|Vice Mayor's Knack For
Making Waves In Richmond Renowned
January 27, 1997
WEST COUNTY TIMES
Monday, January 27,
RICHMOND Mermaids deck the wall in front of Donna Powers, a not-so-subtle reminder of her 25 years as Dolphina, nude mermaid in the fish tank at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.
But the living room of her Point Richmond home shows no other visible signs of her much-publicized modeling job or of her other role in the fish bowl as a Richmond City Council member.
Her two public roles elicit very different reactions from Powers: She has nothing but positive things to say about her days as Dolphina. Her five years on the council are another story.
"I've tried to keep the Cub Scouts happy, and sometimes it worked," Powers said. "Now, I've said the heck with sidestepping. It takes forever to get things done. That's one of the reasons I want to get out of here."
First elected in 1991, Powers has settled into the role of member most likely to speak her mind. She's praised by some, feared or criticized by others for blistering city staff, fellow council members and Richmond's behind-the-scenes power players.
Though she still relishes a good council fight, the role is starting to wear on Powers. She's not running for re-election in 1999. In the next year-and-a-half, she plans to move to Martinez to a dream house she and her husband, Tom, are building.
But don't expect Powers to leave town without firing a few more shots at the city bureaucracy. She ran her first campaign attacking the status quo in city government and said she intends to keep on speaking out.
"Outspoken" is the adjective most frequently attached to Powers, but whether the description is a compliment or an insult depends on who's asked.
"When I say she's outspoken, I mean that she's one of the most scrupulously honest people I know," said Councilman Alex Evans, who won Powers' support in his 1995 bid for the council.
That's not a universally held opinion, however. She has run afoul of the city's best-known behind-the-scenes deal maker Darrell Reese, political consultant for the city firefighters union, Local 188. During Powers' 1995 re-election campaign, Reese helped draft campaign literature that blasted Powers as a front for her husband's lobbying business.
The mailers also featured quotes from Mayor Rosemary Corbin not usually a Reese supporter saying Powers was part of a lobbying team with her husband, a lobbyist and former county supervisor. Powers, Corbin suggested, was using her position for personal gain.
"I think that's an interesting statement about someone who's behind the lobbying ordinance," Reese said, referring to just-passed city legislation that would regulate lobbyist's activities in Richmond. Ironically, Reese was a key supporter of Powers during her 1991 campaign.
The Powerses also have come under fire for contributions from Tom Powers' lobbying clients that have ended up in his wife's campaign coffers. The former supervisor, however, scoffs at the suggestion that there's a connection between his business and his wife's elected position.
"She's her own person, and we agree on some things and we don't agree on others," he said. "I've never had her carry water for me."
And these days, Corbin bristles when asked about the negative campaign literature. She said Powers "works hard, has a lot of energy and cares deeply about her job."
Corbin's vote earlier this month helped Powers become vice mayor, a largely ceremonial council post that nonetheless generated three candidates and took two votes to decide.
"Like I said that night, nothing ever comes easy for me," Powers said.
Still, vice mayor is a long way from the days when Powers "knew every thrift shop in town," bought food in bulk with her Berkeley cooperative and lived as a single mom on a $155-a-month welfare check.
Remove her years as Dolphina, a welfare mom and council member, and the 47-year-old's life story still sounds like the stuff of novels. She's been a politician's wife; lived in a commune; protested for gay rights; spent time as a foster child; was ordained a minister to marry people for her wedding and catering business; and has worked as a bartender, an Amtrak red cap and a bank complaints clerk.
"I don't have skeletons in my closet," Powers said. "I have dinosaur bones."
Raised by a single mother, Powers learned to cope early. Her mother "worked very hard" as a telephone operator, but made "lots of bad decisions" about men, money and alcohol. From ages 3 to 6, Powers was in foster care. She survived mental and physical abuse from a foster father and one of her stepfathers.
"I never had a safety net," Powers said. "Nobody ever talked about things like college to me."
At 17, she left home, and two years later landed in the fish tank. The job required her to lie naked on a bed of black velvet below the bar. She motioned as though a mermaid paddling through the sea, her miniaturized image projected through a periscope onto mirrors in the fish tank.
"I thought it was a great career opportunity," Powers said. "I made good money, and I met some very interesting people."
One of those people was her husband, Tom, then an up-and-coming attorney in Richmond. They married in 1974, four years before his first run for the Board of Supervisors. He retired from the board in 1994.
His political ambitions didn't stop Donna Powers from continuing her role in the fish tank.
"My husband wouldn't dare tell me what I had to quit," she said. "Besides, that's the girl he fell in love with."
Feminists, however, were upset by her performances, and some residents raised the issue in 1992 after Powers won her first term. National media from CNN to the tabloid show "Hard Copy" picked up the story.
"I was the girl in the fish bowl, and I'm proud of it," said Powers, who plans to have a Dolphina retirement party when she hits 50. "Some people said I was making the council a laughingstock. I raised three kids, and all of them are successful. Tell me I'm not a good role model."
Powers' political activism took root in the late 1960s. A self-described hippie, she lived in Berkeley and "knew what tear gas smelled like." Many of her friends were gay, and she decided she would channel her newfound political interest into the gay and lesbian rights movement.
On the City Council 25 years later, Powers championed condom machines in the public bathrooms to fight the spread of AIDS. Powers, however, acknowledges the issue failed to catch fire with her fellow council members.
"After five years, I've pretty much given up," said Powers, who once passed out condoms to fellow council members to promote the issue.
Powers said she's often been alone on issues, but that can sometimes be a plus. Councilman Tom Butt said Powers strength is that she doesn't owe anything to other council members.
"She's been an important vote because she's not allied with any faction on the council," said Butt, once a Powers critic but now a friend. "I'd say she was the swing vote on hiring (City Manager) Floyd Johnson and appointing Alex Evans."
Butt also said Powers has "taken on some ambitious projects" that don't require her to rely on fellow council members for much support. He cited Powers work to help create a Rosie the Riverter memorial to honor the female factory workers of World War II. She's also been active in efforts to beef up the city's disaster warning system and still tackles AIDS-related issues.
"These are fairly noncontroversial projects, but they don't have sex appeal," Butt said. "There's no powerful constituency behind them."
Powers said those are the kinds of issues she's most comfortable with "and are the most fun" to tackle.
"I know when I retire, I'll have some very successful projects," she said. "I'll have paid back for the welfare I took."
Still, Powers wishes she could swim through her fight against "a city government that's an embarrassment" as easily as she floated in her Dolphina days.
"Nothing is ever decided on the merit of an issue," Power said. "It's the personalities. It's who has a grudge and who didn't say hi' once. It's bizarre things. I thought because I got elected I could do things about the bureaucracy. Ha."
Occupation: Richmond City Council member, 1991-present
Home: Point Richmond
Family: Husband, Tom Powers, lobbyist and former Contra Costa County supervisor; three children
Career: Runs wedding chapel and catering business with her husband. Spent 25 years appearing as mermaid at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.
Education: Attended Contra Costa College and Chabot College.
*1991, elected to the City Council, placing first in a field of 12 candidates. Her campaign centered on reforming city bureaucracy.
*1992, sued the city for greater access to public records. The suit wound up in the state Supreme Court. Judges said Powers didn't have the right to appeal a lower court's ruling on the issue. Also, she attained celebrity status after residents objected to her moonlighting as the nude mermaid at Bimbo's in San Francisco. Powers stayed on the job, and media from CNN to "Hard Copy" covered the story.
*1993, ran for mayor, placing third behind former Mayor George Livingston and Mayor Rosemary Corbin. Also she was nearly booted off the council by her fellow members after five absences. Powers blamed illnesses, a family vacation and a trip to Texas on behalf of the city for her absences. The council reconsidered. She now calls it "a coup attempt."
*1995: Won a second term on the council, despite 20,000 fliers sent to Richmond residents describing Powers as a front for her lobbyist husband.
*1996, pushed for a Rosie the Riveter memorial to honor women who worked in factories during World War II. Also pushed for condom machines in all public bathrooms. She passed out Valentine's Day cards and condoms to fellow council members to promote the issue. The plan died.