Refinery Town: Critical Reading For Political Revolutionaries

03/17/2017 08:09 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2017
By being both daring and pragmatic,  the left can be surprisingly successful in unexpected places.
By being both daring and pragmatic, the left can be surprisingly successful in unexpected places.

With Donald Trump and the Republicans ascendant and corporate politicians still controlling the Democratic Party, many previously hopeful progressives may doubt that a true “political revolution” can be launched in the near future. Such discouraged comrades may take heart in the recently published Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, a book by labor writer Steve Early; it illustrates how left electoral activists -- especially those with an independent or third-party orientation -- can overcome strong resistance from conservative forces. Bernie Sanders wrote the book’s engaging foreword, a sign that what follows may impress like-minded change makers.

Refinery Town offers an in-depth, blow-by-blow account of a political takeover by progressives in contemporary Richmond, California, a mid-sized city in the San Francisco Bay area. A couple of facts about Richmond make the story quite remarkable. To begin with, it is not some largely white college town or other bohemian bastion, the most common sites for left-wing occupation of government since the 1960s. Rather, Richmond is a primarily working-class city with large Latino and Black populations. Moreover, it is a longtime company town -- dominated by a refinery of the giant Chevron Corporation, a recklessly polluting, tax-dodging, politically entrenched local behemoth. As a prominent member of one of the richest and most powerful industries in the world, Chevron might seem impervious to any political challenge by mere community advocacy groups. But not so in Richmond.

A tight party-like coalition known as the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) surged electorally and transformed the city from 2004 onwards, despite tooth and nail resistance from Chevron, its well-funded allies and other regressive entities. The RPA became a potent force in municipal government, capturing the mayor’s office and much of the city council, and influencing key administrative appointments. A self-identified member of the Green Party, Gayle McLaughlin, won the most catalyzing city council and mayoral races during this period. Over time, the RPA’s election victories resulted in wide range of progressive policy advancements in Richmond. These included stricter environmental regulation of Chevron; a significant tax increase on the company; defeat of a proposal for a waterfront casino complex; enlightened changes in policing practices; creation of a municipal ID card to protect undocumented immigrants; a program to reduce home foreclosures; and bold measures to defend tenants (including a rent control law).

Many of the most interesting aspects of the story are embedded in Early’s nuanced, colorful descriptions of precisely how all the above events unfolded -- in an ebbing and flowing battle stretching across several suspenseful chapters. Particularly memorable vignettes illuminate the ingrained political influence, heavy-handedness and overconfidence of the Chevron forces; the sustained grit and commitment of the progressives; and the considerable political complexity of the Richmond community.

Readers of Refinery Town from other parts of California and other states may ask themselves, “If it can happen in Richmond, why not here?” Of course, other locales have their own imposing obstacles that could discourage many progressives. But the Richmond case reminds us that by being both daring and pragmatic -- i.e., by pursuing substantial change through skilled, strategic organizing -- the left can be surprisingly successful in unexpected places.

Certainly, a number of left third party inroads made around the nation in the last few decades have been inspiring and instructive (as covered in my recent anthology, Empowering Progressive Third Parties in the United States). Yet many of these have originated in stereotypically hospitable settings -- counter-cultural centers like Seattle; Burlington, Vermont; Portland, Maine; and Madison, Wisconsin. The Richmond experience points toward the possibility of a broader upsurge.

If progressives can push the boundaries of electoral success more often and create a few more Richmonds, it could make a big difference. The potential for winning power in other more “ordinary” municipalities would become clearer to many activists, and that could spark further breakthroughs in such places. Eventually, this could build new springboards for stronger efforts at higher levels.

But a necessary first step involves learning well the lessons of a good grassroots example like Richmond. For this reason, Refinery Town should be on the reading list of all aspiring political revolutionaries, including those who may be temporarily discouraged and in need of a critical boost.

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