Historic local victory points the way forward

RICHMOND, Calif. — Along with its historic national result, the 2008 election brought groundbreaking local victories, too — among them, passage of Measure T by this city’s voters. The measure, called by its supporters “A Fair Share for Richmond,” upgrades the fee the city’s largest manufacturers must pay for business licenses to one quarter of 1 percent of the value of the raw materials they use each year. It is expected to generate $26.5 million annually for the general fund. That’s a windfall for this cash-strapped city of about 100,000 people, across the bay from San Francisco, now battling high unemployment and environmental degradation with total general fund revenues of $134 million a year.

The bulk of the funds will come from the Chevron refinery located here. The refinery has been a major source of pollution, toxic releases and accidents that have threatened the health and safety of workers and the community.

The grassroots campaign was led by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a coalition of grassroots and progressive activists backed by labor, environmental groups and organizations in the African American, Latino and Asian communities. Against them stood powerful business interests — including the one most affected by the measure, the giant refinery Chevron — which with other business interests lent deep pockets to defeat the measure. But to no avail.

We spoke with Richmond’s progressive mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, about how Measure T was developed and passed.

Originally, the mayor said, members of the City Council had considered a gross business receipts tax, but when the Chamber of Commerce adamantly opposed it, they worked with the city manager and city attorney to develop a measure to increase business license fees for large manufacturers.

“But it was too complicated in 2006,” McLaughlin said. “There were too many opportunities for the opposition, and the Chamber of Commerce and Chevron, to oppose it. The voters weren't clear on it, and with the opposition mailers, it failed” with 42 percent of the vote.

“We knew that 42 percent wasn’t bad in terms of voter approval,” she said, “so we brought it forward as a citizen’s initiative this time.”

First came the signature-gathering — a day-in, day-out grassroots effort that built on the earlier effort, garnering over 5,000 signatures to place the new measure on the ballot. Then came the campaign to win its passage. “It was door-to-door precinct-walking, fund raising — and no corporate donations, of course,” the mayor said. “So it was really a grassroots effort with people educating the community, standing out in front of grocery stores, the library, and doing whatever — newsletters, e-mails, signs.” This time, it passed by 51.5 percent.

We asked Mayor McLaughlin if Measure T will help bring green jobs and a greener economy to Richmond.

“We’re part of the East Bay Green Corridor, which is an exciting phenomenon that I’m working hard on,” she said. “We have an employment and training program called Richmond Build that includes solar installation job training that has become a national model. When I was a city councilmember, I helped found a group called Solar Richmond, which is now a nonprofit on contract with the city, that brings all the partners together including nonprofits like the Solar Living Institute, out in Hopland. There, they’re doing this training program, “Grids Alternative” — part of it is classroom training, part of it is up on the roofs.”

Residents are “turning their lives around,” McLaughlin says, with many having their first opportunity to be trained in life skills and the green economy, as well as learning a trade. “So the whole green collar jobs movement is really big here in Richmond.”

McLaughlin says she became a community activist as a teenager and worked on many social and environmental campaigns before moving to Richmond and joining the Green Party.

She participated in the Greens’ campaign to stop Chevron’s proposed power plant in Richmond, worked with a group called “Homelessness is Not a Crime,” and helped present a resolution to the City Council opposing the Patriot Act. “And then the work began against Chevron’s pollution.”

Members of the local progressive community encouraged McLaughlin to run for the City Council. But after serving several years on the council she still felt she wasn’t being heard. “So I ran for mayor, and won.”

Since then the mayor has maintained a very visible political profile, including national and international activities. “I managed to get 13 other mayors in California to join me in a letter to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to ask for humanitarian visas for [family members of] the Cuban 5,” she said. “But they still haven’t been allowed to have those visits.

McLaughlin looks forward to visiting Richmond’s Cuban sister city, Regla, this year. The only previous visit was 10 years ago, she said. “Now we’re planning a trip that I will lead. We hope to bring a few young people.”

Asked what she would like to share with PWW readers, McLaughlin responded, “I would say, ‘it can be done.’ People can do what might on the surface look like an impossibility, if we join hands and join forces, breaking through obstacles and challenges. Measure T is the perfect example. This is the sort of movement-building we all need, nationwide. I hope it continues to grow.”