Socialist Alternative

Refinery Town: A Case Study on Anti-Corporate Politics in Richmond, CA

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Refinery Town by Steve Early, recently published in paperback, is the inspiring true story of a California city taking the lead in the fight against corporate politics. This book gives activists a chance to study how big business organizes to take down genuine progressive candidates, and provides a model of how to win despite the odds.

In a town dominated by a single multinational corporation – Chevron – an activist from the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) was able to win the 2006 mayoral race and set the stage for a progressive majority on city council. The RPA ran grassroots campaigns based in community needs and social movements and defeated Chevron-backed opponents in four separate election campaigns. Corporate interests used every dirty trick imaginable, but Richmond residents didn’t buy it. RPA candidates took a principled stand and refused corporate money as a rule, and chose to fight on the side of working people rather than make more losing deals with Big Oil.

Accused of being “radical and out-of-touch” by pro-Chevron news outlets, the RPA’s record actually proves the opposite. Their several victories against the oil company have led to over $114 million in tax revenue being transferred from Chevron to the people of Richmond, which has been used to fund social programs in the city. RPA’s approach to politics was a dramatic change of course from the old Democratic Party political machine that had been running the city for decades.

Company Town

Richmond is a small working-class city in California, north of Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay area. Today, Chevron is the largest employer in Richmond and the company’s dominance of the city has been economically and politically entrenched for decades.

World War II converted small-town Richmond into a working-class hub in order to satisfy the demands of military production. The population boomed from 23,000 in 1940 to 133,000 by 1945, as a diverse workforce swarmed into this port town to build Kaiser war ships “faster than the enemy could sink them.” The history of Richmond from that point, as told in Refinery Town, is a story of corporate exploitation of people and resources in search of profit – first Kaiser, then Ford, then Chevron. Ford has a long history of using racist tactics to divide its workers against each other, and Richmond was no exception: when Ford relocated the factories out of the city, only the white workers could legally move into the residential areas at the new location. This allowed Ford to save enormous amounts of money on relocation assistance and to segregate their workforce.

Meanwhile, Chevron had built one of their largest refineries in Richmond because of its prime location on the bay. Workplace hazards, injuries, fires, and environmental scares, typical of big oil companies, damaged their reputation over the next several decades. However, Chevron was able to avoid repercussions by turning Richmond’s local political system into a machine for their interests. “Cronyism, corruption, and bureaucratic incompetence became deeply entrenched and much intertwined,” Early recounts. The current Mayor of Richmond Tom Butt is quoted as saying, “The city was pretty much run by the business interests Chevron cultivated. That was the reality of it.” Chevron even had its own desk at City Hall. And, as RPA members were soon to discover, the company was willing to invest enormous sums of money to keep it that way.

The Richmond Progressive Alliance was born in 2004 in this toxic environment, reacting to Chevron’s disregard for the environment, for its workers, and for the people of Richmond. The group had a unique strategy: build movements to fight pollution, racism, cronyism, and inequality, and also run candidates that can take those fights to City Hall. To fight the influence of corporate interests, the RPA pledged to refuse corporate money, a policy which was later popularized nationally by Bernie Sanders.

This pledge has become the defining feature of the RPA, and it’s an important part of why it has been so effective. Socialist Alternative agrees with refusing corporate money and with running campaigns based on winning the support and donations of working people. This has been demonstrated in the successful election campaigns of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant – elected and reelected to the Seattle City Council in 2013 and 2015 – who goes further by pledging to take only the wage of the average worker she represents. These measures are crucial in fighting the intense pressures that big business puts on political representatives, and also helps show voters that these candidates stand for something completely different from the status quo.

The core of the RPA started out with socialists, Greens, independents, registered Democrats, and other activists who agreed on the key problems in the city, but remained less clear on some other questions. This big-tent approach, which they still follow today, has been positive for their growth, but it does become critical for progressive organizations like the RPA to work out a clear understanding of what the Democratic Party represents, and to develop a strategy for how to relate to it inside and outside elections. Today, the RPA maintains political diversity as a core value, and has two candidates running for state offices – one independent, and one as a Democrat. Refinery Town does get into some of the problems caused by the RPA’s soft approach toward the Democratic Party, but unfortunately doesn’t draw many conclusions about it.

Richmond Progressive Alliance Gets Off the Ground

In 2004 the RPA ran two anti-corporate candidates, Gayle McLaughlin and Andres Soto. They based their campaign on a new vision for the city, including “repealing the city’s anti-homeless ordinance, taxing Chevron more heavily, strengthening police oversight by the community, fighting for affordable housing, enacting rent control and eviction protection, and establishing a living wage.” In response, the corporate-aligned “Keep Richmond Safe Committee” spent $270,000 in advertising to elect yet another round of corporate candidates, and ran smears against Soto and McLaughlin. However, In spite of the odds, grassroots campaigning combined with movements on the ground won Gayle McLaughlin a seat on the City Council.

A city councilor genuinely based in the working-class community rather than corporate money is an entirely different kind of representative, as the people of Richmond would soon discover. Initially criticized as “an ideologue ill-suited for the tedious work that elective office requires,” McLaughlin proved that she could accomplish quite a bit – not through backroom deals, but through mobilizing people to fight back. The “Measure T” campaign, aiming to impose a $10 million tax on Chevron, helped popularize her run for Mayor in 2006. Once again, her opponent was backed by big corporate money and the weight of the local and state Democratic Party establishment, but small donations and a fighting campaign led to McLaughlin’s victory in that race.

Team Richmond Sweep

After chronicling a decade of victories and defeats for the RPA, Refinery Town dives into the details of the two main Richmond city council electoral campaigns in 2014. These campaigns illustrate two completely different models for how to win the votes of ordinary people. On one side, RPA’s slate “Team Richmond” activated 400 volunteers to talk to Richmond residents about day-to-day issues: working conditions, pollution, housing prices, and police brutality, and connected these issues to corporate money and in particular Chevron’s political dominance over the city.

Activists can learn many lessons from the way RPA approaches elections. For them, the election campaign is just one tool among others in the fight to win gains for working people. RPA candidates stand for the program of the alliance as a whole, which is based on the needs of the community. This is very different from the cynical approach of the Republican and Democratic parties, which is based on saying whatever it takes to get elected, after which the election platform becomes a distant memory.

On the other side of the election, the big business front group “Moving Forward” used their vast resources and $1.3 million to send mailers spreading fear and doubt about the RPA candidates. Was Gayle McLaughlin an “absentee mayor” who spent her time as ringleader for “a group of radicals out of touch with Richmond voters”? Was RPA’s Jovanka Beckles, who works as a youth counselor, living “the lifestyle of the rich and shameless” off the public dime? Insinuations such as these, despite all being false, were plastered on billboards, pushed in phone polls, quoted by canvassers, and delivered in the mail. The best chapters of Refinery Town are about the back-and-forth struggle of these two campaigns, as Early illustrates the array of tricks and tactics used by Chevron’s political operatives and the ways the RPA worked to counter them.

As the race went on, it became increasingly obvious to Richmond residents that Chevron, the Chamber of Commerce, and big business were trying to buy this election. Team Richmond used its volunteer army to fight these attacks and expose the corporate interests behind their opponents – and it worked. In the end, the three RPA candidates defeated their pro-Chevron opponents despite being wildly outspent. “Chevron spending in Richmond equaled the total amount it devoted to congressional races in 2012 and 2014 throughout the entire country,” but, “Enough voters had personal contact with RPA candidates or their well-organized supporters to realize that the picture being painted of them was a ‘lie factory’ production.”

When “progressive” Democrat, Tom Butt, entered the Mayoral race in 2014, the RPA decided to withdraw their candidate Mike Parker to prevent a three-way race against the Chevron Democrat. This was a difficult and challenging situation for the RPA – to keep running meant the possibility of splitting the progressive vote, and to step aside meant handing the election to one of two corporate politicians. On balance, we feel that stepping aside was a mistake. Staying in the race would have meant drawing a sharp distinction between corporate candidates and working-class candidates on all the issues that impact the working people of Richmond.

This example shows clearly one tactic that the political establishment uses: run two candidates, the “good cop” and the “bad cop,” who both can be trusted to protect corporate interests at the end of the day. We need to prepare for this tactic, and organize an election campaign that can sharply draw out the real differences that exist between a representative of the social movements and the working class, versus a representative paid for by big business who says nice things to get elected but is in no way accountable to working people.

In Seattle, Kshama Sawant’s re-election campaign focused on drawing out and exposing the contrast between Sawant – who unapologetically takes the side of working people – and progressive-seeming candidates who try to span the middle ground and represent the interests of big business and working people at the same time. You can’t do both. On issues like the $15 minimum wage and on rent control, our opponents wanted to appear progressive, but they refused to support strong legislation on these issues lest they anger their corporate donor base. Publicly exposing this hypocrisy is vital to defeating corporate candidates and drawing the distinction that the working class can rally around. Socialists strive to expose the rotten nature of corporate politics in general and elections are no exception.

In his campaign, Tom Butt denounced both the RPA and Chevron as two opposed “extremes.” He posed himself as a middle ground between the interests of Chevron and working people in Richmond. In practice, he took corporate money and sided with big business on some of the most important questions facing working people: minimum wage and rent control. Mayor Butt’s subsequent opposition to the RPA in words and deeds after the election serves as a hard lesson for them on the importance of relying on their own independent strength outside of the Democratic Party and their correct hardline policy against corporate money.

Beyond Richmond

With their grassroots campaigning-based strategy and seats in the city council, the RPA have been able to win important victories for workers and people of color over the past decade. They won a tax on Chevron, they defended home owners from predatory lenders after the financial crisis, they won rent control, and numerous other achievements. But they found themselves limited by the constraints of city politics, particularly when facing a statewide ban on comprehensive rent control. The statewide Democratic Party in California has not provided support to this beacon of progressive politics, and, in fact, frequently endorsed candidates running against the RPA.

The corporate political system puts up many barriers like this at every level of government, and a strategy to overcome those barriers is needed to win gains for working people. Many politicians play progressive on the campaign trail but then make cynical arguments for why they can’t live up to their promises – the limits of their elected position, legal technicalities, or the pressure to compromise. Working-class representatives have to face up to these arguments, which often carry some weight in society, and come up with a strategy to expose these tactics. Some people elected as progressives, who are genuine in their desire to fight for working people, have mixed success in punching through the “prevailing wisdom” to expose how it benefits big business.

One way to take a local fight to the state level could be to build a wider movement that directly challenges state laws. Despite a Washington State ban on rent control, Kshama Sawant has included challenging this law as part of a housing program to build affordable housing and taxing the rich in Seattle. Another approach, which Gayle McLaughlin and Jovanka Beckles have launched for 2018, is to run for state office. Gayle McLaughlin is using her electoral campaign for Lieutenant Governor to popularize the idea of building RPA-like organizations in many cities. This could be a big step toward providing a political alternative, especially if it’s taken up in several cities and linked together in a state-wide formation. In California, where the Democratic Party has a super-majority but refuses to pass Medicare for All or allow comprehensive rent control, such an alternative is desperately needed.

As Refinery Town explains, the birth and growth of the RPA has had a lot to do with the specific history of Richmond: Chevron’s dominance of politics through the Democratic Party. Activists working to fix the corruption in City Hall were forced to build an independent organization in order to be effective. The way that Chevron influenced the Democratic Party was particularly brazen in that city, but corporate dominance of politics is a reality in cities around the country (and the world!).

Activists should read Refinery Town for its comprehensive review of RPA’s election battles and to carefully study the struggles they have faced but also the incredible victories they have won. The essence of their success is that they’re building an organization outside the influence of big business and the parties who serve them. Too many progressive organizations fall into the trap of relying on corporate funding or on the resources of the Democratic Party. And indeed, the RPA would be strengthened if they took a principled stance against running candidates in the Democratic Party. Today, particularly through Gayle McLaughlin’s 2018 statewide campaign, the RPA is spearheading the sort of political organization that could become a model nationwide for how to fight back against the billionaire class to win real gains for the majority.

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