From Refinery Town to Progressive City

From Refinery Town to Progressive City

In Richmond, California, grassroots activists have turned their local government into a bulwark against corporate interests. Can their story be replicated around the country?

The August 6, 2012 fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery, as seen here from Oakland, helped make the company's abuses a cause célèbre for the local progressives (Stephen Schiller / Flickr)

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City
by Steve Early
Beacon Press, 2017, 248 pp.

On November 8, as Donald Trump won the presidency and the Republican Party held both House and Senate, something altogether different was unfolding in Richmond, California. In the gritty Bay Area town (population 108,000), young activists with the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) won two much-coveted seats to secure the group a majority on the city council and claimed victory in a hard-fought campaign for rent control. In his meticulously detailed and insightful account in Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City, Steve Early—himself an RPA member—tells the story of Richmond, its activists, and their long-running quest to beat the Chevron Corporation and other “big money” interests in their own backyard. With a preface by Senator Bernie Sanders, Refinery Town presents a story that the Sanderistas (now under the banner of Our Revolution) would like to replicate around the country. While the lessons of Richmond are apt to be broadly useful, there are also limits to their applicability in both policy and politics.

Two main features stamp public perception of Richmond and its reality as well. Chevron’s oil-refinery complex is the town’s largest employer and contributes about 10 percent of the company’s global sales. The refinery management has had a corresponding influence on Richmond politics, pouring millions into electoral campaigns to head off any regulations that might harm its bottom line. The results have been all too clear. A 2012 fire at the refinery, causing scores of hospital visits from toxic emissions, and earlier dangerous gas leaks have made Chevron a cause célèbre for the local progressives, from the Green Party activists who are clustered in the RPA to an alphabet soup of Bay Area environmental groups and agencies.

Richmond is also known as a majority-minority city, a West Coast rust-belt outpost facing high rates of poverty and crime. From a Northeast or Midwest perspective, Richmond is not so distinctive in these ways; where it stands out, according to Early’s account, is as a progressive city that has succeeded in lowering crime while advancing racial, economic, and environmental justice.

Richmond’s demographic history is familiar to the Rust Belt. The city’s famous Kaiser shipyards and other wartime facilities attracted thousands of black workers from the South in the 1940s. Confined to segregated public housing, African Americans hardly received a warm welcome, but they set down roots and stayed long after the war ended and the shipyards and the Ford Motor Company closed down or moved away. In recent decades, Richmond’s black residents have been joined by large numbers of Latinos, both documented and not. Today, about 23 percent of Richmond’s population is black and about 40 percent Latino. The poverty rate is a bit under 18 percent. In 2015, the violent crime rate stood at 894 per 100,000, down about a quarter from a decade earlier.

There are cities of comparable size and demographic makeup to Richmond dotted across the country, some of them a bit worse off economically—from Hartford, Connecticut and Providence, Rhode Island on the East Coast to Buffalo, New York and Allentown, Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt to Waco, Texas and many more cities further west. Richmond is neither as poor or violent as Bay Area legend has it nor so unique that activists elsewhere in the country can’t learn from its example.

The Richmond Progressive Association (RPA) was founded in 2003, a convergence of local activists who had worked on homelessness, environmental issues (especially toxic pollution from the Chevron refinery), antiwar mobilizations, and community planning. Frustrated by the early years of the Bush administration, they aimed at transforming their local politics—a machine long dominated by a combination of Chevron money and influence and conservative police and firefighters’ unions.

Among progressive or left-leaning local political participants, there is a clear difference between those who have worked mostly within established party structures and those who have worked largely outside of them. I experience this myself, as a member of a local Democratic Town Committee who fits into the latter category. My committee neighbors in the village of Southborough, Massachusetts, are largely on the more liberal side of the Democratic Party (and a rough impression is that more voted for Bernie than Hillary), but I never encounter them at a march or demonstration. Richmond stands out in that longtime movement activists now dominate local politics, while continuing to collaborate with city-hall insiders.

Facilitating the activists’ ability to cooperate with one another was and is Richmond’s nonpartisan municipal elections. This allowed the activist Greens and the progressive Democrats to work together. As one founder, a Latino Democrat, put it, there were no “structural impediments” to this coalition. Nonpartisan municipal elections are a heritage of early Progressive movement reforms, and are very common—although, political scientists note, they tend to produce more conservative (Republican) local governments than predicted. “Fusion” voting laws—also known as cross-endorsement, multi-party nomination, plural nomination, and ballot freedom—can also facilitate this kind of coalition. Fiorello LaGuardia, New York’s progressive mayoral hero, was a “Fusion” candidate*; the Working Families Party of New York uses its endorsement of left (and sometimes not-so-left) Democrats to allow progressives to vote for its candidates without being “spoilers” in close races.

In their first election campaign in 2004, two RPA candidates ran for city council and one, in a surprise, won. Gayle McLaughlin went on to become Richmond’s mayor from 2007 to 2014 and was then elected, again, to the city council in 2015. RPA candidates have won ten of sixteen races they have entered for city council and mayor. As of last November, they have a working majority on Richmond’s city council.

Apart from their admirably determined commitment to stay together, argue through differences, and pursue a long list of mutually negotiated issues—both “identity” and “class” based—there are two keys to the RPA’s electoral success. Early notes the RPA’s emphasis on ground-level, door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor canvassing, talking about issues, laying out the progressive position, holding public meetings, and standing up for transparency, even when inundated with big money: these allowed the RPA, through dogged persistence, to gain a major foothold in governing.

And that’s the second takeaway: governing ain’t easy, coalition-building is arduous and often acrimonious, and it is as painful in attainment as it is rewarding. Richmond voters know the RPA means what it says. Integrity is an asset, especially when defending controversial positions. One such decision was to fly the rainbow flag over city hall during the mayoralty of the energetic Gayle McLaughlin, a decision urged in part by Jovanka Beckles, an Afro-Latina immigrant and the city’s first openly lesbian councilwoman. For a time, city council meetings became what Early reports were “Tuesday night cage fights” of invective and personal attacks aimed at the flag. One would not have thought that this was ground on which the RPA wanted to fight a big battle—what with Chevron pressing to revamp the refinery to take in more polluting types of crude, foreclosures threatening large swaths of homeowners, and rents going sky high. But they had committed themselves to gay rights, and they stood firm on it all.

For a town whose population could just about sit together in Michigan Stadium (a.k.a. the Big House, capacity 107,601), the amount of activity Early documents, concentrated in one decade, is nothing short of amazing. Under McLaughlin’s mayoralty, the RPA was able to influence the selection of a progressive police chief—white, openly gay, and coming straight from Fargo, North Dakota, no less—who managed to take a nasty, abusive force and through creative programs reduce violent crime and transform the standing of the police force among communities of color; they were able to resist Chevron’s attempts to transform the refinery into a processor of dirtier oil; and since McLaughlin was succeeded by Tom Butt, a Democrat, in 2015, they have enacted rent control and a just-cause eviction restraint, while cementing a majority on city council. In 2013 they floated but could not enact a creative solution to the foreclosure crisis, which would have allowed the municipality to seize delinquent properties through eminent domain and help refinance the mortgages through an entrepreneurial broker—leaving families in their homes. Ultimately dashed for both political and technical reasons, the proposal nevertheless dazzled policy wonks (this writer included) about the possibilities of progressive action in a time of crisis.

Early’s last full chapter ends on the eve of the 2016 election. It looks forward to what actually happened: an electoral victory, in Richmond at least. But that story alone would be too neat. Early’s epilogue is a serious essay about limits.

City governments and their powers derive from state constitutions. Much of what they can do depends on state legislatures and governors. Early notes properly that Bill de Blasio’s plan for pre-kindergarten for New York city kids was in part configured as a redistributive scheme, to be funded by a new tax on the very wealthy. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo absorbed the issue but not the tax.

There are other aspects to the Richmond case that highlight challenges that center around its political demography. The RPA has at times struggled to present itself as a vehicle for racial justice. Over the course of its first ten years, it came under regular fire from members of the city’s established black leadership for what they charged was a condescending approach toward Richmond’s majority black and Latino population. With backing from Chevron and later real-estate and other corporate interests, longtime city councilmembers Nat Bates and Corky Boozé regularly sparred with the RPA, with Bates referring to the group as the “Richmond Plantation Alliance.” And these charges did not come out of nowhere: while the RPA’s original activist base was representative of all of Richmond’s communities, it was weighted heavily to older white activists. Early documents the RPA’s self-examination in this respect and their successful initiatives to diversify their leadership and candidates. Of the six now representing the RPA in city government, only one (McLaughlin) is white, and the leading vote-getter in the 2016 city council election was African-American first-time candidate Melvin Willis.

So what’s keeping this success from being replicated in other places? For one thing, majority-minority constituencies have many predilections to progressive politics that are harder to overcome among white constituencies. The RPA can serve as an exemplar for many cities, including larger ones, in both form and content. But local progressives will sooner or later have to turn to state legislatures to pass broader measures—or to defend themselves from crippling preemptions. At that point, they may find themselves up against the preferences of a white majority with very different priorities.

In the wake of November’s debacle, Democrats—and especially the left wing of the party—have acknowledged the need for a new “fifty-state strategy” and are at least gesturing toward taking back the statehouses. A central part of any such strategy, which one hopes the new Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez understands, is that state legislatures (and governors) will redraw the congressional map after the 2020 census. Letting a thousand Richmonds bloom is one piece of the big picture; another is writing the RPA story for state-wide, and yes, in many cases, whiter constituencies.

The problem for the chattering classes is that state legislatures lack the drama and big-picture sweep in which their journals of opinion and literary reviews specialize. Expats from the Beltway and the Empire State read the New York Times and the Washington Post, not the Detroit Free Press or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. They are steeped in national issues, not to say global ones, rather than the minutiae of local politics.

Still, Refinery Town suggests that there is hope yet. No local story can stand for all of them; each place has gone from the past to the present along its own path; but there so many places with so many similarities to Richmond, California that students of and activists in local affairs will be well advised to pay heed. And many of the Richmond’s lessons apply broadly to state, and even national, politics as well: forging unity among liberal Democrats and further-left outsiders, for example. The future of Bernie Sanders’s post-primary outfit Our Revolution—which endorsed RPA city council candidates Melvin Willis and Ben Choi in November—will be one test of that. As for the big picture, folks: 2020 will be upon us in a flash; Richmond shows one way it can be a better time.

Robert J. S. Ross is a Research Professor of Sociology and the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University and the author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.

[1] LaGuardia: “Isn’t it grand? Not a single county leader of either political is endorsing me. Well, as Al Smith used to say, ‘I could run on a laundry ticket and beat those political bums!’”