The Activist

Campaign cash continues to roll into Richmond elections

Issue 295: 10-11-2020

In this issue:

Are Richmond's elections for sale?

stampedmoney.pngAs Richmond moves to district elections, there were hopes that maybe -- just maybe -- this could be a net positive for our City. Since it is less expensive for people to run in a district (compared to city-wide), it could encourage more people to run for office. And that’s a good thing. 

However, there were concerns that smaller campaigns also make it easier for wealthy interests to dominate the political process. Special interests are usually the only ones who can afford to “max out” their candidate donations at $2,500. That makes those big donations carry even more weight. 

And that is exactly what seems to be happening this year. The sheer volume of corporate and Political Action Committee money pouring into City Council races is becoming a serious issue. It may not be as bad as in 2014 (when Chevron poured more than $3 million into City Council elections), but a big PAC called Richmond Progress is poised to spend around $100,000 each boosting the campaigns of Eleanor Thompson, Ahmad Anderson and Vinay Pimple. This is tantamount to buying an election and a government. 

This powerful PAC is controlled by the police union, but also brings together the firefighters, the building trades, real estate developers and companies like the Levin Terminal. With this constellation of interests, the goal of this PAC seems to be:

  • To slow down progress in "reimagining public safety" in our City, and to avoid introducing real accountability in policing, 
  • To roll back environmental progress, such as our coal ordinance, and
  • To approving every development proposal regardless of whether it is a good idea for Richmond

To make matters worse, Mayor Butt is also in on it. He is endorsing the same three candidates, and this week circulated a letter that with bogus allegations casting doubt on residency requirements of other candidates.

But it’s not hard to figure out what’s happening. 

Butt and the police union don’t want to elect Thompson, Anderson and Pimple as much as the want to defeat progressive candidates Gayle McLaughin, Melvin Willis and Claudia Jimenez, who are running as “Team Richmond.” As Butt wrote in one of his E-forums, he mostly wants residents to vote for “anyone but Team Richmond.” Similarly, even though the police unions are spending big money to elect their three candidates, they are actually spreading their money around, and have made donations to almost every single City Council candidate except McLaughlin, Willis and Jimenez.

The dirty politics are going are starting and it will get worse -- don’t be fooled! 

And don’t let our elections be dominated by big money and self-interested parties. Only three candidates -- Gayle McLaughin, Melvin Willis and Claudia Jimenez -- have gained the widespread support of local progressive groups, and have rejected all money from corporations so that they can be faithful to Richmond residents, not special interests.

-- Michelle Chan, Editor

Campaign cash continues to roll into Richmond elections

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Since last week, we have continued to see cash roll into Richmond elections. Still leading the pack is the police union, with the Richmond Police Officers Association ponying up over $100,000 to influence City Council elections.

The majority of this money is being funneled into the RPOA-controlled Political Action Committee, Richmond Progress, which has now raised $280,000. It will probably surpass $300,000 in the next weeks.

The Levin Terminal (which currently handles 25 percent of the coal exports coming out of the West Coast) is the next biggest player in this PAC, having chipped in $25,000. Between these two players, we now have a formal alliance of police and fossil fuel interests as the dominant seeking money seeking to Richmond elections.

But the PAC hasn’t finished bundling up money. Just in the past week, the PAC has brought in new players, including a political organization, California Laborers for Equality and Progress, which is controlled by construction union LiUNA. People may recall that LiUNA was one of the main forces trying to stop Richmond’s coal ordinance, which was passed earlier this year. With the addition of LiUNA money, this ups the ante for construction unions, who have now funneled $37,500 of political spending into this PAC. Other new members include the California Real Estate PAC, and Republic Services, which holds the sole contract for sanitation services in Richmond.

The Richmond Progress PAC is limited in what they can give directly to candidates, so most of their political spending will be through “independent expenditures.” With a war chest of $280,000 and growing, we can expect to see a surge in mailers, social media ads, phone calls, etc. in the next weeks. And maybe even some down-lown dirty tricks.

Finally, please note that in the last edition of The Activist, we mistakenly said that the Richmond Chamber of Commerce was also making political contributions in Richmond races; that reporting was in error, and we regret the mistake.

How to spot Big Money "Astroturf"

We’ve all heard of “grassroots” political action, and most of us appreciate it when ordinary folks care enough to (respectfully) engage in political conversations -- even if we don’t agree with their views. After all, when people take responsibility and action, it strengthens our community and our democracy.

Grassroots movements and organizations rely on people coming together and taking collective action at local level. Grassroots groups are often volunteer-driven, and engage in public education, advocacy, electoral politics and more. One great example of a grassroots movement was the No Coal in Richmond coalition, which brought together many local groups in a mostly volunteer-based effort to stop coal transport and handling through the City. 

Then there’s Astroturfing, or using fake grassroots efforts to elect candidates and win policy goals by creating the impression there is broad public support about an issue, when in reality there is not. Astroturfing tends to be funded by corporations or powerful entities, and is aimed at swaying public opinion. Today, Astroturfing has become a significant problem, especially when combined through social media-driven misinformation campaigns. A recent example is how a pro-Trump group paid teenagers to troll Trump’s opponents on social media and spread doubt about mail in voting, the severity of the coronavirus, and more. 

Here are some ways you can spot the difference between grassroots efforts versus Astroturfing:

Who is funding those candidates?

If a candidate raises most of his/her money from institutions, rather than individuals, that’s a sign of a potential Astroturf candidate. As of last week, a shocking 87 percent of Eleanor Thompson’s campaign money came from institutions; for Vinay Pimple it was almost as much -- 74 percent. And institutional money made up a majority of Ahmad Anderson’s campaign money too. All three of those candidates accepted money from corporations and other for-profit interests. 

In contrast, progressive candidates Melvin Willis, Claudia Jimenez and Gayle McLaughlin receive most of their money from individuals -- and have sworn off all corporate political funds.

Who’s paying for those ads?

When you receive mailers and political advertising, make sure to check out who is paying for it. Often the mailers feature a wide array of pictures in order to give the impression that a diverse group of people support the candidate or cause. But take a look at who is funding the mailer. In the case above (a Proposition 22 mailer), the main funders are corporations like Uber and Lyft. On the flip side, if someone comes to your door and says they are a volunteer, you know it’s more likely a grassroots effort.

Where are those lawn signs planted?

Lawn signs are starting to pop up. And if you see lots of signs on people’s lawns and windows, it’s probably a good sign. The people who live there have likely met, know and support the candidate. If most of the candidate's signs are in “public” places, like highway offramps and bridges, but you haven’t been able to spot more than one or two in someone’s home, chances are the candidate doesn’t have much of a base supporting them.

Take a closer look at the names.

Richmond voters are savvy enough to realize that political organizations often give themselves positive-sounding but misleading names. One obvious example is Richmond Progress, the police- and corporate- dominated political organization whose name bears a close resemblance to the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a grassroots organization which has been around for over 15 years. 

Another group called “Emergency Room for Richmond” donated almost $10,000 to the Richmond Progress PAC. Described as “a coalition of Richmond residents, community leaders, health-care advocates, police officers and firefighters,” they sound like a grassroots effort rallying around a popular issue. The group burst onto the scene about a year ago with a pricey catered lunch for hundreds of people at the Craneway Pavillion. But the California Nurses Association, who was one of the leading groups fighting the closing of Doctors Hospital had never heard of this group. Plus CNA actually opposes stand-alone ERs, which can't handle procedures like surgeries. It turns out that the money behind Emergency Room for Richmond is the construction unions -- more interested in building stuff (and influencing elections) than they are in people's health. A classic example of Astroturfing.

The mud (and misinformation) has started slinging

With the elections getting closer, politics are getting dirtier, and we are definitely starting to see some mud start to fly. Here are some recent low-down and misleading tricks we have seen:

Bogus residency allegations

Tom Butt circulated a letter from the firefighters union to District Attorney Diana Becton questioning the residency of two candidates, Najari Smith and Melvin Willis, who they say don’t live where they registered and are therefore not eligible to run for their respective districts. But both are indeed in compliance, and their residency was actually checked before they ran for office. 

  • Here’s some of what Najari had to say:

It is unfortunate that People of Color in our community are constantly subjected to having to prove our innocence, but not recognized for our excellence...It may have felt like harmlessly sharing information, but it is far more than that when it’s a mayor sharing information that can greatly harm and negatively impact a candidate’s political campaign and their personal life.

  • Here’s some of what Melvin had to say:

In addition to being the main promoter of this bogus complaint, Mayor Butt is planning to introduce a regulation saying, and I’m not kidding here, that a person cannot run for city council unless they have a statement from their landlord vouching for them. Butt's proposed regulation will violate the right to hold office for homeless, young, and low-income people trying to survive in this economy. We are the people who should be holding public office, not barred from it, or harassed with legal complaints when we try. 

Attempts to make inclusive development = “anti-development”

Progressive candidates such as Gayle McLaughlin, Melvin Willis and Claudia Jimenez are often broadly painted as “anti-development” when they advocate for inclusive, environmentally sustainable development. For example:

  • Pt. Molate: Yes -- McLaughlin, Willis and Jimenez support development at Pt. Molate, along the lines of the Community Plan proposed by the Pt. Molate Alliance. This plan incorporates the input of the many public workshops on Pt. Molate, and includes public-access parks, beaches, a hotel and conference center, restaurants, etc. However, they have been strongly opposed to other proposals for the site, including a mega-casino, and the current SunCal proposal to build an exclusive housing enclave. Suncal wants to build several hundred $1.4 and $1.2 million homes -- which could cost the City more than it would bring in through additional taxes. Creating high-end housing that is subsidized by lower-income Richmond taxpayers isn't what most people would call a good or fair model of development.
  • Nevin.pngTerraces on Nevin: In stark contrast to SunCal's Pt. Molate project, the Terraces on Nevin is an example of the kind of housing that Gayle, Melvin and Claudia want to encourage more of: more affordable, dense housing in the urban core that is very close to the BART station and other transit. 
  • Housing at Astra Zeneca site: The three candidates support building housing and other kinds of development at the current Astra Zeneca toxic waste site on the south shoreline -- as long as the site is fully cleaned up. However, they don’t support building on the site if it’s only partially-cleaned up, which could create environmental and health liabilities for generations.
  • Berkeley Global Campus: In 2016, UC Berkeley backed away from the idea of building a new campus at their Richmond Field Station due to a lack of funds. But critics such as Tom Butt tried to blame the project’s demise on community advocates such as Melvin Willis and Claudia Jimenez, who were advocating that Cal provide a community benefits package for Richmond. Such a package would have allowed the Campus to be an inclusive engine for economic growth by requiring local hiring, good union jobs, opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses and more. It takes some nerve to call fighting for Richmond residents, jobs and small businesses "anti-development."

[Photo credit: 3dpete via Flickr]

Mon 10/12, 12pm: Supreme Court rally at Feinstein's office

Have you ever wondered what we could possibly do to stop Senate Republicans from confirming an ultra-conservative to the Supreme Court (at a time when people are actually casting - or have already cast - their Presidential ballot)?

One answer: get Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- like Diane Feinstein -- to stay home and not provide a quorum! This could delay the process and buy valuable time. Join ACCE and others on Monday at noon in front of Diane Feinstein's office at 1 Post Street in San Francisco and urge Diane Feinstein: No Confirmation Before Inauguration! Bring signs and your friends!

When: Monday, October 12, 12pm

Where: 1 Post Street, San Francisco

A facebook invitation can be found here. Please wear a mask and be prepared to physically distance.

Mon, 10/12, 6pm: Richmond Our Power candidates forum

Support Team Richmond (Melvin Willis, Gayle McLaughlin and Claudia Jimenez) and get to know other City Council Candidates at an online candidates forum from 6-8pm on Monday. It will be hosted by the Richmond Our Power Coalition and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

When: Monday, October 12 at 6pm

Where: Online. Please RSVP here for details. And share the event on Facebook!

Tue 10/13, 4pm: No Coal on the City Council! (Venue change)

Sick of corporations polluting our Richmond elections? Please join our friends at No Coal in Richmond who will be rallying next week to protest Levin Terminal’s attempts to influence our local City Council races.

The Levin Terminal is trying to buy a seat on the Richmond City Council. RPA candidates are endorsed by APEN, CBE, Sierra Club, and Sunflower Alliance, while opponents are funded by donations from the coal terminal, big developers, and the police union. Join our action this coming Thursday to protest this perversion of the democratic process!

When: Tuesday, October 13, 4–5 pm

Where: Richmond City Hall, 450 Civic Center Plaza (please note the venue change)

The environmental choice could not be clearer. We need your participation! Wear your "No Coal" t-shirt or other red shirt. Covid-19 precautions will be observed, and masks will be available if you forget yours.

Vote early and safely this year!

This year, all registered voters in California will be sent a vote-by-mail ballot with a prepaid postage return envelope for the November 3 election. You may have already received yours. Here are some important details on how to vote safely this year:

How to vote

  • Vote by mail (recommended): Mark your ballot, then place it in the postage-paid return envelope. Sign the envelope and mail it back, early if you can. It must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by November 20, 2020.
  • Vote by dropping off your ballot (recommended): Instead of mailing back your ballot, you can also drop it off at one of 37 secure outdoor drop boxes in Contra Costa. Drop boxes are open 24/7 and will be in use from October 5 until 8pm on Election Day (November 3). In Richmond, there is a drop box in front of Richmond City Hall (450 Civic Center Plaza).
  • Vote in person: Polling places will open on November 3; to locate your polling place, look on the back of the Voter Information Guide that will be mailed to you. (The location may be different than in previous years.) If you vote in person, bring a mask, hand sanitizer, and be prepared to socially distance. There may be long lines, so consider going early.

Am I registered to vote?

  • The last day to register to vote is October 19. Check to see if you are registered to vote by visiting VoterStatus.sos.ca.gov. You can also confirm where you are registered, adjust your political party preference, language preference, etc.
  • After October 19, you can still register and vote in person (using Conditional Voter Registration) on Election Day, November 3, at polling places.

How do I know my vote is being counted?

  • Wheresmyballot.sos.ca.gov is California’s official tracking tool to find out if your ballot has been mailed, received and counted. You need to sign up for this service; it only takes a few minutes.

Election results

  • Remember: voters are used to getting results on Election night, but the results of the election actually may not be clear until weeks after November 3, after all mail-in-ballots have been counted. Also many more Democrats are likely to vote by mail, so early predictions of “who won” the Presidential election, for example, may be different than the final results. With the combination of delayed election results, inaccurate early predictions, and various misinformation campaigns, some folks might get the (mistaken) idea that the elections are not legitimate. Please help raise awareness among your friends and family!

Make this election grassroots and people-powered!

Looking at the campaign fundraising records, it seems like some candidates are bringing in the bucks from monied interests. But since Team Richmond candidates -- Melvin Willis, Claudia Jimenez and Gayle McLaughlin -- accept no corporate campaign donations, the only way to counter the power of big money in politics is through volunteers and small grassroots donations.

  • Phone banking: Team Richmond is hosting three days of phone banking per week: Mondays and Thursdays from 5pm to 8pm and Saturdays from 10am to 1pm. Please contact Emily at rossem19@gmail.com to sign up for your shift(s) today!
  • Socially distanced canvassing: We are also starting to do socially-distanced door-to-door canvassing. It's fun, safe, and folks actually seem to appreciate getting information. To canvass for Claudia in District 6, North and East, sign up here. To canvass for Melvin in District 1, central Richmond, sign up here.

Progressive voter guide 2020

For an online, easier to read version of this guide, visit the Richmond Progressive Alliance website.