Spotlight on Gayle McLaughlin
Green Mayor of Richmond
By Mike Feinstein
Green Party of California
Many voters rightfully see the Green Party as an environmental champion. But can Greens win elected office in racially diverse, crime-ridden, working class cities that are in economic decline?
Apparently the answer is 'yes' according to voters in Richmond, California (pop. 103,000), who on November 7 elected Gayle McLaughlin as their mayor.
"We must lead the city away from this nightmare [urban decline] that literally bleeds its residents and
-- Gayle McLaughlin
McLaughlin's victory in Richmond, which is among northern California's most important cities, comes only two years after she was elected to the Richmond City Council. When she defeated Democratic Party incumbent Irma Anderson, the local Bay Area political establishment was stunned.
Anderson - who brazenly accepted and spent $110,000 from Chevron Oil, Pacific Gas and Electric and other corporate interests during her campaign - outspent McLaughlin by $82,000. The Green grassroots campaign "sent political shock waves across the Bay Area" according to McLaughlin "as it highlighted the Green Party's organizational maturity and strong progressive values."
These values were a strong threat to the Chevron Corporation, which owns one of the largest refineries in the state in Richmond (a storage capacity of 15 million barrels which occupies 25,000 acres on the city's western waterfront). It is also the city's largest local employer, although only a small percentage of Chevron employees are actually Richmond residents. The refinery is notorious for health and safety violations, and contributing to local pollution.
In the mayoral race Chevron went far beyond simply supporting the incumbent, but also funded more than twenty 'hit pieces' on McLaughlin. Lacking any 'dirt', they accused her of 'irresponsibility' for simply wanting to collect more tax revenue from Chevron.
McLaughlin did support local Measure T, which would have generated $8 million a year in Chevron taxes for Richmond's many needs. One of the themes of her campaign was to get corporations such as Chevron to pay their fair share to the community, and to use this increased revenue to fund anti-violence programs, including a year-round, part-time jobs program that would employ 1,000 young people.
In response, Chevron attacked both McLaughlin and Measure T (she was not the Measure's author) with fury, mailing three or four hit pieces a week. Chevron succeeded in defeating Measure T 58 percent to 42 percent. With no organized campaign to counteract it, Chevron was able to create a general confusion about the measure among voters.
In spite of Chevron's attacks, machinations, lies and scare tactics, McLaughlin is now mayor. "We've learned in Richmond that one good way to defeat the flood of hit pieces against a Green (or progressive) candidate," McLaughlin said, "is to uphold our principles, and at the same time invest everything we have in time and people, developing a long grassroots campaign."
Campaigners for McLaughlin started walking precincts nine months before the election. By early March, volunteers were spreading the "Gayle for Mayor" word every week until November. At the same time, true to her Green principles, McLaughlin refused corporate contributions, yet still raised $28,000 - which included $1,200 from the Green Party of California, which recognized the importance of her candidacy.
It was this hard work combined with McLaughlin's positive reputation in the community - her great standing on the City Council, the respect of her colleagues, and the good policies advanced in her short time in office - that enabled McLaughlin to withstand the attacks and win the election. She finished first with 37.5 percent in a three-way race, 242 votes ahead of the incumbent, who had 36.3 percent, followed by a third-place finisher at 25.7 percent.
As mayor, McLaughlin sees her biggest challenge and top priority as "stopping the endemic street violence of this city," she said. The roots of this violence lie in part in the city's long-term economic downturn.
Richmond is a classic working-class industrial city fallen upon hard times. During World War II, many African-Americans migrated to Richmond to work building "Liberty Ships" at the large shipyard. Many of them were women, which is why this is the site for the "Rosie the Riveter" memorial today.
The shipyard has long since shut down, leaving Chevron as the largest employer. But with few locals hired and with limited opportunities overall for local jobs, violence and a torn community are a result. Statistically, Richmond is considered one of the most crime-ridden cities in the nation.
"Even though other cities with more resources and longer political experience have not been able to find a way out of this kind of urban decline," McLaughlin argues, "for Richmond, it is an imperative. We must lead the city away from this nightmare that literally bleeds its residents and frightens investors."
Seeking to reduce the city's street violence to half by 2010 is part of McLaughlin's Ten Point Plan for a Better Richmond. In addition to her jobs program, McLaughlin proposes community policing, a Richmond Youth Corps, more after school programs, mentoring for parolees, support for high-school graduation, and support for local small business. To combat long-term recidivism, she also advocates increased regional cooperation with neighboring cities for support groups, mental health counseling services, educational opportunities and housing support.
A longtime activist from a Chicago union family, McLaughlin was the third of five daughters of a carpenter father and a housewife mother. Her political consciousness accelerated in the 1960s, especially being in Chicago during the violent response to demonstrators there at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
McLaughlin recalls how her mother was "really outraged that young people were mobilizing for a good cause and there was such a harsh response from the Chicago police and the political structure in Chicago. It kind of alerted me that there was a different kind of value system."
In the 1980s, McLaughlin became involved with the Central American solidarity movement, and also played an active role in national networking efforts to unite progressives, including coalition-building efforts with PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and the Rainbow Coalition.
McLaughlin holds a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, graduating summa cum laude, and her graduate studies include psychology and education. She has worked extensively in nonprofit organizations promoting literacy, social justice, environmental health, and addressing the needs of disadvantaged youth.
After moving to Richmond in 1998, McLaughlin quickly got involved with local community issues. By 2004, she was elected as a Green to the City Council on a shoestring budget campaign.
Her two years on the Council were marked by significant achievements. She convinced the Council to require proper environmental oversight for two toxic sites within Richmond - Zeneca and UC Field Station. Also, she championed the East Bay Regional Park District's purchase of Breuner Marsh to build a park for Richmond residents, and co-sponsored an initiative that repealed the 12-year practice of allowing Chevron to self-permit, self-inspect, and self-certify its own projects.
During this time, she also served on the steering committee of the Richmond Greens and in 2004, co-founded the Richmond Progressive Alliance, an alliance of Progressive Democrats, Greens and Independents.
Now that McLaughlin is mayor, she is getting considerable attention. The Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and San Francisco Chronicle have all done follow-up stories covering McLaughlin's victory.
In December, Green Party members welcomed McLaughlin with thunderous applause at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema, where she was a featured speaker at a forum titled "Greening a Hopeful Moment: Progressive Politics After the Democrats' Election Victory."
McLaughlin said that for the Green Party to become successful, it is not enough that the party's membership grows in numbers, but that its members grow in the strength of their commitment and solidarity with each other.
While she's happy that her campaign has helped build the Green Party, McLaughlin has made it clear that she is there first to govern for the community, and that she'll bring a Green perspective appropriate for the community. Richmond is 35 percent white, 29 percent African American, 34 percent Latino, and 15 percent Asian American.
"There are indeed many tones of Green," she said, "and the Green tone of the Richmond mayor will need to reflect the realities of our geography and people."
For more information: www.gaylemclaughlin.net
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