By Mike Wold /

Twenty years ago, Richmond, California, a declining industrial suburb north of Berkeley in the Bay Area, would have seemed an unlikely candidate to become one of the most socially and environmentally progressive small cities in the United States.  

Richmond’s main employer was (and is) the Chevron refinery, one of the largest oil refineries in the world. Chevron dominated the politics in the town, even as the legacy of Proposition 13, the 1978 California anti-tax initiative, meant that it didn’t have to pay its fair share of property taxes. A majority of the residents were Black, Latinx or both, and the poverty rate was high.

Steve Early, author of “Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City” writes, “A corporate-backed African American political machine, aligned with conservative, self-serving, and predominantly white police and firefighter unions, dominated city government. Cronyism, corruption, and bureaucratic incompetence became deeply entrenched.”

Besides taxes, Chevron got a pass from the city on safety inspections. But in the year 2000 some members of the California Green Party formed the Richmond Alliance for Green Public Power and Environmental Justice. The group managed to defeat a proposed oil-fueled power plant in the city, got the city to strengthen its industrial safety ordinance, launched a campaign against police harassment of homeless people and helped create a day-laborers’ association that negotiated an agreement with the police.

Realizing that it needed allies within the Richmond government, the group rebranded itself as the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and endorsed two candidates for City Council in 2004. One of its key requirements for endorsement was that candidates refuse all corporate donations. RPA’s candidate Gayle McLaughlin, who later became mayor in 2006, won in a tight race.

Both on the council and as mayor, McLaughlin found ways to use her position to strengthen progressive forces in Richmond, “seeding an array of city commissions, boards, and committees with like-minded activists.” She had major influence on the hiring of a progressive city manager, as well as a gay police chief who restructured the police force to emphasize building community ties. Significantly, he had no problem holding up a “Black Lives Matter” sign that a protester had handed him and later put a photograph of the incident up in his office.

By 2008, there were two more RPA members on the Council, as well as two other progressives, giving a left-liberal majority that supported increasing taxes on Chevron, using the power of eminent domain to discourage foreclosures (a plan that was unfortunately stopped at the state level), and responding to a major refinery fire in 2012 by pushing Chevron to compensate residents and businesses and to increase safety standards.

In 2014, Chevron fought back, spending $3.1 million — about $140 per voter — to try to elect a mayor and city council that would support its agenda. With the support of some African-American groups — the same ones that had supported the old city administration — it exploited the fact that RPA’s core activists were largely White, claiming they had a “plantation mentality” toward Blacks. They tried to tar their candidates (some of whom were people of color) as anarchists and extremists. RPA’s candidates and allies still won the election, due to its record and to its ongoing grassroots organizing, but the vulnerability the campaign exposed caused it to restructure as a more open membership organization, and to actively work to build membership and candidates that reflected the diversity of the city.

Early’s reporting shows that it is possible to challenge entrenched interests in a city and win, and to implement a progressive agenda that people benefit from and can support. Early also points out the limitations of municipal reform — for example, there are many restrictions on what kinds of laws a city can pass.  

Early details the complexities of progressive organizing in Richmond, though in this aspect the book could benefit from deeper analysis of RPA’s base and the organizing issues it faces. Founded by mostly older White radicals, the RPA faced various challenges reaching out to younger people of color, especially in a city whose administration was already people of color, even if they were tied in to Chevron. Similarly, the progressive White police chief, while pioneering effective methods of community policing, had to work to maintain credibility after one of his officers killed a young Latino man.

From the other direction, the RPA was targeted by establishment politicians (as well as Chevron and other business interests) for having some leaders who were members of the Green Party rather than the Democratic Party, the dominant force in the Bay Area.

Richmond is a small city, which facilitates face-to-face, low-budget organizing that can be much more difficult in a city as large as Seattle. Early’s book doesn’t provide “principles” that could be easily adapted to organizing here. Still, Richmond provides an inspiration as it faces some of the same issues, particularly around gentrification, rising rents and corporate domination that Seattle is facing.

This article was originally published 5/23/2018 on Real Change.