A Small City’s Big Lessons About Progressive Organizing
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve seen the emergence of a broad-based, working-class oriented, multiracial progressive movement in Richmond that has challenged Chevron’s long-time dominance over municipal affairs,” says author and labor activist Steve Early
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Richmond, California, is home to one of the largest oil refineries on the West Coast and also a working-class community that has seen many struggles. Chevron, the city’s largest employer, has been responsible for hundreds of industrial accidents in the area, including major fires, spills, explosions, and air contamination. At the same time, for decades, it’s maintained a controlling influence over the city’s electoral politics. However, in recent years, the community at Richmond has fought back, organizing to raise the local minimum wage and demand fair taxation from Big Oil.
This fight is chronicled in the new book, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. Its author is Steve Early, who, for the past 45 years, has been an organizer, lawyer, and labor activist. I recently sat down with Steve Early in our Baltimore studio.
STEVE EARLY: Thanks for having me on the show.
AARON MATÉ: Thanks for being here. Tell us about Richmond.
STEVE EARLY: Richmond, California, is an industrial city, 80% non-white, largely poor and working class. It’s located in the East Bay, up the coast from the better-known Oakland and Berkeley. For the last century its largest employer, its biggest taxpayer, its dominant political influencer has been the oil company known today as Chevron. It’s long been a city shaped by Big Oil’s pollution of the air, the water, and local politics.
AARON MATÉ: The central focus of your book is the community’s fight against Chevron and their presence in the town. Can you break that down for us?
STEVE EARLY: Over the last 10 to 15 years we’ve seen the emergence of a broad-based, working-class oriented, multiracial progressive movement in Richmond that has challenged Chevron’s long-time dominance over municipal affairs. Since 2004, this group, the Richmond progressive Alliance, has won 10 out of 16 races for city council or mayor, currently has a progressive super majority on the city council, and for eight years actually made Richmond the largest city in the country with a green mayor. We’ve had a tremendous breakthrough for Bernie Sanders-style progressives at the local level, implementing a far-reaching program of municipal reform in a very unlikely place for that, given its history of Big Oil domination.
AARON MATÉ: Well, before we get into the broad reforms, let’s get into the Chevron fight more. When you say that Chevron has dominated municipal affairs, what do you mean by that?
STEVE EARLY: Well, when you have one big major employer, they tend to have a lot of influence on local politics. Chevron opened the refinery in Richmond in 1905. The city grew up around it. It had other manufacturing operations, the Kaiser Shipyard during World War II. It has a big railroad. It has a port, but Big Oil has long been the biggest employer, the biggest taxpayer, the biggest manipulator of local politics. Only the last 10 or 15 years has a coalition of community and labor groups and environmentalists come together and successfully contested its influence and its use of big money in local politics and run people for city government who tried to hold the company accountable as opposed to doing its business for it.
AARON MATÉ: Explain how that fight played out. Were these progressive candidates running against politicians who were backed heavily by Chevron?
STEVE EARLY: Chevron has been part of a larger ruling, conservative, establishment group that included the Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturers’ Association, leading developers, and, sadly, conservative building trades’ unions and the police and the firefighters’ unions. That’s essentially been their coalition, and until 10 or 15 years ago, they were were able to control the mayor’s office, the city council, the affairs of the city.
The emergence of progressives has changed the political landscape. Chevron has been forced to pay more of its fair share of taxes. We have been able to enact rent control in Richmond, a major progressive reform benefiting thousands of low-income black and Latino tenants. Progressives have been able to enact major reform at the police department, raise the minimum wage, declare Richmond to be a sanctuary city, and take other initiatives at the local level to address the pressing problem of global warming.
AARON MATÉ: There was a key election in 2014, and it’s said that Chevron spent more than $3 million on that race, more, I believe, than they spent on congressional races.
STEVE EARLY: It was pretty extraordinary. Richmond has a population of about 110,000, an active electorate of 20 to 30,000 people. In 2014, Big Oil and its allies spent over $3 million trying to elect a slate of conservative candidates for mayor and city council and trying to smear and defeat our progressive slate, and the company failed. It was a very rare example of people power overcoming big money in local politics, and it was a testament to the work that Richmond progressives have done building a strong grassroots movement, a volunteer army of canvassers who go door-to-door, talk to their neighbors, get out the vote and refuse to take corporate contributions themselves.
All of our progressive candidates in Richmond are corporate-free. They’re up against Corporate Democrats who have steadily been losing ground because they won’t support rent control, they won’t support an increase in the minimum wage, they won’t force Chevron to be accountable, and they don’t want to be a part of the serious effort to make the city cleaner and greener and healthier and more equitable for all its citizens.
AARON MATÉ: A lot of parallels there to the national struggle right now for the soul of the Democratic Party, but before we get into that, let’s talk more about the Richmond Progressive Alliance who you mention here, how they came together, who they are.
STEVE EARLY: Well, we all have been frustrated, I think, in various ways by the fragmentation of the US Left, the tendency of people to go off in different direction with a kind of single-issue focus. One of the early triumphs of the Progressive Alliance when it came together was getting people concerned about diverse issues, to work together around a common agenda for municipal reform. You had people 15 years ago in Richmond who wanted to deal with the problem of police brutality, who even then were concerned about housing affordability, wanted to raise the minimum wage, and improve local labor standards, wanted to clean up the environment, wanted to get Chevron to pay more in property taxes, but they were all kind of working in separate silos.
The genius of the Progressive Alliance was getting them to come together, adopt a common platform, start to run candidates, and candidates who would remain accountable to the constituencies that elected them, candidates who would use their position as mayor or city council member to help mobilize the community to counter the enormous political influence of Chevron and other special interest groups in the community.
The Richmond Progressive Alliance is an unusual hybrid organization. It has dues-paying members. It has some labor and community organizational partners. It doesn’t just pop up every two or four years running candidates. It organizes year round around a wide range of really compelling community issues.
AARON MATÉ: That’s interesting, dues-paying members, modeled on a labor union.
STEVE EARLY: Very much so or a more traditional European-style political party. Our political parties are pretty hollow structures. They exist mainly as banners for people to wave while they raise millions of dollars for their own individual entrepreneurial campaigns as candidates. The RPA model is completely different. Our candidates are not endorsed. They’re a product of the progressive movement. They are leaders in the Progressive Alliance. They come out of the movements they represent, and, therefore, they tend to be much more responsive to the people that elected them.
We have seen many times people endorsed by labor or healthcare reform or community or immigrant advocate groups get into elected office and disappoint in various ways. One of the real challenges is, how do you hold progressive elected officials accountable to the agenda they campaigned on? I think the Richmond track record has been pretty good in that regard over the last 15 years.
AARON MATÉ: Speaking of challenges, I want to talk a bit more about this coalition, this progressive coalition that was assembled. One of the critiques of the Bernie Sanders campaign, especially in the early stages of the primaries, was that it didn’t do enough to attract African-American voters. Is Richmond a case where that divide between progressive groups and African-American voters, to the extent that that divide exists, was overcome?
STEVE EARLY: It has been, but it’s been very difficult. This is a majority minority community, 80% non-white, 40% Latino, 30% black, 10% Asian, but Big Oil has often had a lock on the African-American opinion-shapers and leaders, black churches. The NAACP is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chevron. The company in its role as a major philanthropist supports everything from children’s breakfast programs to Black History Month. Chevron forged a strong alliance between conservative, corporate-oriented African-American Democrats. The Progressive Alliance only became successful in challenging that connection to the black community when it was able to develop younger black and Latino leaders who refused to take corporate money and were willing to take Big Oil on.
Last fall, one of the Progressive Alliance candidates who won was a 26-year-old tenant organizer, Melvin Willis, Bernie Sanders-inspired, first-time candidate for city council. He came first in a field of nine up against seven Corporate Democrats, none of whom supported rent control. Melvin was the leading proponent of rent control in Richmond. Rent control was on the ballot. It was adopted by a two-to-one margin. He came in 2000 votes ahead of a 40-year African-American Chevron-backed council incumbent.
The times are changing in Richmond, but it’s only because a younger generation of black, Latino, and Asian activists from working-class backgrounds have come to the fore and are willing to challenge the relationships between elders in their communities and the major corporate power in the community.
AARON MATÉ: Since you mentioned rent control, let’s talk about housing. It’s been a big issue in Richmond, and activists there have used a variety of tools to advance a more progressive agenda, including eminent domain.
STEVE EARLY: Well, during the foreclosure crisis of 2007, 2008, Richmond, like many cities, had lots of struggling low-income homeowners losing their homes. The city council at the time, when there was not a progressive majority, came up with the idea of using the threat of eminent domain to block foreclosures, which, of course, spread blight in communities as people were forced to abandon their homes. This was a brave initiative. It was cutting-edge, but the big banks, the real estate industry counter-attacked very aggressively. No other community would join the effort. We had enough votes on the city council then to adopt the idea in principle, but you needed more votes to actually implement it.
In the course of the canvassing and the campaigning that was done, people discovered that rent control was really what was needed. You have thousands of tenants in Richmond facing huge rent increases as people are displaced from San Francisco and Berkeley and Oakland. They move into Richmond. The landlords raise the rent and kick tenants out.
Last fall, this measure that was passed by a two-to-one vote rolled rents back to the level of a year before, holds landlords to future rent increases tied to the overall increase in the Consumer Price Index. They now cannot evict tenants unless there is just cause, and we have a rent board that’s going to adjudicate landlord-tenant disputes. First city in California to be able to do this in 30 years. It only covers 40% of the tenants because of restrictions imposed by the state legislature, but it’s a tremendous breakthrough, a real economic gain, and, again, a model for what people can do in states where it is possible at the municipal level to regulate rents.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, keeping this thread going in terms of the city providing a model for what people can do, let’s talk about undocumented immigration, a big issue, and the city took steps to protect its undocumented residents.
STEVE EARLY: When Gayle McLaughlin, a leader-
AARON MATÉ: That was the mayor-
STEVE EARLY: … of the Progressive Alliance … yeah … was first elected mayor in 2006, she declared Richmond to be a sanctuary city. Many other cities are doing that now. Richmond was among those leading the pack, and this was very much tied into the effort launched around the same time to reform the police department.
A new police chief was brought in, a fellow named Chris Magnus, one of the leading police reformers in the country. He understood right away in a community like this with thousands of undocumented immigrant residents that you could not rebuild relationships within the police department and the community if the police were seen as acting as an arm of any kind of federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants. The city, sanctuary city, has been recently reiterated by our current mayor and the model of sanctuary city activity really has spread quite widely in the Trump era, but Richmond took the stand back in the George Bush era.
AARON MATÉ: Let me read to you from your book, “If urban political insurgencies are going to succeed in more places, they will need models for civil engagement like Richmond provides. Our city’s emergency response lesson is this. When we take shelter in place together, we can change our communities for the better. If we remain frozen in a state of individual fear, apathy, alienation, or powerlessness, the world around us remains the same until the next warning siren sounds and all the ones after that, until there are too many fires to put out and not enough time left to reverse the damage they’ve done.”
STEVE EARLY: Well, I should probably explain what shelter in place is. That’s a refinery town emergency protocol that I wasn’t too familiar with until moving to Richmond five years ago and becoming a neighbor of Chevron. When there’s a major refinery fire or explosion, like we had five years ago this August that sent 15,000 refinery neighbors scrambling for medical assistance at local hospital emergency rooms and clinics, we are told to shelter in place, which means you go into your house, you tape the windows and doors shut, you turn off the air conditioner, you kind of hope for the best.
That really is, I think, a symbol of a fearful, isolated individual kind of situation. Richmond provides a good example of people leaving their homes, coming together, organizing in public spaces, and taking on the causes of problems like the ones created by Big Oil in our community and throughout the country and the world. I know it’s counterintuitive when you have global problems. Why is going local the best way to address them? Well, actually, you can have more of an impact in your own community, your own neighborhood, working in a city of human scale of 100,000 like Richmond.
AARON MATÉ: Right, but in terms of that scale being applicable to bigger cities, there are limitations, especially the bigger a city gets, to redoing the local model, say, in a place like Baltimore or New York. Right?
STEVE EARLY: Very definitely, but some of the programs that Richmond has been able to pioneer as an aspiring laboratory for municipal public policy innovation are actually now being copied in cities like Baltimore and Oakland. One of our programs is the Office of Neighborhood Safety, an adjunct to the reformed police department. Richmond still has a very big problem with gun activity and gang conflict and drug trafficking. It leads to 20 or 30 homicides a year, mainly involving young people of color between the ages of 15 and 30.
The Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond hires formerly incarcerated, former gang members to go out, work as peacemakers, try to de-escalate gang disputes. They have a peacemaker fellowship program. They’ve recruited scores of young gang members to be part of it. They get a stipend. They get job training and counseling. They get support for taking a different path in life. It’s a program that’s now being reproduced in many other larger cities that have seen the failures of a military-style model of policing.
Aggressive police tactics have not led to reductions in homicides and gang activity and street crime, and so the Richmond model of the police relating differently to the community and civilians playing an increased role in public safety, very key element of civilian oversight of the police department, civilian activity in neighborhoods, and this Office of Neighborhood Safety. It’s a pretty powerful package for real change in the area of public safety.
AARON MATÉ: For those, though, who might look at Richmond and say, “Okay, well look, it’s easy for this California town to enact all these progressive measures, but it’s just not possible for us to do here in our, say, Midwestern town. Not every town has a police chief like the one in Richmond who held up a Black Lives Matter sign at a rally.” What do you say to them?
STEVE EARLY: Well, we would never have had Chris Magnus as our police chief in Richmond if we hadn’t started to make some progress done 12 years ago in electing more progressives to the city council, electing a green mayor. They were the folks who hired a new city manager, hired a new police chief. Chris Magnus is one of the few gay police chiefs in the country. He came from Fargo, North Dakota, one of the whitest and safest communities in the country.
A lot of people didn’t want to hire him because they didn’t think, you know, he would fit in in a diverse urban environment like Richmond, but sometimes you need an outsider, a change-maker, someone willing to really upend an institution to bring about real change in a city department as difficult to reform as the police department. I think there’s elements of the Richmond model that are reproducible in other parts of the country and in cities both larger and smaller.
AARON MATÉ: Finally, Steve, you’ve been involved in the labor movement for many years, and you saw how this movement in Richmond materialized and stayed together, but, of course, organizing is tough and it’s hard to maintain coalitions. I’m wondering if you could reflect on your observations about the challenges of keeping coalitions together and organizing in general in the society that we live in.
STEVE EARLY: Well, I think the reason the Progressive Alliance has been distinctive to the extent that it has tried to rely on membership dues, membership contributions, small donor fundraising for its candidates rather than being part of what people call the non-profit industrial complex. It does not take social change foundation money. It’s not looking for big sugar daddies. It’s not top heavy with paid staff. That’s a hard path to take, a largely volunteer, member-driven organization, and it’s a real testament to people’s staying power in Richmond that they’ve been able to sustain it.
One thing that’s helped in the last couple of years, conscious effort by the founding fathers and mothers to step back and create space for a younger generation of black and Latino activists, Asian, young people, to take leadership roles. The Steering Committee of the RPA elected every year by the members is now predominantly people of color, predominantly female, and much younger than in the past. We have too many institutions on the Left, from unions to community organizations, to churches, where older people don’t want to get out of the way and let younger people take leadership roles. I think that’s an inspiring part of the story as well.
That’s why we have now viable candidates running for city council in their 20s or 30s with a strong movement behind them. You know, as recently as 10, 15, 20 years ago, they would have been dismissed as marginal, and their chances of success would have been very minimal.
AARON MATÉ: Since this is a progressive town with progressive elected officials, can we talk a bit about the internal struggle right now in the Democratic Party? Bernie Sanders has an interesting history with your town. He came there during the Chevron fight and said that it was actually ground zero against Citizens United.
STEVE EARLY: Yeah, in 2014, when our green mayor was up for reelection as a member of the council and she was running on a slate with two other progressives and Chevron spent more than $3 million trying to defeat them, unsuccessfully, it really was an example of how the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United has unleashed these independent expenditures committee. You or I in Richmond are limited to giving any single candidate $2500.00. Chevron set up a committee that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its favorite candidates, supposedly without any coordination with their campaigns and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to smear and defeat progressive candidates who were critical of its corporate behavior.
So I think the only way we can counter that kind of big money in politics, as Bernie has argued, is to build stronger grassroots movements. In Richmond, we also have a modest system of public matching funds. So if you have the ability, as the Progressive Alliance does, to raise money from small donors Bernie Sanders style, you get city matching funds. Other cities have adopted that, New York, Portland, Oregon. I think that’s a necessary election reform to kind of level the playing field when you’re up against big corporate spenders on behalf of your opposition.
The lesson of 2014 was that if you build a strong base, if you have a volunteer army, if you have candidates who are corporate-free and known for that and respected for that, they can overcome the smears and the negative ads and the glossy mailers and the billboards and win, even though they’re outspent 30 to 1.
AARON MATÉ: Lessons that will be important as we head into 2018 and 2020.
STEVE EARLY: Very definitely. You know, the other thing that we’ve tried to do in connection with Bernie, the Progressive Alliance is now part of the Our Revolution network that grew out of Bernie’s campaign. There’s other good groups doing this kind of work or supporting it, the Working Families Party, People’s Action. Democratic Socialists of America is now encouraging its members to run for municipal office. Socialist Alternative, of course, in Seattle, a great city council member, Kshama Sawant. There’s lots of networks to be part of to get started down this path, lots of good models in cities of all sizes and, of course, the inspiration of the Sanders campaign.
AARON MATÉ: And Richmond.
STEVE EARLY: And Richmond.
AARON MATÉ: I want to thank my guest, Steve Early, author of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. Steve, thank you.
STEVE EARLY: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.