Last week, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin stood before a bank of television cameras in the plaza of Richmond’s newly renovated civic center to respond to something that has become a civic tradition — ruthless political mudslinging by the city’s police and fire unions.
The unions had dug up a 2003 bankruptcy filing in which McLaughlin sought to be discharged of $100,000 in student loans. In the filing, McLaughlin claimed she was unable to make payments because “serious psychiatric disabilities” prevented her from working full time. She also said that she received disability payments and that she had been prescribed various medications to cope with sleeplessness, seizures, and depression. McLaughlin later told reporters that she was hospitalized twice in 1999.
Through a political action committee called Richmond First, the two public safety unions paid a researcher $15,000 to find the document and then disseminated its contents through a web site, a thirty-second television ad, and the unions’ favorite weapon of choice — thousands of glossy mailers emblazoned with large, unflattering pictures of the mayor.
Surrounded by two Richmond councilmembers and a phalanx of her supporters, last week McLaughlin told reporters that the bankruptcy filing was unsuccessful and that she continues to pay off the student loan. She incurred the debt in the early 1990s while obtaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology and later working to get her master’s, which she did not receive. She also admitted, without giving specifics, that in the 1990s she had overcome personal adversities that included depression, debilitating illnesses, family deaths, and being the target of a series of crimes.
“My health and personal finances suffered as a result,” she said. “But that is all in the past. I believe my past challenges have strengthened me and made me a wiser and more compassionate woman, leader, and public servant.”
Police union representative Joey Schlemmer said it was the union’s duty to expose McLaughlin’s personal financial struggles. “The public scrutinizes public officials before casting their vote,” he said. “These are public documents and this is to inform the public. The people should be able to make a decision for themselves.”
The unions’ political attack came during the last month of a tough mayoral campaign. The 58-year-old McLaughlin is facing two challengers who come from the ranks of the city’s old guard. The public safety unions have endorsed Councilman Nat Bates, a retired probation officer. The 78-year-old Bates was first elected to the council in 1967 and has served a total of 31 years with one 12-year hiatus from 1983 to 1995. The other challenger is John “Z” Ziesenhenne, the CEO of M.A. Hayes Insurance Company. Ziesenhenne served on the city council from 1982 to 1993. He has been an active member of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and has served on its board for many years. He is largely considered to be as pro-Chevron as Bates, although Chevron itself has not yet publicly backed a candidate
No one has come forward to say that McLaughlin has demonstrated any mental instability during her six years on the council. Bates declined to comment on McLaughlin’s behavior, saying that would be inappropriate and that it’s better for voters to make their decision based on the issues and differences between the three mayoral candidates
However, McLaughlin ally Councilman Tom Butt, who has served on the council since 1995, said he has never seen any sign of instability in McLaughlin’s performance. Butt said McLaughlin is always well prepared for council meetings and argues effectively for her issues. “She is fair-minded, even-handed, and is willing to compromise when necessary,” Butt said. “She’s been a good council member and a good mayor. In fact, if somebody told me that one of the councilmembers had a history of mental illness and I had to guess which one it was, Gayle would be way down on the list.”
For Richmond’s political left, McLaughlin has been a breath of fresh air. She has championed a progressive agenda and given voice to political perspectives that were traditionally squashed by the city’s special interests — including, most notably, the public safety unions and Chevron. On the other hand, Richmond’s old guard sees McLaughlin as an interloper who has upset long-standing business practices and challenged the primacy of the political block that has dominated city politics.
In the 1990s, the public safety unions held firm control over the city council through the aggressive campaign tactics of fire union president Darrell Reese, a retired fire captain, political boss, and convicted felon. Reese is often credited with making an art form of hit-piece mailers like the one directed against McLaughlin, which dominated city politics through the 1990s. Reese would send three glossy mailers attacking his political opponents at set intervals during the last weeks of a campaign. Reese’s mailers were known for their ruthlessness, distortions of the facts, and resounding success.
It is ironic that it was the police and fire unions that attacked McLaughlin given the havoc they wreaked on the city’s budget in past years. By 1993, Reese and the police and fire unions had gained control of city politics. Reese had been directly responsible for electing five of the city’s nine councilmembers and they were as beholden to his political skills as they were afraid of his wrath. In 1997, he used his influence to promote Richmond native Isiah Turner to city manager. Turner was a questionable choice. Years earlier, when he was employed by the state of Washington, state auditors discovered that Turner had misused $22,000 of public funds — mostly on travel expenses. Turner quickly resigned and left Washington state under a veil of shame.
Turner’s six-year reign as Richmond’s city manager was characterized by incompetence, mismanagement, and influence peddling. In 2003, he suddenly announced that his doctor had advised him to resign for undisclosed health reasons. Just days after he moved to another state, it was discovered that he had left behind a hidden $35 million budget deficit. The impact on city services was devastating. The county took over the city’s management and was forced to close senior centers, community centers, and libraries. More than 250 city employees were laid off, roads and public buildings fell into disrepair, and the city lost its credit rating, which made it impossible to invest in the future.
When the California State Auditor issued a report looking into the crisis, the conclusion was that the major cause of the city’s financial catastrophe was excessive police and fire union contracts.
Richmond voters first elected McLaughlin to the council in 2004, when the city was struggling to recover from this economic devastation. It would be inaccurate to credit McLaughlin with the city’s remarkable recovery, but her election was a strong indication that city voters were fed up with the political cronyism, special-interest greed, and lack of transparency that nearly ruined the city.
In 2005, Orinda City Manager Bill Lindsay came to work in Richmond. He hired all new department heads, including Finance Director Jim Goins. Under their leadership, the city is now in better shape than most others in the Bay Area. Working with the council, city officials have brought new business to town. Most significantly, the city cut a long-term, lucrative deal with Honda to offload cars from ships at the Port of Richmond and transfer them to trains. The city also negotiated a utility tax deal with Chevron in which the refinery will pay $115 million to the city over the next fifteen years.
The result is that while San Francisco and Oakland fret over their inability to hire police officers, Richmond has added ninety new officers to its ranks. The city also has regained its double-A-plus credit rating and has a reserve of $9 million. The city has completed numerous public works projects such as the $100 million renovation of its civic center and a retrofit of “The Plunge,” an 87-year-old enclosed public pool that is considered one of Richmond’s architectural gems.
Over time, the old guard began to lose influence over city politics. The public safety unions and Reese, who was convicted of felony tax evasion in 2001, could no longer handpick city officials or dictate their own salaries and benefits. Chevron lost influence as well. The international oil giant was no longer able to conduct its own inspections of refinery construction projects. And its special deals, such as paying a greatly reduced utility tax, were openly challenged by McLaughlin and others on the council.
With Richmond’s renaissance, city leaders were able to redirect their focus to issues such as crime, blight, and instituting more sustainable practices. Today, homicides are down by about 60 percent, the city is thriving economically, and the city’s roads, public buildings, and parks are now well maintained and a source of civic pride.
It is on green issues that McLaughlin has had her most significant impact. McLaughlin has championed expansion of youth job-training programs, raised the percentage of Richmond residents to be hired on city-contracted work projects, and taken a leadership role in challenging Chevron to be more environmentally responsible and to increase their tax base. But her largest accomplishment has been expanding Richmond’s solar capacity. She co-founded Solar Richmond, which has trained hundreds of city residents, mostly disadvantaged youth, to install solar panels on homes and businesses. The program offers solar installation at reduced cost to low-income homeowners and has won numerous awards. Richmond now ranks among the top fifteen cities in the state for highest solar capacity.
While her critics admit her dedication to solar issues has paid off in green-collar jobs, they say she is too much of an opponent to traditional business. Bates said that she voted against the Honda port contract, which will bring in $88 million to the city over the next fifteen years, and that she voted against the new Target outlet that has brought hundreds of jobs to Richmond. “She’s green and green only,” Bates said. “We need jobs in Richmond and I’m for creating green jobs and more traditional jobs. I want to explore all possibilities.”
According to Butt, McLaughlin voted against the Honda port deal because the environmental impact report was flawed. As a result of a subsequent lawsuit, a court required failures in the report to be addressed. Once they were, Mclaughlin supported the contract, Butt noted.
Ziesenhenne said that creating jobs will be his main focus if he is elected mayor. However, Ziesenhenne has not taken a public stand on a large casino proposed for Point Molate, a scenic stretch of mostly undeveloped shoreline on Richmond’s northwestern shore. He said he is waiting for voters to have their say in an advisory vote this November. “I am waiting for them to have their say and I will 100 percent stand by their wishes,” he said. Bates supports the casino and McLaughlin opposes it.
The former councilman distanced himself from the personal attack on McLaughlin. “The debate should be over the issues,” Ziesenhenne said. “It’s hard not to be critical of your opponent’s agenda, but I’ve never run any of my races like that.”
McLaughlin supporters heavily criticized Bates for circulating her bankruptcy documents via e-mail. Bates said he was sorry the mayor had been in such an unstable situation, but that was not his responsibility. “I didn’t create it,” Bates said. “I received an anonymous e-mail and I sent it out to a few people and all of a sudden, I’m the culprit?”
Whether the campaign tactic will be effective remains to be seen. It worked well for Reese in the 1990s, but in many ways Richmond is a different city now. At the Richmond Marina and around the Richmond BART station, there are whole new neighborhoods of condominiums occupied by young, educated professionals who are less likely to be swayed by blood-sport-style politics. Very few refinery employees even live in Richmond any more.
McLaughlin said the campaign attack has given her campaign momentum. She has received hundreds of e-mails and a boost in campaign contributions. “These kind of attacks have gone on too long in Richmond,” she said. “All it does is discourage good people from being active in public life and increases the cynicism people feel toward government.”