The city of Richmond, dominated by a giant Chevron refinery, elected the state’s first big-city Green Party mayor in November 2006. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed corporate spending on elections with its Citizens United decision and Richmond politics have not been quite the same since.
Robert Rogers at the Contra Costa Times reported this week that longtime councilman and current mayoral candidate Tom Butts has no major donors and has raised about $2,000 a day since tossing his hat in the ring on August 8. His main rival, Nat Bates, another longtime councilman, also has a modest campaign war chest—$22,235, as of June 30.
But Bates has a friend. It’s not one he talks to about political strategy, because that would be wrong. But Chevron is the chief supplier of cash to Moving Forward, a political action committee (PAC) which Rogers says is sitting on $1.7 million and already spending aggressively on ads for Bates.
Bates downplayed Chevron support to the Times: “Tom wants to make a big deal about a so-called Chevron slush fund. But them spending money on elections is nothing new; he needs to stop crying about it and worry about his own campaign.”
Bates is correct. Chevron spending big bucks on Richmond elections is not new, and is growing. Chevron reportedly spent $1 million on a failed 2010 attempt to elect Bates mayor in 2010. The Green Candidate won. The mayor serves on the city council.
Chevron reportedly poured $1.2 million into Richmond elections in 2012 via PACs, 527s and non-profit organizations, backing two winners and one loser on the council. The election came three months after an August fire at the Chevron refinery darkened the sky, emitting dangerous fumes and sending 15,000 people to hospital complaining of respiratory ailments.
Investigations ensued, and critics called for Chevron to shut down the facility or at least clean up its act. What Chevron wanted was city officials who would lighten up on the criticism and support its plan for a major upgrade/expansion of the plant to handle even dirtier crude oil.
Richmond Confidential calculated that Chevron and its allies outspent the Richmond Progressive Alliance and citizens of a more liberal persuasion 10-1.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin is termed out this year and is running for a council seat. She abstained when the council voted 5-0 last month to let the $1-billion plant renovation move forward. In doing so, the council rejected the recommendation of its planning commission that Chevron put in more pollution controls, replace its piping and contribute a quarter billion dollars to local green projects through 2050.
A third mayoral candidate, Nigerian-born, small-business owner Uche Uwahemu, told Richmond Confidential he regards Chevron as a valued city tenant that should be regarded as a partner, not an enemy in the community.
Richmond, a city of 100,000, has long had a reputation for gangs, drugs and violence. One-fifth of its residents live in poverty and 80% are non-white. The progressive alliance that formed in 2003 and helped elect McLaughlin mayor will face a stiff challenge in the fall.
The city famously threatened to rescue underwater homeowners facing foreclosure with an innovative application of eminent domain, incurring the wrath of both big banks and the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHA). The council fell a vote short of implementing the plan and another progressive measure, a soda tax, failed at the ballot box in 2012.