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Richmond political flier draws fire
October 22, 2001
  • The Black Men and Women mailer alleges racism by mayoral candidate Tom Butt

    By Peter Felsenfeld

    RICHMOND -- Residents opened their mailboxes last week to find an extensive hit piece issued by an influential political action committee against mayoral candidate Tom Butt.

    Last-minute smear pieces have become the norm in Richmond, but many believe the nine-page, full-color mailer put out by the BMW (Black Men and Women) goes too far.

    "I'm in shock. It's absolutely the worst gutter politics I've ever seen," said Councilwoman Mindell Penn after opening her mail Friday afternoon. "This gives the city a bad name."

    The flier/pamphlet accuses Butt, who is white, of racism, unscrupulously winning city contracts for his architectural engineering firm and single-handedly initiating a recent FBI probe into city corruption.

    Butt has been a city councilman since 1995; one of his trademarks is his independence from Richmond's longtime political power brokers, namely the BMW; the Firefighters Union, Local 188 and their consultant Darrell Reese.

    Both the BMW and Local 188 have endorsed Nat Bates for mayor; Richard Griffin, Jim Rogers and Maria Viramontes for the four-year council seat and Lynn Wade for the two-year seat.

    Butt said the flier is largely an amalgam of past hit pieces leveled against him by BMW and Local 188.

    "The most damaging thing to the city is to take an election that should be about issues and people's ability to do a job and turn it into a bald-faced effort to pit one racial group against another," Butt said. "This is a racially-driven piece trying to convince African-Americans I've done something wrong against them."

    The pamphlet starts with accusations that Butt told the FBI that several local African-American elected officials and Reese were guilty of taking bribes. The FBI was unable to find evidence of political payoffs in Richmond after an intense investigation, which began shortly before the 1999 election.

    The mailer ends with a vague, full-page account of a heroic deed Reese accomplished as a firefighter in 1960.

    "This is one of the most offensive pieces I've ever seen. It's definitely a hit piece," said former Richmond City Councilwoman Lesa McIntosh, one of the officials mentioned.

    BMW president Lonnie Washington said he frowns on negative campaigning and called the piece "a waste of time and money."

    Washington said he has no evidence to support the many inflammatory charges leveled in the mailer because facts were researched and compiled by various members of an informal committee, whose members he would not disclose.

    Also, the FBI accusations are secret and impossible to obtain, Washington said.

    He said he allowed the piece to go forward because of "oblique statements" Butt made about his involvement in the probe.

    "I heard Tom admit he made allegations," Washington said. "He didn't say what they were or who they were against, but I saw enough validity to justify (the piece) and allow it to happen in BMW's name."

    The mailer lists 136 checks, the most recent in 1992, that the city paid to Interactive Resources, Butt's firm, and claims the jobs were awarded without a competitive bid.

    Washington said he had no documentation to back this up because Richmond officials denied his group access to records.

    Rich McCoy, Richmond's Public Services Agency director, said the city is not required to accept the lowest bidder for professional services work. Instead, the city performs a qualifications-based selection process and chooses whoever is best suited for the job.

    Butt also was targeted in a hit piece generated by mayoral candidate Bates, which singles out Butt for his vote when the City Council passed an ordinance (14-00 NS) protecting the city from lawsuits resulting from injuries caused by damaged sidewalks.

    In his cartoonish flier, Bates inaccurately calls the legislation the "Sidewalk Liability Transfer Ordinance," and infers that Butt encouraged people to sue homeowners.

    Under state law, property owners are usually responsible for maintaining sidewalks abutting their property, but cities can be held liable if an accident occurs.

    City Attorney Malcolm Hunter said he drafted the ordinance, which shifts liability to the homeowner, to avoid costly lawsuits directed toward the city.

    Peter Felsenfeld covers Richmond. Reach him at (510) 652-9826 or email pfelsenfeld@cctimes.com.