Tom Butt
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  Breaking News - Richmond Political Update
April 1, 2020

With everyone laser-focused on coronavirus and the unprecedented disruptions affecting every part of life, normally scrappy Richmond politics has slipped far below the radar. We have an election coming up in a little over seven months, when three city council members will be elected.

Typically, by this time in an election year, candidates are declaring, advertising fundraisers and looking for endorsements. In previous elections, anybody who wanted to run simply filed, and it was off to the races with 10 to 15 at-large candidates, high vote getters taking all. This year, however, is totally different and especially complicated because of district elections. There are potential candidates out there who live in a district that is not part of the 2020 election cycle. They will have to wait two more years or relocate.

Figure 1 - New Richmond City Council Districts

The candidates who run this year must reside in one of three districts:

  • District 1 (Generally the Iron Triangle).
  • District 5 (Generally the neighborhoods of Marina Bay, Cortez-Stege, south portion of Park Plaza, Laurel Park, Eastshore, Parkview, Panhandle Annex, Richmond Annex and Southwest Annex).
  • District 6 (Generally the neighborhoods of most of North and East and Richmond Heights.

The incumbents are located as follows:

  • District 1: There are no incumbents in District 1.
  • District 5: Ben Choi and Eduardo Martinez are incumbents in District 5. Ben Choi must run this year for a four-year term if he desires to continue serving. Martinez will have two years left but could decide to run for a four-year term, otherwise he cannot run again in two years unless he moves into an open district.
  • District 6: Melvin Willis and Demnlus Johnson are incumbents in District 6. Willis must run this year for a four-year term if he desires to continue serving. Johnson will have two years left, but like Martinez, he could decide to run for a four-year term, otherwise he cannot run again in two years unless he moves into an open district.

Jael Myrick, who lives in District 2 has said he will not run for reelection. If he did, he would have to move to one of the three districts up for grabs.
Youth and Diversity in Local Government | National Research Center
Figure 2 - Jael Myrick will not run for reelection in November 2020

Of course, candidates other than incumbents in the districts contested in November could run.

But just because we are not hearing or seeing any campaigning doesn’t mean that plans aren’t being made.

Perhaps the most audacious plan involves the reconstitution of the now depleted and fragmented Richmond Progressive Alliance, the once-powerful political force that could not be stopped. You hardly hear about the RPA anymore as once prominent RPA leaders flamed out over the last six years – Zak Wear, Kabir Kapur, Jovanka Beckles and Juan Reardon. All faded away now. Even Gayle McLaughlin has been spotted only once in Richmond in the last two years -- at the Bernie rally in February at the Craneway.

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Figure 3 - Gayle and Bernie at the Craneway in February 2020

Once a proud member of the RPA, Ben Choi challenged the party line and was summarily excommunicated, as was former council member Jeff Ritterman. Ironically, excommunication may have actually made Choi a more attractive candidate with a wider appeal.
Figure 4 - Former Council Member Ritterman excommunicated by RPA

In the process of planning a comeback, the core leaders of the RPA have evaluated the factors that brought them down from king of the hill to also ran, set a course to regain that lost power and have recently rebranded the organization as “Socialist Richmond,”

How do we know all this? It turns out a Richmond Confidential reporter named Alexandra Molesvky infiltrated the RPA/Socialist Richmond organization to get a story. Alexandra, who lives in Richmond and commutes to UC Berkeley, manufactured unimpeachable socialist bona fides for herself, earned the trust of the RPA and became a valued recruit. “I was born in Russia, explained Alexandra, “which gave me great credibility with this group. They actually asked me to consider being their candidate for Richmond City Council.” Unfortunately, before Alexandra could publish her story, COVID-19 closed UC Berkeley and along with it the graduate journalism class that runs Richmond Confidential. Alexandra graduates this spring and has already taken a job in the communications field with a major corporation. But she wanted to get her story out, and she shared it with me for that purpose.

What follows is based on the meticulous notes of Alexandra along with a few surreptitiously recorded audio tapes she was able to make while attending Socialist Richmond planning meetings at the RPA headquarters across from the Richmond Civic Center.

According to Alexandra, the defining moment occurred at a meeting in late 2019 when Melvin Willis seized the moment, declaring, “The problem is, we didn’t go bold enough. We tried to change the world through regulatory actions, like rent control and just cause. But it simply wasn’t enough.”

Willis Wants to Be Mayor - Radio Free Richmond
Figure 5 - Melvin Willis with Bernie Sanders

“What we have to do,” continued Willis, “ is forget tweaking around the edges. Everyone is progressive these days; the term no longer has cachet. We need to make Richmond America’s first full-on socialist utopia. We need to go all in and make Bernie proud of us.”

“The corporate Democrats,” lamented Willis, “conspired to deprive Bernie of the nomination for president, but our movement will validate him and start a trend that will sweep America regardless of who is president.”

“For example, instead of trying to simply regulate greedy and recalcitrant landlords, we will use eminent domain to seize all rental housing in Richmond. We can easily pay for the acquisition with municipal bonds. The current interest rate is rock bottom, less than 2%. Once the City owns the rental housing stock, we can set both rental rates and priorities for who has a right to housing. There will be no more need for the Rent Program as a regulatory body; it can transition into a self-supporting property management organization that operates by the people for the people.”

Willis added, “We will raise rents on wealthier renters to subsidize rents for those who are more economically challenged, including people experiencing homelessness. Every resident deserves a home and will get one with our plan. This is what they do in Cuba; if they can do it, we can do it.

Councilmember Eduardo Martinez chimed in, “Once we consolidate the rental housing acquisition, we will move on commerce and industry. An early target and strategic choice would be the Chevron refinery. Again, using eminent domain and tax-exempt municipal bonds, we would acquire the refinery along with a block of Chevron stock. Chevron stock currently pays a 6.76% divided, and with municipal bonds costing less than 2%, we would have nearly a 5% arbitrage to play with. That money could be used to replace real property taxes (public property pays no property tax) and pay for safety improvements that Chevron has been unwilling to make. Once we control the refinery, we can begin to transition it from fossil fuel production to green energy-related manufacturing and generation.”
Figure 6 - Eduardo Martinez has two years left in his current term

Not all Socialist Richmond members were on board at first. “We believe in the revolution,” Jovanka Beckles assured the group, “but is Richmond ready for it? Remember, I ran a campaign on revolution, but I got beat by a moderate – even in Richmond.”

Sue Wilson responded. “Don’t forget that we are already more than halfway there. The City of Richmond or other public agencies already own the freeways, streets, parks, fire stations, water systems, the Port of Richmond, transportation systems and sewer systems. MCE, a public agency, generates most of our electricity, which is greener and cheaper than PG&E. Half of Richmond’s top 10 employers are already public agencies providing nearly 6,000 jobs. People just don’t get it. Going full socialist is more an evolution than a revolution.”

Tony Sustak, representing the Point Molate Alliance and Citizens for Eastshore Parks, jumped in. “One of our priorities is stopping the development of Point Molate. We are, after all,  the logical stewards to represent the Ohlone people, who remain the real owners of Point Molate.”
Figure 7 - Tony Sustak "We are the Ohlone."

“But what about the [Guidiville Band of the] Pomos,” asked Courtney Cummings, a long-time and respected Native American leader in Richmond, “ Don’t they have some stake in developing Point Molate? Don’t we owe them something?

Gayle McLaughlin explained, “The Guidiville Band of the Pomos are not one of us. They are carpetbaggers from Sonoma County, trying to claim what is rightly ours.”

So what is the political plan to bring the RPA/Socialist Richmond back into power? Here is how it lays out:

  • Gayle McLaughlin will run against Ben Choi for the District 5 seat. When Gayle wins, that will increase the Socialist Richmond seats to three, including Willis, Martinez and McLaughlin.
  • Willis will run for reelection in District 6 and win. Presumably, Johnson would sit this one out and serve another two years. He is young and flexible and may move to another neighborhood for the 2022 election, or he might run for mayor.
  • District 1 is the key for that fourth seat crucial to control the Council, and that’s where Socialist Richmond will concentrate most of its money and effort. With no incumbent, the race will be wide open. Whoever gets there first with the most money and the most effective organization will be the likely winner. Socialist Richmond may back an existing resident, or they may arrange to move someone into the District who has both experience and name recognition. A lot of people want to see a woman on the Council.  Being considered are Jovanka Beckles, Marilyn Langlois, Ada Recinos and BK Williams.

However, John Geluardi, a freelance journalist with a keen insight into Richmond politics warned, “ I wouldn’t assume McLaughlin is a shoo-in. She has not run for office in Richmond since 2014, and her brand is stale as leftover tuna. After she won a City Council seat  in 2014, she resigned in 2017 to run for lieutenant governor and failed to even place. She bailed from Richmond to run for a higher office that she had no chance of winning; that didn’t go over well with a lot of people.”

Geluardi continued, “On the other hand, Choi’s brand is rising. He is a Korean immigrant from modest beginnings whose father ran a bodega in the Los Angeles ghetto, but he has an Ivy League education and is arguably the smartest person on the City Council. He was initially attracted to the RPA’s progressive agenda but became disenchanted with their obsession for control and purity. He is a progressive but also a circumspect and independent voice on the City Council.”

Biographies & Terms | Richmond, CA - Official Website
Figure 8 - Will it be Choi versus McLaughlin for the District 5 seat?

Before taking off, Alexandra interviewed longtime Richmond Realtor Joe Fisher, who does a lot of business in the Iron Triangle.
“Don’t rule out a mystery candidate emerging to make a play for the District 1 seat, “ warned Joe, “ We are seeing some action from some shifty politician-looking out of town folks not normally shopping the Iron Triangle. They are concerned about establishing residency by early July at the latest, which would be the cutoff for the 2020 election.”

“Professional discretion,” added Joe, “bars me from telling more, but you can expect this to be a tumultuous election with a lot of money thrown around in District 1. There has never been anything like it.”

Ultimately, though, Social Richmond seems to be seizing the initiative, and they are planning far beyond November 2020. Once Socialist Richmond regains power with four City Council seats, they plan to initiate a ballot measure to amend the Charter to allow more than two terms for a mayor, as long as there is a hiatus between double terms. If successful, that would allow Gayle to run for mayor in 2022, and if elected, control the Mayor’s Office for the next eight years.

As for me, I wish you a healthy April 1, 2020