I have been out of town for a week, so I am catching up on media coverage of the Richmond campaign. Three stories follow from the Contra Costa Times, Richmond Confidential and East Bay Express.
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin criticized for bankruptcy filing
By Katherine Tam and Lisa Vorderbrueggen
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 10/05/2010 05:23:04 PM PDT
Updated: 10/06/2010 05:59:01 AM PDT
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin filed for bankruptcy shortly before she was elected to the City Council and sought to avoid paying $119,000 in credit card bills and student loans, arguing in court documents that she suffered serious psychiatric disabilities and could not hold a full-time job.
The Richmond police and firefighters' unions, who oppose the 58-year-old mayor's re-election bid, unveiled a mailer, 30-second television ad and website Tuesday that contained these potentially damaging personal details.
The unions, among other labor groups, have vowed to oust the one-term mayor, largely due to her opposition to the proposed Indian casino at Point Molate and her criticism of the Chevron refinery retrofit project.
McLaughlin, who was elected to the council in 2004 and as mayor in 2006, has two challengers Nov. 2: Councilman Nat Bates and former Councilman John Ziesenhenne.
"There are things the mayor hid from voters when she first ran for office," said Richmond Police Officers Association President Sgt. Andre Hill. "Richmond police and firefighters believe voters ought to know the truth about their leaders."
McLaughlin adamantly rejects critics' assertion that her mental and financial history makes her unqualified to serve as mayor of Contra Costa County's second-largest city. She said she suffered from depression, but has overcome it with therapy.
"They are bringing up something that happened years before I took public office and trying to paint it as having something to do with me now," McLaughlin said. "After six years, hardworking years, I challenge anyone to say I haven't put myself, my heart, my mind, soul and body into the work, day in, day out, with the commitment and with the love of serving the people of Richmond."
McLaughlin also disputes the unions' characterization of her work history. She says she held numerous full-time jobs in her adult life, including four-year stints as a data-entry operator at Time Inc. and as a clerical worker with the American Osteopathic Association.
She describes her struggles with depression as a personal challenge, one she attributes to her experiences as the victim of several crimes while she was in her 20s, along with the illnesses and deaths of close family members.
She declined to elaborate on the crimes and illnesses, and said she didn't bring it up during her past campaigns because she views it as her private medical history.
"I had depression because of traumatic situations in my life," McLaughlin said. "I had short periods when I received disability aid and I had long periods of working. But I rose from my problems. I sought out the help that was needed. I overcame my challenges."
McLaughlin plans to respond with mailers and a letter to voters. She held a news conference Tuesday afternoon in front of City Hall, flanked by more than 40 supporters and the head of the city employees union SEIU Local 1021 who called the attack political mudslinging.
Many people have suffered from some illness, the Rev. Phil Lawson said. And the mayor should be judged by her character and accomplishments rather than by past legal actions, added Yvonne Nair, president of the nonprofit Saffron Strand for the homeless.
"We are here to say this is not right," Lawson said.
At a news conference of their own Tuesday, the police and firefighters' unions said they have had trouble working with McLaughlin and said she has not been supportive of issues they care about, a statement the mayor disputes.
The unions declined to say who they are endorsing, but campaign materials for Bates indicate he is endorsed by both unions.
The mayor blistered the unions' use of her personal financial and mental struggles in the campaign, calling it a repetition of dirty Richmond politics.
In the 2008 council election, the police union issued a four-page mailer that attributed the city's crime to drugs and stated, "Drugs come to Richmond from across the Mexican border." It added that city leaders who oppose driver's-license checkpoints hold public safety hostage.
It urged voters to reject candidates Jovanka Beckles and Jeff Ritterman, and to vote for Bates and Chris Tallerico. Critics blasted the mailer, saying it incorrectly and unfairly blames the immigrant population for Richmond's troubles.
McLaughlin filed for federal bankruptcy in 2001, according to court documents. She listed $19,210 in assets, including a 1960 Paramount mobile home and a 1995 Geo Prism sedan.
Her debts totaled $119,353 but the biggest piece -- $100,000 -- was student loans, which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. In 2003, McLaughlin again sought relief in U.S. Bankruptcy Court from the student loans but her appeal was dismissed without prejudice.
The mayor, who earns $46,500 a year plus benefits from Richmond, said she is still paying off the student loans with interest.
The loans, in part, financed her undergraduate degree and some graduate studies. McLaughin earned a bachelor of science degree in psychology in 1996 from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She later pursued a master's degree at DePaul University and Rhode Island State College but did not finish.
During the 1990s, McLaughlin said she suffered some of her most severe bouts with depression.
She was collecting an $891 monthly Social Security permanent disability payment at the time she filed for bankruptcy but said she has not received the benefit since she has been in office.
She was hospitalized on two occasions in 1999 and continued to undergo treatment including therapy, according to court documents. She also took medications associated with depression, sleep-aid, and seizures or neuropathic pain.
She told the court in 2003 that she has "been unable to maintain employment for any extended period of time." She listed in her court petition a few part-time jobs ranging from a few weeks to a few months from the late 1990s to 2001.
But McLaughlin was elected to the City Council the following year and as mayor two years later. The salary is relatively small but the city offers what many would consider good benefits.
Watch a television ad and view a mailer targeting Gayle McLaughlin at IBABuzz.com/politics.
Mental health advocates ask: “How could they?”
Members of CPAW, a special commission that advises the County Mental Health Services, condemned the political attack on Mayor Gayle McLaughlin last week.
By: Julia Landau | October 11, 2010
Click to view letter from Roberto Román
A group of mental health advisors to Contra Costa County have condemned last week’s political attack on Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin as “cruel” and “bigoted,” and expressed dismay at the involvement of police and fire officials, who are often a first line of contact for people with mental illness who need help.
At a meeting Friday of the Consolidated Planning Advisory Workgroup (CPAW), a group that advises the county on mental health needs, non-profit consultant Kathi McLaughlin (who said she is no relation to the mayor) said she was ashamed of the police officers who used the mayor’s mental health history to raise questions about her fitness for office.
“They should know better,” she said. “They see these people every day. This incident is telling me the police officers do not care about our mentally ill populations.”
The advisory group is planning a public response to the action taken by the mayor’s political opponents. Early in the week, rival mayoral candidate Nat Bates circulated McLaughlin’s 2003 bankruptcy record, saying he was simply passing on via email information that came to him.
The information, however, came from the political action committee Richmond First, a major contributor to Bates’ 2008 city council campaign. Richmond First Committee, which is funded by the police and firefighters unions, hired a private investigator to mine McLaughlin’s past. It posted the documents on a website called TheRealMayorGayle, saying they were evidence that “Mayor Gayle is not who we thought she was.”
Click to view letter from Courtney Cummings
The bankruptcy filing details information about McLaughlin’s mental health, saying that she was, at the time, “unable to complete her Masters degree due to her severe condition,” and that more than a decade ago, she was hospitalized twice for her illness. It also specified her treatment—antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
“To come home and turn on the TV and see Channel Five putting a mic in her face and questioning her about mental health issues—it was a debilitating stigmatizing moment,” said Brenda Crawford, who directs the nonprofit Mental Health Consumer Concerns. “Why would anyone treat anyone so cruelly?”
Several speakers said they support McLaughlin in this situation despite not sharing her politics.
“I would speak out for anyone in this situation, no matter the political persuasion. To single her out was among other things very cruel and she didn’t deserve it,” said Kathi McLaughlin. “To attack someone’s qualifications for a disability—would you do the same to a diabetic or someone with a physical disability?”
CPAW itself is an example of how mental health concerns have gained ground as a medical category in the public mind. The committee was formed when voters approved Prop 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which funded mental health services with a tax on the most wealthy. The act also mandated that consumers—people who’ve suffered from mental illness—give input on how to spend the millions of dollars raised by the Act.
Members of CPAW have experience with mental illness either through their profession, or their own illness or a family member’s, and said the questions raised about Mayor McLaughlin affect many people with with mental illness.
“They have lived through hardships and have maintained hope of a life with significance,” said Suzanne Tavano, deputy director of Mental Health for Contra Costa Health Services and a member of the advisory group. “It’s very painful when they see someone who has walked a similar path and achieved her goals to be taken down in public. It dashes hope.”
Some advisory group members who weren’t at the meeting sent statements addressing the isolation people with mental health problems experience when the illness is used to generate public shame.
“The release of her past mental health history, intended as an attack by her current campaign opponents, is both cynical and bigoted,” wrote Roberto Román, a mental health educator of Contra Costa Mental Health Services. “It conveys the dark message that those confronting mental health issues cannot overcome the obstacles they face and attain productivity and leadership as members of society.”
Teresa Pasquini, center, said the airing of mental health details of a public figure affects private citizens who struggle with mental illness. "This level of discrimination and stigma is absolutely unacceptable in 2010," she said.
Perhaps the biggest blow to members of the group was the fact that, working through their unions, public safety officials—who carry a great deal of moral authority—paid for and directed the attack.
The Contra Costa Mental Health Services Division co-sponsors a week-long, voluntary training for police officers, who regularly interact with people with emotional and psychological disabilities. The Richmond Police Department participates in these trainings.
Brenda Crawford said police involvement in the campaign against the mayor made her doubt their good intentions. “It does bring into question the humanity of the fire and police departments,” said Crawford. “I don’t feel I could trust them, knowing they would do this because of some political disagreement with the mayor.”
Richmond Firefighters Association President Jim Russey issued a statement last week explaining the union’s involvement. “You don’t go from being jobless because of psychiatric issues to becoming the mayor of one of the largest cities in California and in the nation,” the statement read. “If the voters had known the truth about the mayor from the beginning, they would have never elected her.”
About 15 million Americans suffer from clinical depression in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Clinical depression can range from mild to severe, and women are about twice as likely as men to develop some form of it. The World Health Organization found that in 2004, major depression was the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15 to 44.
There is no known single cause of depression, said Lori Larks, division manager for the Department of Aging and Adult Services. “In the course of a life there’s teen depression, postpartum depression, depression from marriage, divorce, death, genetics, getting old,” said Parks. “Just about everyone hits it at some point. What we call mental illness is really just a part of life.”
Mayoral candidate Nat Bates has tried to distance himself from his decision to release the documents. “It is most unfortunate such a situation has occurred,” he wrote in an email, “but in politics, anything and everything goes.”
The advisory group wants the city to revisit policies to decrease stigma and discrimination about mental health problems, and plans to propose a policy item tomorrow at the Board of Supervisors meeting.
Blood Sport in the Richmond Mayor's Race
Personal disclosures about Mayor Gayle McLaughlin push aside consideration of the city's major progress in recent years.
By John Geluardi
Last week, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin stood before a bank of television cameras in the plaza of Richmond's newly renovated civic center to respond to something that has become a civic tradition — ruthless political mudslinging by the city's police and fire unions.
The unions had dug up a 2003 bankruptcy filing in which McLaughlin sought to be discharged of $100,000 in student loans. In the filing, McLaughlin claimed she was unable to make payments because "serious psychiatric disabilities" prevented her from working full time. She also said that she received disability payments and that she had been prescribed various medications to cope with sleeplessness, seizures, and depression. McLaughlin later told reporters that she was hospitalized twice in 1999.
Through a political action committee called Richmond First, the two public safety unions paid a researcher $15,000 to find the document and then disseminated its contents through a web site, a thirty-second television ad, and the unions' favorite weapon of choice — thousands of glossy mailers emblazoned with large, unflattering pictures of the mayor.
Surrounded by two Richmond councilmembers and a phalanx of her supporters, last week McLaughlin told reporters that the bankruptcy filing was unsuccessful and that she continues to pay off the student loan. She incurred the debt in the early 1990s while obtaining a bachelor's degree in psychology and later working to get her master's, which she did not receive. She also admitted, without giving specifics, that in the 1990s she had overcome personal adversities that included depression, debilitating illnesses, family deaths, and being the target of a series of crimes.
"My health and personal finances suffered as a result," she said. "But that is all in the past. I believe my past challenges have strengthened me and made me a wiser and more compassionate woman, leader, and public servant."
Police union representative Joey Schlemmer said it was the union's duty to expose McLaughlin's personal financial struggles. "The public scrutinizes public officials before casting their vote," he said. "These are public documents and this is to inform the public. The people should be able to make a decision for themselves."
The unions' political attack came during the last month of a tough mayoral campaign. The 58-year-old McLaughlin is facing two challengers who come from the ranks of the city's old guard. The public safety unions have endorsed Councilman Nat Bates, a retired probation officer. The 78-year-old Bates was first elected to the council in 1967 and has served a total of 31 years with one 12-year hiatus from 1983 to 1995. The other challenger is John "Z" Ziesenhenne, the CEO of M.A. Hayes Insurance Company. Ziesenhenne served on the city council from 1982 to 1993. He has been an active member of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and has served on its board for many years. He is largely considered to be as pro-Chevron as Bates, although Chevron itself has not yet publicly backed a candidate
No one has come forward to say that McLaughlin has demonstrated any mental instability during her six years on the council. Bates declined to comment on McLaughlin's behavior, saying that would be inappropriate and that it's better for voters to make their decision based on the issues and differences between the three mayoral candidates
However, McLaughlin ally Councilman Tom Butt, who has served on the council since 1995, said he has never seen any sign of instability in McLaughlin's performance. Butt said McLaughlin is always well prepared for council meetings and argues effectively for her issues. "She is fair-minded, even-handed, and is willing to compromise when necessary," Butt said. "She's been a good council member and a good mayor. In fact, if somebody told me that one of the councilmembers had a history of mental illness and I had to guess which one it was, Gayle would be way down on the list."
For Richmond's political left, McLaughlin has been a breath of fresh air. She has championed a progressive agenda and given voice to political perspectives that were traditionally squashed by the city's special interests — including, most notably, the public safety unions and Chevron. On the other hand, Richmond's old guard sees McLaughlin as an interloper who has upset long-standing business practices and challenged the primacy of the political block that has dominated city politics.
In the 1990s, the public safety unions held firm control over the city council through the aggressive campaign tactics of fire union president Darrell Reese, a retired fire captain, political boss, and convicted felon. Reese is often credited with making an art form of hit-piece mailers like the one directed against McLaughlin, which dominated city politics through the 1990s. Reese would send three glossy mailers attacking his political opponents at set intervals during the last weeks of a campaign. Reese's mailers were known for their ruthlessness, distortions of the facts, and resounding success.
It is ironic that it was the police and fire unions that attacked McLaughlin given the havoc they wreaked on the city's budget in past years. By 1993, Reese and the police and fire unions had gained control of city politics. Reese had been directly responsible for electing five of the city's nine councilmembers and they were as beholden to his political skills as they were afraid of his wrath. In 1997, he used his influence to promote Richmond native Isiah Turner to city manager. Turner was a questionable choice. Years earlier, when he was employed by the state of Washington, state auditors discovered that Turner had misused $22,000 of public funds — mostly on travel expenses. Turner quickly resigned and left Washington state under a veil of shame.
Turner's six-year reign as Richmond's city manager was characterized by incompetence, mismanagement, and influence peddling. In 2003, he suddenly announced that his doctor had advised him to resign for undisclosed health reasons. Just days after he moved to another state, it was discovered that he had left behind a hidden $35 million budget deficit. The impact on city services was devastating. The county took over the city's management and was forced to close senior centers, community centers, and libraries. More than 250 city employees were laid off, roads and public buildings fell into disrepair, and the city lost its credit rating, which made it impossible to invest in the future.
When the California State Auditor issued a report looking into the crisis, the conclusion was that the major cause of the city's financial catastrophe was excessive police and fire union contracts.
Richmond voters first elected McLaughlin to the council in 2004, when the city was struggling to recover from this economic devastation. It would be inaccurate to credit McLaughlin with the city's remarkable recovery, but her election was a strong indication that city voters were fed up with the political cronyism, special-interest greed, and lack of transparency that nearly ruined the city.
In 2005, Orinda City Manager Bill Lindsay came to work in Richmond. He hired all new department heads, including Finance Director Jim Goins. Under their leadership, the city is now in better shape than most others in the Bay Area. Working with the council, city officials have brought new business to town. Most significantly, the city cut a long-term, lucrative deal with Honda to offload cars from ships at the Port of Richmond and transfer them to trains. The city also negotiated a utility tax deal with Chevron in which the refinery will pay $115 million to the city over the next fifteen years.
The result is that while San Francisco and Oakland fret over their inability to hire police officers, Richmond has added ninety new officers to its ranks. The city also has regained its double-A-plus credit rating and has a reserve of $9 million. The city has completed numerous public works projects such as the $100 million renovation of its civic center and a retrofit of "The Plunge," an 87-year-old enclosed public pool that is considered one of Richmond's architectural gems.
Over time, the old guard began to lose influence over city politics. The public safety unions and Reese, who was convicted of felony tax evasion in 2001, could no longer handpick city officials or dictate their own salaries and benefits. Chevron lost influence as well. The international oil giant was no longer able to conduct its own inspections of refinery construction projects. And its special deals, such as paying a greatly reduced utility tax, were openly challenged by McLaughlin and others on the council.
With Richmond's renaissance, city leaders were able to redirect their focus to issues such as crime, blight, and instituting more sustainable practices. Today, homicides are down by about 60 percent, the city is thriving economically, and the city's roads, public buildings, and parks are now well maintained and a source of civic pride.
It is on green issues that McLaughlin has had her most significant impact. McLaughlin has championed expansion of youth job-training programs, raised the percentage of Richmond residents to be hired on city-contracted work projects, and taken a leadership role in challenging Chevron to be more environmentally responsible and to increase their tax base. But her largest accomplishment has been expanding Richmond's solar capacity. She co-founded Solar Richmond, which has trained hundreds of city residents, mostly disadvantaged youth, to install solar panels on homes and businesses. The program offers solar installation at reduced cost to low-income homeowners and has won numerous awards. Richmond now ranks among the top fifteen cities in the state for highest solar capacity.
While her critics admit her dedication to solar issues has paid off in green-collar jobs, they say she is too much of an opponent to traditional business. Bates said that she voted against the Honda port contract, which will bring in $88 million to the city over the next fifteen years, and that she voted against the new Target outlet that has brought hundreds of jobs to Richmond. "She's green and green only," Bates said. "We need jobs in Richmond and I'm for creating green jobs and more traditional jobs. I want to explore all possibilities."
According to Butt, McLaughlin voted against the Honda port deal because the environmental impact report was flawed. As a result of a subsequent lawsuit, a court required failures in the report to be addressed. Once they were, Mclaughlin supported the contract, Butt noted.
Ziesenhenne said that creating jobs will be his main focus if he is elected mayor. However, Ziesenhenne has not taken a public stand on a large casino proposed for Point Molate, a scenic stretch of mostly undeveloped shoreline on Richmond's northwestern shore. He said he is waiting for voters to have their say in an advisory vote this November. "I am waiting for them to have their say and I will 100 percent stand by their wishes," he said. Bates supports the casino and McLaughlin opposes it.
The former councilman distanced himself from the personal attack on McLaughlin. "The debate should be over the issues," Ziesenhenne said. "It's hard not to be critical of your opponent's agenda, but I've never run any of my races like that."
McLaughlin supporters heavily criticized Bates for circulating her bankruptcy documents via e-mail. Bates said he was sorry the mayor had been in such an unstable situation, but that was not his responsibility. "I didn't create it," Bates said. "I received an anonymous e-mail and I sent it out to a few people and all of a sudden, I'm the culprit?"
Whether the campaign tactic will be effective remains to be seen. It worked well for Reese in the 1990s, but in many ways Richmond is a different city now. At the Richmond Marina and around the Richmond BART station, there are whole new neighborhoods of condominiums occupied by young, educated professionals who are less likely to be swayed by blood-sport-style politics. Very few refinery employees even live in Richmond any more.
McLaughlin said the campaign attack has given her campaign momentum. She has received hundreds of e-mails and a boost in campaign contributions. "These kind of attacks have gone on too long in Richmond," she said. "All it does is discourage good people from being active in public life and increases the cynicism people feel toward government."
Here's the state auditor's 2004 report that outlines how the public safety union contracts were the major cause of Richmond's financial collapse: