Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin isn’t the untested commodity she was four years ago, when she drew national headlines by becoming the nation’s only big-city Green Party mayor.
She’s more careful with her words and just a shade more conservative in her aims, if not her hopes. Her platform this year now includes more stock-in-trade pledges made by municipal politicians, including a vow to beef up the police force to about 200 sworn officers. She also hopes to expand some of her flagship green-jobs training and youth employment programs, even if it requires funds siphoned from her own office’s budget, as it did earlier this year.
The journey from rabble-rousing candidate to sometimes-embattled municipal leader has been a learning experience, and sometimes a bruising one, she said acknowledged during a wide-ranging interview at the downtown offices of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a local political group she co-founded.
“The mistake that I would say I made is that I overestimated the willingness of the full Council to engage productively in a productive and principled debate of divergent ideas,” said McLaughlin. “I really didn’t expect so much blocking of good ideas, blocking of good policy.”
As a challenger in 2006, McLaughlin proved a political rarity — a candidate who campaigned on raising taxes, at least for large corporations. She also pledged to re-hire laid off city workers and launch jobs programs for local youths.
Amazingly to some City Hall watchers, it clicked. Thanks to a three-way race, McLaughlin squeaked into office with just over one-third of the vote, giving her the victory over two-term incumbent Irma Anderson. The Richmond Globe newspaper ran a headline declaring that Anderson’s “Legacy yields to McLaughlin’s progressive ideals.”
As America’s first Green Party mayor of a city of more than 100,000 residents, McLaughlin was instantly a national figure. Weeks later, she would share the stage with Green Party goliath Ralph Nader at an event bristling with progressive luminaries in San Francisco.
McLaughlin’s 2006 victory was in part the product of demographic change. Like other Bay Area cities, Richmond’s African-American population has declined while the number of Latino residents rises.
At the beginning of the decade, the City Council included six African Americans, but Councilman Nate Bates is the lone black councilman today. To some political observers, McLaughlin’s victory signaled not just a shift to the left and a backlash against Chevron Corp., the city’s largest taxpayer, but a decline in African-American dominance over political affairs in Richmond.
To others, it was merely an aberration, made possible by a three-way race in which another African-American candidate siphoned votes from Anderson’s base.
Four years after her razor-thin victory over Anderson, McLaughlin is humbled but no less determined to keep her seat. No challenger has officially declared intentions to replace McLaughlin in this November’s election, but many residents and officials at City Hall expect Bates to run. He remains noncommittal about his mayoral aspirations.
“I haven’t ruled anything out,” Bates said.
McLaughlin one-on-one is the same blend of quixotic activist and politician that Council observers have seen in public for years. During a nearly 40-minute interview, she acknowledged some missteps and legislative gridlock, but was adamant that a second-term was vital to ensure the city continues to overcome the high unemployment, pollution and crime that has marred its post-WWII history.
As she recalled her four years in office, she ticked off her undelivered ideas — some thwarted by Council colleagues and some shelved in the face of waning support — like installing energy-saving windows at the Civic center and the establishment of an environmental task force to help plot green development policies.
But, she said, the disappointments had silver linings.
“Just shifting the dialogue of the city to include discussions of social justice, environmental issues,” McLaughlin said, “this wasn’t part of the discussion here before.”
McLaughlin has a mixed record on what voters across ethnic lines see as the city’s foremost issue: crime. One of her stated goals during her run for mayor four years ago was to reduce the violence that has roiled the city for years. At the time, the city had suffered several years of 40-plus homicides annually and the highest or second-highest crime rate in the Bay Area.
“We have had violence reduction over recent years. That’s something that the citizens of Richmond want to see more of,” she said.
Crime was down slightly overall in 2009, but the city saw a spike in homicides. After much-heralded progress in 2008, the first in years when the city saw fewer than 30 killings, 47 people were slain in 2009.
An FBI report released in May ranked Richmond the second most dangerous city in America, behind only Baltimore.
McLaughlin has clashed on occasion with law enforcement leadership. In 2008, Police Chief Chris Magnus joined a chorus of critics when McLaughlin skipped a news conference hailing a series of raids aimed at gang strongholds and drug sources in the city.
At the time, Magnus told local newspapers he was “disappointed” in the “lack of support.”
McLaughlin has maintained that she is concerned about the potential effects on children and other innocents who could be exposed to raids, which often target homes where children may be present.
She has also cast several minority opposition votes against police-supported measures, including equipment purchases and driver’s license checkpoints, which have since been discontinued in Richmond.
While public tensions with the Police Department have cooled — McLaughlin has not criticized Magnus for an ongoing discrimination lawsuit filed against him by African-American members of his command staff — she continues to be less than solidly aligned with her police chief.
During her State of the City address in January, she cast a harsh light on local crime. “When unemployment rates double as they did in 2009, it is not surprising that violent crime and homicide also skyrocketed,” she said. The comments were a stark contrast to Magnus’ own public comments weeks before, when he focused on drops in overall crime.
Unlike potential rival Bates, McLaughlin opposes the casino project proposed for Point Molate, a former Naval fuel depot on the city’s shoreline. A Napa-based developer and its Native American tribal partners have been given exclusive rights by the city to draw up plans for a project, rights given over McLaughlin’s minority opposition.
She said project developer Upstream LLC’s promises of economic growth and local jobs are a mirage.
“Clearly, urban casinos are associated with a great deal of social ills,” including increases in crime, alcohol and drug abuse and poverty, she said.
“They just take money from the have-nots and put it in the hands of the haves. Local residents will be the ones who lose their money,” she said.
McLaughlin contends that the project should be opened to other developers to propose plans for a resort-type facility, sans the casino, although whether any others would take advantage of the opportunity is unclear.
It’s when she talks about energy-saving technology that McLaughlin sounds most impassioned.
“It’s no longer just the emerging green economy, it is now the green economy transforming the entire economy,” McLaughlin said. “We believe that we need more stimulus funding to advance it further and provide those green jobs that our residents are waiting to receive and are fully trained for.”
She pointed to Solar Richmond — a local nonprofit she co-founded that works with the city to provide training in green jobs — as one of her greatest achievements in office.
“Solar Richmond has really put us in the forefront and become a model training program,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin is adamant that she holds the same values she did four years ago, and that she has not engaged in what was once the norm for local politicians: being a beneficiary of the city’s heavy industries, led by Chevron, which operates its largest West Coast refinery in Richmond.
“I take not a penny of corporate funding,” she said, adding later that, “Particularly Richmond has been under the thumb of corporations for decades.”
McLaughlin does accept donations from unions, environmental groups, Planned Parenthood and individual donors. When asked to explain why she was willing to accept these donations, but not those from corporations, she said it comes down to the organizations’ goals.
“We consider unions as … actually the opposite of corporations. Unions are people coming together to fight for their rights, ordinary people coming together to fight for their rights,” she said. “When it comes to organizations that stand for the public good … that’s a different thing than a corporation whose purpose is to gain profit.”
McLaughlin has always had an activist streak. She grew up in Chicago, the third of five daughters of working-class parents. She recalls that the clashes between demonstrators and police outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago left an imprint on her at a young age.
As a young woman, she would go on to work as a local organizer for Chicago-based Operation PUSH, and ultimately join the Green Party.
During public remarks, whether in Council chambers or a small community center in North Richmond, McLaughlin is fond of paraphrasing civil rights icon Jesse Jackson; she worked during his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns as an organizer for his Rainbow Coalition, a multiethnic political organization.
During the 1980s, she also volunteered for the Chicago Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a grassroots group opposing U.S. military intervention in the southern hemisphere.
“I also did volunteer work with other Central American solidarity groups during that period, focusing on Nicaragua and Guatemala,” she said.
She later enrolled in graduate studies, taught pre-school, first grade, and special-needs children for several years.
Unlike some of her local political adversaries, McLaughlin is relatively new to Richmond, having moved to the city in the late 1990s, around the time she joined the Green Party. She is married to Paul Kilkenny, a local activist for social and environmental justice.
In 2004, on her first attempt, McLaughlin was elected to the City Council, where she quickly burnished her environmental credentials, leading a successful opposition to a proposed crematorium project in North Richmond. During her mayoral run in 2006, she was narrowly elected on her first try.
Today, McLaughlin speaks of herself more as a piece of a larger movement than its leader.
“Me as an individual, as a candidate, as mayor, matters less than me as a member of a collective movement that has been working hard for several years now to build a better Richmond,” she said.
An unassuming woman with dark-rimmed glasses and a careful gait, McLaughlin looks more like a reassuring schoolteacher or a human resources manager than a vanguard of a national party. Her public speech, while clearly influenced by the lofty oration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama and others, can be eloquent and emphatic, but isn’t likely to whip a crowd into a frenzy.
But the 58-year-old leader has given every indication that she is prepared to battle to keep her spot atop local government.
“We need to continue to work hard to show that the key efforts and priorities of the city need to be focused on reversing decades of injustices,” McLaughlin said. “Decades of lack of opportunity, decades of pollution that has created health impacts on our community, and decades of economic inequity – and we have brought forward policy efforts” to address them.
In April, her campaign re-election announcement rally drew prominent — and divisive — national figures to the city. Van Jones, a former member of the Obama administration’s environmental team whose controversial public statements drew the attention of conservative pundits and ultimately led to his resignation, called the Richmond mayoral race the most important in the country for the “green movement.”
Los Angeles-based immigration advocate Nativo Lopez hailed McLaughlin as the rare contemporary politician who is “uniting people, supporting immigrants, and restoring good jobs to local communities.”
But to her critics — and potential opponents in the November election — McLaughlin is an ineffective politician whose extreme rhetoric and national affiliations with the Green Party act as distractions that hold back a city poised to prosper.
McLaughlin has never been shy about publicly weighing in on national matters. She has criticized war policy in the Middle East, derided Arizona’s immigration policy as a “hate law” and, last week, issued a statement condemning the military action that killed several people on a humanitarian flotilla in which she called Gaza a “virtual prison.”
Her adversaries assert that she has not built beyond the narrow base that vaulted her into office, is personally insincere and that financial shenanigans have occurred in her own office during her watch.
In 2008, one of her aides was charged with stealing more than $60,000 from the city through a scheme involving fraudulent invoices for services never rendered. The aide later admitted the wrongdoing. At the time, McLaughlin called the scheme an inexcusable “abuse” of the community’s trust, as well as her own. The news shook McLaughlin’s credibility in the eyes of many, given her campaign commitments to probity and fair-dealing.
Critics say her hostility toward corporations has stifled progress for the city.
Bates has made no secret of his distaste for McLaughlin’s governing philosophy.
“She hates Chevron,” Bates said. “And that hatred causes her to refuse to negotiate with this important entity in the community or even to accept a check from them on behalf of the community.”
McLaughlin has spotty support among area merchants.
“We need jobs and we need to better educate our children, and I am convinced that McLaughlin is doing a terrible job of getting those things done,” said Joe Fisher, a local businessman and neighborhood council president. “She says and does things for political reasons, not necessarily for what’s best for the community.”
Fisher also noted the rise in homicides last year and criticized McLaughlin for what he characterized as minimizing that grim statistic.
“It is a fact that the homicides, the killings, are way up [in 2009],” Fisher said. “But she is not genuine about that, instead she brags about crime being down.”
But McLaughlin’s supporters, a group that includes Council colleagues Tom Butt and Jeff Ritterman, are adamant that it is crucial for her to earn another term. Her record over the last four years may be mixed, but within a context of a city essentially founded a century ago on oil refining and heavy industries, the rate of positive change McLaughlin has helped usher in has been swift, they say.
“Although she has only one vote like other Council members, she has the bully pulpit and can set a tone for the city,” Butt said. “Compared to most cities, Richmond is pretty well off in these tough economic times. We have had to make no layoffs.”
Add to that the stark difference between her and her most likely challenger, Bates, and City Hall observers think her base of supporters will be sufficiently energized.
“From the viewpoint of the progressive community, Nat Bates as mayor would be disaster for Richmond,” said Tony Sustak, a member of the Richmond Greens Steering Committee. “If you like McMansions on the shoreline, casinos, contempt for the environment, attacks on the undocumented community … Bates is your guy.”
Anthony Adams, an African-American neighborhood leader in the city’s Iron Triangle, said McLaughlin has the support of many, if not most, of the city’s African-American voters.
“Folks here know that the color of your skin alone doesn’t mean you’re going to be good for the community or that you deserve the vote,” he said.
Unlike her upset win in 2006, McLaughlin knows that she is the marked incumbent this time around. Whether she has built on the narrow base that vaulted her into office with just 37 percent of the vote can only be determined by the ballot box in November.
But she still rings the clarion tones of an outsider straining to unsettle the establishment. She talks about her cadre of a few hundred loyal volunteers who will begin walking door-to-door with her this month.
When she gets impassioned, which happens often, especially when she speaks about Upstream LLC or Chevron — her multinational, seemingly inexhaustible foe — McLaughlin’s high, almost girlish voice lowers into a slow, drawn-out cadence. It’s as though she strains to make her listener feel — rather than merely hear — each aching syllable.
She still portrays herself as the underdog. Whether she is comes down to who you’re asking.
“I expect to be greatly outspent,” she said. “But we’ll oppose the power of money with the power of ideas.”