayor Gayle McLaughlin)

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and community prior to big vote on eminent domain to save homes. (Credit: Office of Mayor Gayle McLaughlin)

This year, Gayle McLaughlin is not running again for mayor but seeks a seat on the city council. Chevron has pulled out the stops, spending some $3 million – an unheard of amount for a small, local election – to campaign against McLaughlin and her slate, and to use its corporate clout in support of more business-friendly, opposition candidates.

Chevron and the Moving Forward political alliance it underwrites say they’re just protecting the company’s interests in Richmond, and are dedicated to preserving the city’s “quality of life.” Mayor McLaughlin and progressives around the country point to Chevron’s well-heeled electioneering as a textbook example of big money co-opting politics and taking over government. We spoke with Mayor McLaughlin as she took a short break from the final days of campaigning.


Michael Winship: I’m talking with Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Richmond, California. Now, you’re term limited as mayor, so after eight years in office, you’re running for city council instead. Why did you decide to continue seeking public office?

Gayle McLaughlin: Well, I’ll tell you, in the last 10 years that I’ve been in elected office, Richmond has undergone a remarkable transformation. We’re a low-income, urban, very diverse city with many, many needs. We have 27 percent African-American, 40 percent Latino, 13 percent Asian, 20 percent Caucasian. And one in four of our residents are immigrants. So we have a city with much diversity, which is our strength, but we also have many, many needs. And we’ve been ruled as a city for a hundred years by the Chevron Corporation, because Chevron did control the council. And as recently as the 1990s, a Chevron executive had a desk in the former city manager’s office. So until recently, we were known as a company town and this company, Chevron, doesn’t hire locally, it’s the number one polluter, it doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes and it’s run their refinery with thousands of corroded pipes ready to explode like what happened in August of 2012 when there was a horrific fire that sent 15,000 people to local hospitals. So this company rule was allowed to happen because Chevron had the city council in its pockets. And so we put forward a progressive movement to run local progressive candidates with our pledge not to take a penny from corporations for our campaigns. And we won five local elections, including the mayor’s seat. And when we won, we made sure the people’s priorities became the priorities of our time in office. And so we’ve accomplished so much, including breathing better air, reducing the pollution and building a cleaner environment and cleaner jobs, and reducing our crime rate. Our homicide number is the lowest in 33 years and we became a leading city in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita. We’re a sanctuary city. And we’re defending our home owners to prevent foreclosures and evictions. And we also got Chevron to pay $114 million extra dollars in taxes. So this all came through community pressure. So we’ve recognized these great results. But we know there’s so much more to do. We still have 18 percent poverty, we need to continue reducing our crime and we have to continue reducing unemployment, it’s still higher than the national average, even though we cut it in half. And we just have a lot of future work in terms of building community schools and saving our local hospital. So that’s why I chose to run for city council even though I’m termed out as mayor. I’m just deeply committed to continuing our transformational work and that means standing up for our residents against the attacks by Chevron and Wall Street and all those that would put profits before our gains. So that led me to where I am right now in the middle of this campaign.

Winship: Can you tell me some more about the 2012 fire? What exactly happened and how much damage was done?

McLaughlin: Right, yes, there was a horrific explosion that occurred in August of 2012 at the refinery, due to a corroded pipe, that send a toxic plume over our heads throughout Richmond and throughout the neighboring cities. Fifteen thousand people went to local hospitals for respiratory ailments. And it was frankly a very traumatic experience for all of us in Richmond. Chevron was eventually charged with criminal neglect and pleaded no contest to the charges. It’s clear that their poor maintenance practices and safety practices were what led to this fire. In fact, workers had sought out solutions to these piping issues and talked about these pipes needing replacement but management had disregarded the warnings that the workers were putting out there. So this fire was really a clear-cut example of a corporate culture putting its profits first before all else. And we need to change that. This refinery, the Richmond Chevron refinery, produces 10 percent of Chevron’s global revenue and yet it puts only one quarter of one percent into its maintenance.

Winship: Chevron paid $2 million in fines and restitution, but your city also sued.

McLaughlin: Yes. Chevron, of course, states the suit is without merit and that’s what they’ll always do, and manufacture lies in its own defense. But we have the opportunity to make this lawsuit gain substantial damages for the impact to our city, to community, for the impact to our health, to our economy, because we had lower property values and we had a slowdown in business attraction. But I also see this lawsuit as a counter-pressure to the corporate culture which is trying so hard to dominate 100 percent of our lives. So we really, really think this is pressure on them to put the health and safety of our residents before its corporate profits.

One of Chevron’s Move Forward billboards in Richmond, California. (Credit: Harriet Rowan, Richmond Confidential)

One of Chevron’s Move Forward billboards in Richmond, California. (Credit: Harriet Rowan, Richmond Confidential)

Winship: So your feeling is that part of Chevron’s response to all of this has been this $3 million they’re spending running against you and your slate.

McLaughlin:Absolutely, Chevron’s been spending more and more money every election year polluting our democracy, trying to pull the wool over the eyes of our residents, but this year they’ve pulled out all the stops, $3 million plus. Some are saying by the end of the election it will be more like $4 million. But it’s really obscene to be spending that amount of money on a city of 104,000 people. But they’re mad at us in the progressive movement because we stand up to them. We work with a mobilized community to make gains on our own behalf. And we’ve gained a lot. We’ve gained that $114 million tax settlement based on the people’s desire for fair taxation. But as I said, there’s more to do. They are the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the State of California, this Richmond Chevron refinery. And so they want councilmembers that will allow them to continue to pollute, to continue to emit greenhouse emissions and who will not push for further taxation from them. And of course, they want the council of the future that they are trying to get on board with this election, they want that council to drop the lawsuit or settle for peanuts.

Winship: They say that the money that they’re putting into the campaign “supports city leaders who share our commitment to policies that foster an economic environment where businesses can thrive and create jobs” and that the amount of money they’re spending has to be put “in the context of the more than $500 million in local taxes, social investment and spending on local vendors” that they’ve done, that’s their response.

McLaughlin: Right. Well, Chevron’s investment in our city always comes at a price. They do some good investments and some of their volunteers are out doing good work at various community events but regardless of positive contributions, that is no argument for letting one company control our city council, and that’s indeed what they’re trying to do.

Winship: What have their specific campaign tactics been in this election?

McLaughlin: Well, they have done so, so very much in terms of just inundating our mailboxes and our airwaves and our billboards with their candidates, highlighting and putting out lies and misinformation about who their candidates are and attacking myself and other progressives running. I’m running as part of a team called Team Richmond and we’re working very hard and we’ve done so much already and yet Chevron is putting out blatant lies about us. So people are getting pretty, pretty clear on what’s happening, because the level of overkill is just outrageous. Driving through Richmond, seeing the billboards all over, makes you pretty aware of the fact that there’s an attempt to buy our election. So it’s a very strange phenomenon if you will, when you’re living in a country that was founded on the principles of democracy.

Winship: Their ads, their TV ads are very, very highly produced and they’ve gone after you specifically on your out-of-town travel.

McLaughlin: Right. I took three trips overseas, out of eight years. It was a total of 22 days. That’s out of nearly 3,000 days that make up eight years. These trips were, one was to Mondragón, Spain to learn about worker-owned co-ops. It was a five-day trip. I learned a lot and came back to Richmond and helped to promote and implement worker co-ops here in Richmond.

I also, and this particular trip is one that Chevron was very upset about, I took a five-day trip to Ecuador to learn about the contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest by Chevron Texaco, and I saw the massive contamination and the harm that the indigenous and farmer communities suffered, and that Chevron is not rising to its accountability in regards to. So they were not too happy about my doing that, but I think it’s important to learn from other communities that have also suffered at the hands of this oil giant.

And then I did make an official trip to our sister city in Cuba, which is something we hadn’t done in 14 years, and we were very excited to learn from that experience and share some of our gains and learn from Cuba some of the wonderful gains they have made.

Winship: You’ve fought back with a grassroots organizing campaign, is that correct?

McLaughlin: Yes. Well, we’ve fought back as we always do, with authentic relationship building in the community. We go door to door, we go to the community events and build that real authentic relationship, something Chevron can’t do. They do paid canvassers. Many of them are from outside of Richmond, don’t know the issues. They’re simply given a script, and when questioned, they simply just don’t know the issues and aren’t there to build relationships. But we are, and all our work is to build that community sense of empowerment. And we have done so much good work in that regard already, and we want to make sure every resident is part of this empowerment movement that we have going forward.

Winship: Now you’ve also, in addition to Chevron, you’ve also gone up against the banks and the real estate interests.

McLaughlin: Yes. And we really have to continue helping our struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure with innovative solutions, and that’s what this program that we call the CARES Program — it’s seeking to acquire underwater mortgages, either voluntarily or using our tool of eminent domain as a city—

Winship: You’re the first city to have done that, the eminent domain plan?

McLaughlin: We’re the first city to have really moved the program forward. We have yet to actually take or acquire a mortgage through eminent domain, but we have the city council’s support in doing this. We’re seeking other cities to join us. And of course, yes, Wall Street is all up in arms, as are all the big banks and lobbyists for them, and we just believe strongly that standing up against these big entities is important, because otherwise they, like Chevron, have monopoly control, in this case, of the financial industry. So we’re working hard on that. We think it’s an innovative solution, and we think the needs of our residents, who were harmed greatly by the foreclosure crisis, by the housing crisis, to a great extent by predatory lending practices. So we think it’s really important to stand strong against the big banks and provide a way for homeowners to have a sustainable life and our neighborhoods to be sustained, and our local economy is sustained as well when you avoid foreclosure and those empty homes that attract crime.

Winship: You also passed a minimum wage ordinance, is that correct?

McLaughlin: Yes, we did. We passed a minimum wage, which is the highest in the State of California so far. It’s a phased-in approach. It will go up to $13-an-hour in 2018. We did it because we know that the real value, the buying power of the minimum wage is really outrageous. It’s lower than what the buying power of the minimum wage was in the 1970s. So we believe our families should have, and all workers should have a right to have their needs met for their hard work. So we think that there’s opportunities for raising it even more and faster and still be competitive in the region, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.

Winship: Tell me a little bit about you. How did you get involved in politics?

McLaughlin: Well, I come from a working class family in Chicago. My whole adult life, I’ve worked as an activist, as a community organizer. I’ve taught kids and tutored special needs kids at various times. I guess I’m just a regular person trying to live a decent life with my husband and my neighbors, and I believe in the values and the principles that our country was founded on and I’d like to see them implemented. So that’s kind of what has motivated me to move into the realm of political office, and I just have a real fierce commitment to our democracy. So I know it’s at risk right now with the destructive influence of corporate money, and that keeps me going, and I’m just really proud to be a part of this struggle. Because it is a struggle, and it is actually quite an exciting time to be alive, because we’re making history. So I’m very proud to be a part of this effort.

Winship: There’s a new report just out from the Center for Responsive Politics, their, that overall spending for these midterms will be probably $3.7 billion or more, and that, although that’s not all that much more than the 2010 midterms, it does represent a case where the mega donors are contributing a lot more of that money. How do you continue to fight back against that, win or lose on Tuesday?

McLaughlin: Well, I’m actually very optimistic about the future. Like I said, I think it’s a great time to be alive, because we do have a growing movement and we’ve shown that it can be done in Richmond. We’re in a fight to determine our own destiny, and in the case of Richmond, Chevron would like to manipulate people to fall in line and place the role of the corporation as the key entity in determining a city and community’s future. So I’m very much looking forward to winning this David versus Goliath fight that we have going on here in Richmond. And we know that many eyes are upon us who look to Richmond as an example of what can happen when people stand united and tall against corporate power. So we don’t want to let ourselves down, we don’t want to let others down, and we think with that driving us, we just can’t help but win.

Winship: Mayor McLaughlin, thank you so much for this.

McLaughlin: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.
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