Inside story on how one little city slew an oil dragon

WASHINGTON – A  dragon by the name of Chevron, breathing a fire fueled by Citizens United and $3.1 million in cash, succumbed to the people of the tiny city of Richmond, California last November when similar right-wing dragons were burning and pillaging voters and their towns across the country.

Labor journalists gathered here last week heard from one of their own the story of just how a tiny East Bay city near San Francisco bested one of the world’s largest oil corporations in last November’s election. They got the inside “dope” from Steve Early, a longtime organizer for the Communications Workers of America and now a writer and journalist who lives in the town of Richmond.

Just a quick review for those not familiar with the background: Chevron dumped $3.1 million into this year’s election in Richmond, a town with just 100,000 people and less than 40,000 registered voters of whom only 20,000 voted. Their aim was to overthrow the local government run by a group of three progressive lawmakers, all of them retired union members, all of them part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance that won control of the mayor’s office and the town council in 2010. Before their victory that year the town government had been controlled for more than 100 years by Chevron and its predecessor, Standard Oil.

Chevron was not at all happy when the new mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, with the backing of the RPA, sued Chevron. They sued the dragon after a 2012 fire resulted in hospital visits for 15,000 Richmond residents. They were even less happy with the ongoing efforts by the progressive bloc to increase the taxes Chevron had to pay into the city’s coffers.

Early described what Chevron did this year with some of its $3.1 million – an operation that cost the company more than $180 for each individual voter.

Chevron’s spending does not include the more than $300,000 the real estate industry dumped into the campaign to defeat the progressives, Early said. The real estate industry was not happy last fall when the town government came down squarely on the side of enormous numbers of residents whose home mortgages were underwater as a result of fraudulent lending practices by real estate brokers and the banks.

The company set up a front organization called Moving Forward which described itself as a coalition of small businesses and unions but which received almost all of its money from Chevron itself.

“There were some unions that supported the Chevron candidates, particularly in the building trades,” said Early, “but in reality we had a very large and broad coalition of unions backing the RPA. These included the Communications Workers of America, the Nurses, the Newspaper Guild, rail workers, the transportation union, the public workers, and others. Many of these unions have worked together with other groups in the RPA for a period of ten years now. A real effort has gone on to build a solid coalition.”

Early described how voters in Richmond were inundated by what he described as Chevron’s campaign of fear. He displayed literature that had the face of Eduardo Martinez, a progressive candidate, super-imposed on a background of buildings that had been set aflame. Early explained that Martinez, a progressive Democrat, had been a leader in the Occupy movement in Oakland. “They tried to depict him and others in the alliance as radicals who would endanger the town,” Early said.

Martinez, the newest RPA candidate elected to the city council, says he wants the town to continue on its progressive path. He mentions success in lowering the crime rate and the passage of one of the country’s highest minimum wage laws as examples of the direction in which he wants the city to go.

Richmond, he notes, must tackle the problems faced by cities across the country. It has pockets of deep poverty, a city hospital that is running out of money and major problems with pollution. This is why a big company like Chevron has to kick in its fair share in taxes, he and others in the coalition note.

Mayor McLaughlin says more still has to be done to correct Chevron’s behavior, including safety improvements, emissions reductions, good paying quality job creation.

Early showed a film put out by the RPA, showing its leading candidates, among them a white woman, a Latino man and an African American man. “The RPA is about building unity,” Early said, which is the only way to go in a town like Richmond.”

Richmond, a workingclass town, has a population that is 80 percent African American and Latino. Support for the progressive bloc has come from across the board, Early said, despite significant efforts by Chevron to buy off big chunks of potential voters. “They give out money to civic groups, to black churches, to community organizations all in the hopes of buying friends,” he explained. There have been reports that Chevron, in one year alone, gave $37,000 to the Chamber of Commerce, $10,000 to the Richmond Police Officer’s Association as well as “pilantropic” aid to the YMCA and other groups.

The building of issue-based coalitions on the grassroots level is seen as the answer, however.

“For more than ten years the coalition was built on issues that the groups could agree upon and on issue after issue people went to the voters, one by one, door to door so that by the time they got the hate literature from Chevron it was too late. The voters already knew the progressive candidates and what they stood for. They already saw a city council battle to save homes that had underwater mortgages. They already saw lawmakers fighting for better schools and they already saw crime rates starting to drop. It’s the one type of campaign that big money can’t compete with.

“In constituencies where you are not anonymous there is a fighting chance, if you do the work, even if it takes years, you can defeat a giant like Chevron,” Early said.

Photo: Richmond Progressive Facebook page


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.