By August, Richmond may have a new representative in Congress – and the city’s leaders are divided over whether that’s a step in the right direction.
Democrat George Miller has been Richmond’s congressman for more than three decades, but that run could effectively be over this fall. A state commission created to redraw state and federal district boundaries has proposed moving Richmond out Miller’s 7th District and into Democrat Barbara Lee’s 9th District.
Reaction at City Hall is mixed. Supporters of the proposed redistricting see Lee as a courageous congresswoman and the coastal East Bay as more culturally and politically aligned with Richmond. Opponents on the council say Miller, a Richmond native, has represented the city well and that he and his staff have spent years building a network of relationships with local leaders and knowledge of local issues – which would not be easily replaced.
“Bad, bad, bad … bad idea,” said Richmond Councilman Nat Bates, the city’s longest-serving elected official. “There is no way we are going to get the same kind of service and attention [from Lee] that we can count on from George Miller.”
Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who was elected last year, takes a starkly different view. “I like the idea, and I have received several emails from people who are excited about possibly being in Barbara Lee’s district,” Beckles said. “I also think we have much more in common with the cities to our south than those to the east in Miller’s district.”
Bates and Beckles represent opposite poles in the seven-member council, which is divided over California Citizens Redistricting Commission’s June 10 release of proposed maps for congressional, state Assembly, state Senate and Board of Equalization district reapportionment.
In a series of telephone interviews and emails, five council members and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin weighed in on the proposed redrawing of the congressional lines.
Bates was joined by Corky Booze in adamantly opposing moving into Lee’s 9th District, and Councilman Tom Butt expressed concern that losing Miller, a longtime representative and Richmond native, would be a step back for the city.
“Nothing against Barbara Lee, but I would sure regret going out of George’s district,” Butt said. “He has been our [congressman] for 30 years, and we have been extremely well served.”
Beckles was alone in a full-fledged endorsement of a switch, but Councilman Jeff Ritterman and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin both expressed admiration for Lee while stopping short of any suggestion that Lee would be an upgrade over Miller in representing Richmond.
Both McLaughlin and Ritterman expressed support and admiration for Lee’s anti-war stance in Congress, which included being the lone vote in Congress against the Patriot Act in 2001.
“I’d like to thank Representative George Miller for all he has done for Richmond,” Ritterman wrote in an email Thursday, adding that “I also warmly welcome the opportunity to work with Barbara Lee who has been an inspiration to me personally for her courage in opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
McLaughlin also touted Lee’s opposition to the war.
“I have a lot of respect for Barbara Lee being the only Congressperson who voted against George Bush’s War Resolution in 2001,” McLaughlin wrote in an email last week.
Butt also expressed respect for Lee, but said he was concerned that changing congressional leadership during such a pivotal time in Richmond’s history could be a step back. “Our leaders here have built strong relationship with Miller and his staff, they know all the issues and all the players here in Richmond,” Butt said. “To have to start from scratch, that would be tough.”
Councilman Jim Rogers did not respond to requests for comment.
Aside from the question of which House member would represent Richmond in Congress, the council is divided over the benefits of a geographic and cultural shift that would shift Richmond away from its inland Contra Costa County neighbors like Martinez, Concord and Pittsburg and into the political sphere of bigger East Bay cities like Berkeley and Oakland.
“This would be the worst thing that could happen to Richmond,” Booze said. Booze made a point to say that he had no qualms with Lee personally or politically, but warned that her “district is so big that Richmond would be lost. The Oakland and Alameda County area is not a good area for us to be lumped into, we would be an afterthought to their concerns.”
Bates echoed Booze, saying that Richmond is in “direct competition” with Oakland and other cities in Alameda County, especially over expanding operations at its fledgling port, which may compete for some of the same clients as Oakland’s.
Richmond is also seen as the front runner site for a new University of California research lab and campus, a development that would draw millions in public and private dollars to the area. Albany, Oakland and Alameda have also submitted proposals to lure the lab.
But Beckles, who consistently allies with Ritterman and McLaughlin in environmental policies and other matters, said Richmond has grown into a city that has more in common socially and politically with Bay Area locales like Berkeley and Oakland than the more conservative inland reaches of Contra Costa County.
“Culturally, and policy-wise, we are closer to Oakland than we are to Martinez,” Beckles said. Beckles mentioned green initiatives, including a ban on plastic bags, on which she said Richmond is moving further and faster than its more conservative suburban neighbors.
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is scheduled to put out a second draft of district maps next month, must approve new districts by Aug. 15. In the meantime, the public can provide feedback to the process here.