Richmond, California, a town of a little over 100,000 people, has gone from a city referenced for its toughness in Oakland rapper Too Short's lyrics ("To my Richmond partners/I'mma tell you something about them/They just dip on your ass like some Oakland fools/With them automatic weapons they will smoke ya fools") to becoming one of the Bay Area's most radically progressive towns.
Formerly known as a Chevron company town, Richmond is home to one of the largest oil refineries in the Bay Area. But Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who identifies with the Green Party, has been in office since 2010 and is already giving big banks and oil companies all they can handle in the way of opposition. As she explains in this interview, McLaughlin is setting an example for how community activists can make big changes by running for local office independent of the two-party system and corporate campaign cash.
CARL GIBSON: So I heard Richmond is using eminent domain to claim foreclosed properties back from the banks?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Well, it's more of a local principal reduction program. This was something brought to our attention by an organization called the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE. Half of Richmond's homeowners are on the brink of default with underwater mortgages, meaning the mortgages are currently way more than the homes are actually worth.
So our goal is to repurchase these homes and refinance the mortgage on behalf of the homeowner. Then, the family gets to stay in their home, have a little bit of equity in the home, and have lowered monthly payments so they can still live in our community. We're just asking for fair market value on the mortgage, even using the mortgage industry's own appraisers to determine the value of the home. And if the banks say no, then we reserve the right to consider eminent domain.
CG: So have you started the eminent domain process yet? I understand the big banks are pushing back hard against what you're doing.
GM: We just want to have a conversation. All we've done is make the offer to the banks, we haven't started any negotiations yet. Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank were so upset that they brought lawsuits against us, but a county judge dismissed the lawsuit outright. We're actually trying to do more outreach with the banks, and persuade them to do this voluntarily.
But we believe we have every right to use eminent domain. It can be claimed for any type of property, tangible or intangible, to be used for a public purpose. The foreclosure crisis hit Richmond hard. When one home goes into foreclosure, nine other homes are impacted. That invites blight, crime, and affects the city's tax base as a result. When there are neighborhoods with lots of vacant homes, that means there aren't enough homeowners with money to spend in local economies, to send their kids to our schools, to support local business. So this is addressing all of that.
We want to stop homelessness, and we want to keep families in their homes, living and working in our community. We've got people hanging on by their fingernails right now. And we've bailed out the banks to the tune of $2 trillion. We just want them to not stand in our way.
CG: This is pretty radical for a city mayor to do. How did you get elected in the first place?
GM: I won my first city council race in 2004, was on the council for two years, then decided that the progressive values I uphold could transform into progress at the mayoral level. I was elected mayor after two years on the city council, and re-elected again in 2010. I've been a community activist my whole life, and was involved with a group called the Richmond Progressive Alliance, or RPA. Some RPA members decided that we could project these progressive values by having decision-making power on the city council, so several of us ran. Each campaign was very hard, because from the beginning we made it clear that we wouldn't accept any corporate campaign donations.
Chevron is the major one percenter in Richmond, and spent $1.2 million just in the 2010 election alone trying to defeat me and other progressive candidates. This is all in a city of just 100,000 people, and they're scared because of the power we have here where elected officials are intertwined with grassroots movements. We're doing all these great, innovative things and have constant pushback from Chevron and the banks.
CG: We spoke earlier about how the City of Richmond is suing Chevron. Tell me more about that.
GM: There was a huge explosion in August of 2012 at their refinery here, and it resulted in a huge toxic plume over the whole Bay Area. I marched with 3,000 other people to their refinery this past August, demanding accountability from Chevron. There were people from Oakland and San Francisco who joined us. Even though two of our city council members are in Chevron's pocket, the council still agreed unanimously to sue for damages resulting from the explosion.
CG: Oakland and San Francisco are having some serious gentrification issues right now. People are being pushed out of their apartments by hedge funds and big developers who found loopholes that can turn for-rent apartments into for-sale condominiums, pushing poor people out of the city. What is Richmond doing to address gentrification here?
GM: Gentrification thankfully hasn't hit Richmond yet, and we're trying hard to make sure it doesn't happen. 50 percent of our residents are renters, and even though we'd like to see them eventually become homeowners, we recognize that keeping rent affordable is very important. Every new development project in Richmond has to include affordable housing for low-income residents. We're trying our best to not let what's happening in San Francisco happen here. We want say to those people, "Come to Richmond!" We want artists to relocate here, live in affordable housing, and bring vibrancy to our neighborhoods.
We've got job training programs for green jobs, co-op developments in the works, and would like to see more housing co-ops in Richmond. We're trying every method to show Richmond is a place that values working families. We're currently working with a nonprofit developer to turn the parking lot by the civic center into a working and housing co-op for creative people. We want to develop sustainably, and are working on including car sharing programs and shuttles to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stops.
CG: I understand you made a trip to Spain to see the Mondragon co-op, and are working on revamping Richmond's economy to be more accommodating to worker-owned co-ops?
GM: That was an amazing experience. I saw over 100 different worker co-ops in Mondragon. It showed me that there are more ways to bring democracy into the workplace. You are the employer, you are the owner, and there's a democratic decision-making process. The workers all share in the profits, and it's a great way to bring up local economies. In Richmond, we've got a solar installation co-op made up of people who have graduated from our green jobs training program. It was formed to get more city buildings solarized, and the city is the co-op's first customer. There are also two catering co-ops, and one of the caterers wants to open a restaurant co-op. There's also a housing co-op in Richmond, but that's been here since after World War II. We need to keep moving forward and have a lot more opportunities for co-ops.
CG: So do you feel Richmond is starting to overcome its bad reputation as a rough place to live, or as a Chevron company town?
GM: We've made so many great advances here that it's finally permeating outside of Richmond. There's the green initiatives, the co-ops, the eminent domain. We're doing something right. Our crime rate has been steadily dropping. We had 47 homicides in 2007, and 18 this year, and 2013 is almost over. That's still 18 too many, but we've reduced crime by 60 percent since then, while crime rates in Oakland and San Francisco are going up. We address the roots of the crime, by taking care of people's needs. Our police force understands the concept of community policing, and they were very professional in how they accommodate protests.
I think it could be said we're no longer a company town. Now, two of our seven city council members are Chevron apologists, and they do whatever Chevron wants instead of looking after the people's needs. I personally think the amount Chevron pays in taxes should be increased. These city council members always say Chevron is so important to our economy, but only about 5 percent of their overall workforce here is made up of Richmond residents. Last year, Chevron defeated two really great progressive candidates, just buy buying big billboards, giving money to community groups and trying to take back control, and I think the wool was pulled over people's eyes.
CG: So what advice would you give to people looking to run independent campaigns for local office, and make changes like the kind you're making in Richmond?
GM: We certainly need progressive-minded people to run for office without corporate donations, at all levels. That resonates with people, when you reject corporate cash and speak on progressive values. You should run on the values you hold and the vision you believe in, rather than on how much money you raised from corporations and developers. It takes a lot of door-knocking, but that integrity resonates with masses of people. Build relationships within the community, and overcome the systemic barriers in place. It can be done. We've done it in Richmond. Young people are especially needed to make these essential changes. Things aren't going to change overnight, so we've got to constantly bring in new forces.
(This article originally appeared on Occupy.com.)