Now that the smoke has cleared from the stunning election in Richmond earlier this month, questions are emerging about exactly how an overmatched and underfunded grassroots organization was able to soundly defeat Chevron, an oil colossus that was desperate to regain control of city government.
Chevron spent more than $3 million to attack three candidates from the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and install the oil company’s four favored candidates on the seven-member city council. But Chevron’s over-the-top spending backfired and progressives swept to victory by unexpectedly wide margins. Ultimately, all Chevron bought with its millions was embarrassment and lingering ill will from a campaign that was as foul as the toxins its refinery regularly spews into the Bay Area’s atmosphere.
Longtime Councilmember Tom Butt, who frequently votes with the RPA, easily won the mayor’s race against Chevron candidate Nat Bates, who is also a longtime member of the council. In addition, RPA members, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin (who is termed out of the mayor’s office) won a council seat, and Councilmember Jovanka Beckles won re-election. And RPA member Eduardo Martinez, a retired educator, won a seat on the council after two previous unsuccessful attempts. What’s more, the progressive-controlled council will now select a replacement for Butt on the council — a move that could possibly create a first ever RPA-council majority.
“Chevron’s more than $3 million influx of money in our Richmond elections was an affront to our democracy,” McLaughlin said. “The community at large saw through this. The flooding of mailboxes, billboards, airwaves, and internet with both deceitful and ridiculous messages rightly turned off our community.”
The campaign was so distasteful that the Contra Costa Times, the region’s newspaper of record, whose editorial pages typically support the refinery, published an editorial last weekend strongly recommending that the refinery’s general manager, Kory Judd, apologize for the lowbrow mudslinging and the poor cast of characters that Chevron fielded as candidates. One of them, Charles Ramsey, is being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, over the use of $77 million in school district construction bonds. And another, Al Martinez, was a former Richmond police officer who was drummed off the force after he was indicted on nine felony counts related to the theft of firearms and drugs from a police evidence locker.
Chevron officials did not return requests to talk about the election, and neither did their campaign consultant, John Whitehurst of Whitehurst/Mosher Campaign Strategy and Media. But former Chevron candidate Donna Powers is talking — and she’s not happy.
Powers, a former Richmond councilmember, said she was never consulted about campaign tactics and that Chevron essentially beat itself and took her candidacy down in the process. “What they did was overkill,” Powers said in an interview after the election. “It seems like they could have used all that money more effectively.” Powers then added sarcastically, “Why not give gift cards to voters instead of burying them with mailers?”
The numerous glossy hit-piece mailers funded by Chevron sparked a backlash in the city. Residents grew irritated when their mailboxes were stuffed daily with four to six mailers. As the onslaught continued, the irritation turned into outrage and the overkill quickly became one of the main topics of campaign discussion. Even Chevron’s mayoral candidate — Bates — said after he lost to Butt that “there was just too much mail and people became resentful. They turned against Chevron.”
Powers said the Chevron campaign was obviously flawed, but there was nothing she could do about it. She said she repeatedly called Chevron officials to discuss the issue but they would not return her calls. Federal and state campaign laws forbid political action committees and their contributors from discussing strategies with their chosen candidates during a campaign.
Powers said she ran her own campaign, which included attending several of the twenty or so candidate nights, public events, and chamber of commerce meet-and-greets. She also sent out more than 5,000 handwritten notes to registered voters and made upward of 1,300 personal phone calls. But her efforts were overshadowed by Chevron’s never-ending mailers, negative billboard ads, and ubiquitous radio and television advertisements.
Powers said Chevron’s ponderous and overbearing campaign upstaged its own candidates and drowned out their individual messages. Powers served on the Richmond City Council during the 1990s and her accomplishments, such as initiating the effort to create Rosie the Riveter Park, securing funding for the Center for Health, authoring the city’s first public information ordinance, and creating the region’s first chemical and disaster warning system, got sucked under the waves caused by the oil giant’s campaign. Powers was particularly angry with the press, including the Express (me in particular), for not seeking her out more. “I did not receive one telephone call from a reporter during the entire campaign,” Powers said. “I simply didn’t have a voice in the election.”
County Supervisor John Gioia said the Chevron candidates’ messages were not the only thing washed away by the oil giant’s campaign. When Chevron made itself the story, it minimized other critical issues facing Richmond, such as the possible closure of Doctors Medical Center, which logs more than 40,000 emergency visits a year; the successful Measure U, a half-cent sales tax which will stave off a predicted $9 million budget deficit; and the still pending and controversial eminent domain legislation, which seeks to provide relief to homeowners who are struggling with underwater mortgages.
“The size of the Chevron campaign was a disservice to the community in a way because all these other important issues did not get fully discussed,” Gioia said. “Chevron high-jacked the campaign and used up all the air space.”
The overwhelming message to Richmond voters — and to the country — was that Chevron wanted to bully and buy its way back into City Hall so the city could again be subservient to the refinery’s management. Pressing issues that Chevron is keen to thwart include a lawsuit by the city over a 2012 explosion and fire at the refinery that was a result of criminal negligence. Also, under the leadership of McLaughlin, the council has required the refinery to pay its fair share of taxes, reinstituted city inspections and permitting, and insisted that a proposed $1 billion upgrade to the 100-year-old refinery include increased safety features, enhanced environmental safeguards, and a $90 million community investment to fund education, alternative energy sources, and healthcare.
Chevron’s over-bloated campaign also drew national attention and was featured on several popular news programs such the Bill Moyers Journal, The Rachel Maddow Show, and Democracy Now. In addition, the three RPA candidates received a significant boost when progressive US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont came to town to stump for them at a large rally at the Richmond Auditorium. He inspired thousands of Richmond voters by railing against corporate domination of the political process in general and Chevron in particular.
The $3 million was more than twice as much as the oil giant had ever spent on a Richmond campaign and it did not appear, at least in hindsight, that much thought went into the campaign. “I don’t know if anyone is doing much thinking over there,” said Mayor-elect Butt. “They had some success spending a lot of money in 2012 and it looks like they just thought it would work to double-down.”