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Media Coverage
Committee Established By Black Leadership
May 16, 1999



Sunday, May 16, 1999
Section: West County
Page: A21
Shawn Masten

Caption: Photo 1. Herman Blackmon, mug. Photo 2. Jim McMillan, mug.

RICHMOND Dissatisfied with the lack of political attention being paid to minorities and their concerns, some prominent black leaders are forming a new grass-roots political action committee to give a stronger voice to blacks in West Contra Costa County.

The plan, say organizers of the Black American Political Action Committee of Contra Costa, is simple: increase minority voter turnout; rally behind issues such as affirmative action, care for the elderly, economic betterment and access to higher education; and groom and support candidates for city council, school board and the county Board of Supervisors.

"We will be involved in all of West County," said Jim McMillan, committee president and former Richmond City Councilman. "Wherever there are issues that affect African-Americans we will bring the weight of our organization to support those issues."

Both McMillan and committee vice president Herman Blackmon say the drive for the PAC grew out of their frustration with the dearth of political leadership for minorities, both locally and nationally.

The Democratic Party, traditionally the torch bearer for minorities and civil rights issues, has shifted to a more moderate course, focusing on issues seen to appeal to white, middle-class voters even as it relies on black votes to elect candidates, observers say.

"We certainly don't feel we are particularly well-served by traditional political forces," said Blackmon. "The agenda for African-Americans and other underrepresented groups has essentially been thrown away. We think these issues require more direct energy, and they need to be returned to the priority level that we think they deserve."

Leadership questions
At the same time, a rift has developed among Richmond's veteran black politicians over the direction local leadership should take.

The organization that has been the traditional power base for black politicians, Black Men and Women, has been weakened by the departure of three members. The group also has been faulted for being narrowly focused on political self-preservation instead of on reaching out and raising up new leaders in the community.

With the chance for at least two new Richmond City Council members to be elected in November, observers say the time is ripe for a new black political committee to arise.

"There is a critical need for somebody to speak up," said Charles Ramsey, a trustee for the West Contra Costa Unified School District. "I think individuals need to make their presence felt. If you're not at the table making your voice heard, other voices are going to dominate."

Created by McMillan, Blackmon, Coronado Neighborhood Council President Joe Fisher and Vernon Whitmore, managing editor of the Richmond Post, the committee has yet to set a formal platform, but it has drafted bylaws and a mission statement, sent letters to ministers, labor leaders and businesses countywide and begun interviews with potential candidates for Richmond City Council.

Their intent is to build a PAC that relies on grass-roots membership, not elected politicians. With the exception of Blackmon, a Hercules city councilman, membership will be limited to residents and others not seeking political office. Money will be raised by individual contributions of $540 annually from members and a variety of outside sources. The group hopes to have at least 20 active members.

"We don't intend to become beholden to special interest," Blackmon said. "Independence of thought and judgment is essential to the effectiveness of any organization."


Coping with lost support
The group also sees its efforts compensating on the local level for losses on the larger political stage.

The Democratic Party of the 1990s has backed away from taking strong stances on minority issues like affirmative action and proposing economic policies that redistribute wealth to the inner cities, said Bruce Cain, political science professor at UC-Berkeley.

"The party hasn't abandoned the civil rights agenda, but it has certainly trimmed it," Cain said "It's not benign neglect a la Reagan, but it's not a return to putting money into anti-poverty legislation a la the 1960s. It's somewhere in the middle."

California Democrats say they continue to fight for the disenfranchised, but they see the need for minorities to get more involved.

"I believe in people getting engaged in the political system," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. "If they want to go out and look for African-Americans to run for office, that's all very encouraging."

Bobbie Arnold, member of Contra Costa Democratic Central Committee, acknowledged that local Democratic efforts to recruit candidates, including minorities, have been weak.

Attempts to organize a committee devoted to recruitment and development have stalled, but the group has tried to do some outreach, she said.

The committee provided training and information for local Democratic opposition to Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure, and Proposition 187, which cut off services to illegal immigrants. With the presidential election in 2000, the group also plans voter registration drives in West Contra Costa County.

But the bigger problem, said Arnold, a longtime Richmond resident, is the lack of leadership in the black community.

"The result is that African-Americans are divided. There's not really any unity in the community because people don't have true leadership to identify with, and people don't get involved," Arnold said.

Since the early 1980s, the main political force for blacks in Richmond has been Black Men and Woman.

The group was formed by McMillan, Lonnie Washington and Nat Bates to help elect Bates by aligning him with the two incumbent councilmen. Although Bates lost that race, the group remained. It fought hard to re-elect former state Sen. Dan Boatwright in 1988; in exchange, the group gained money for voter registration drives and state-approved enterprise zones for Richmond, which provide tax breaks for businesses who hire workers from the poorest neighborhoods. Boatwright also agreed to expand his local office and staff it with blacks, including Bates, who became his field representative.

Today, the BMW spends thousands of dollars on candidates and campaign mailers and gets much of its contributions from the politically influential Richmond firefighters union. In 1997, the group opposed city tax Measure H, saying it provided no benefits for black residents while pouring millions of dollars into predominantly white Point Richmond. The charge was made in a glossy flier distributed to predominantly black neighborhoods by the BMW and Richmond firefighters union shortly before the election. Critics argued that the tactic was divisive. The measure, which would have paid for public safety projects and seismic retrofitting of city buildings, failed.

Leaving the group
McMillan quietly left BMW in 1997, as did City Councilwoman Irma Anderson, the first female member. Former city Councilwoman Lesa McIntosh, the group's youngest member, resigned after being appointed in February to the East Bay Municipal Water District.

Neither Anderson nor McIntosh publicly explained their reasons for resigning, but McMillan has said he felt the group was overly influenced by Darrell Reese, consultant for the firefighters union and BMW's adviser.

"For the last 15 years now, BMW has been the only show in town," Richmond city Councilman Tom Butt said. "Clearly there's a major split there."

Some attribute the split to the council's decision to oust former City Manager Floyd Johnson, who was popular in the black community but lost favor with several council members who complained he responded too slowly to directions. BMW members Bates and City Councilman Richard Griffin were among the five who voted in 1997 not to renew Johnson's contract.

"There's a lot of people who haven't forgotten that," said Whitmore, a member of the new committee. "It can come back to haunt BMW."

Richmond attorney George Harris III, who was critical of the council's 5-4 decision to oust Johnson, said has been disappointed by the political leadership of the BMW.

"People of our generation are kind of struggling to find our place," said Harris, 35. "On the one hand, it would be nice if everyone could work together to prepare the next generation for leadership, but my perception is that hasn't happened. If this new organization has that as a mission, that would be a great thing, and I'm all for it."

Shawn Masten covers Richmond. Reach her at 510-262-2725 or e-mail smasten@cctimes.com.