BOOK REVIEW OF REFINERY TOWN: BIG OIL, BIG MONEY, AND THE REMAKING OF AN AMERICAN CITY BY STEVE EARL


This is the story of Richmond, CA, a city of 107,000 just north of Berkeley and Oakland – for decades under the thumb of Chevron’s large petroleum refinery – and how a small band of activists got the city, at least partly, out from under that and on the road to significant reform.

The beginning of the story is modest enough. The refinery employed a lot of people, but its management was characteristic of the reckless “cowboy style” of the industry generally. One result was there could be accidents. And city politics provided little counterbalance to their dominance. Chevron poured money into city council races and created a climate of opinion that favored it: Chevron provided employment, and gave to charities, which cultivated the idea that any problems were the inevitable result of the industrial process.

The favorable climate began to change with false starts at first. The Black population became much larger in proportion, resulting in a new look to city council.

”By the turn of the century, Richmond did have a black mayor (and city manager) of its own, every department head in the city was black, and so was the city council majority. ‘But, unfortunately it turned out to be a bust’… 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…”[i]

It was still a company town at the end of the 1990s, and few thought it could change.

The author, Steve Early, a labor journalist who had worked for thirty years in Boston, relocated to the Bay area with his family in 2012. In August, they had lived there six months, in their “surprisingly affordable home” overlooking the bay and just over the hill from the refinery. One afternoon, Early says, his wife was in the yard tending to the garden when a,

“Concerned neighbor opened her front door and shouted “You shouldn’t be outside! Don’t you know there’s a ‘shelter in place?’ ‘What’s that?’ she asked. Over the hill there was an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius… A major fire had erupted. Nineteen first responders had narrowly escaped death and a towering plume of toxic smoke had spread over much of downwind Richmond.”[ii]

"The refinery employed a lot of people, but its management was characteristic of the reckless 'cowboy style”'of the industry generally. One result was there could be accidents. And city politics provided little counterbalance to their dominance."

For Early, the refinery fire put a focus on a series of events in the city’s history, and he began to meet other residents who had wanted to change the city’s approach to the refinery and. more generally, the overall opinion of Chevron and local politics. He found a series of key events that provided hope. One was an activist named Juan Reardon, an Argentinian refugee who had moved to the city in 1999, and soon began organizing a coalition of Greens. In 2003, there was a financial disaster when the City Manager suddenly resigned, leaving the city to discover a $35 million dollar debt. Five city council seats were open for the 2004 election, and Reardon’s group created the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). As Tom Butt, who was to be a liberal ally, later recalled to Early,

“An unlikely group of Greens, Latinos, progressive Democrats, African Americans, and free spirits formed a new Richmond political coalition united over ideals rather than power and personalities… committed to civil rights, the environment, education, open government, and quality of life issues, people who wanted to challenge old guard politicians when five city council seats were up for grabs in 2004.”[iii]

RPA elected its first member to city council that November. The winning candidate, Gayle McLaughlin, remains on city council to this day, and served eight years as Mayor (2006-2014). Meanwhile RPA would be a constant, usually dominant, force along with liberal allies like Butt, who had served on council since 1995, and eventually succeeded McLaughlin as Mayor.

Butt characterized the city, previously a prototypical factory town dominated by its major employer, as transformed after 2004. It is arguably one of the best-realized examples of the “progressive city.” But RPA and McLaughlin were arguably necessary, but not wholly responsible for the creation of a sustainable progressivism in the city. As Early lays out the history, the following factors contributed to Richmond’s emergence.

DEMOGRAPHY – particularly race – was inescapable, for a long time a challenge, and ultimately a creative force. Richmond, which had been a working class city for many decades, was transformed by White flight and other forces to a majority minority city by the 1990s. But it was not to be a mainly Blacks versus Whites issue. In a recent email communication, Early commented that “…at it's peak A-A [African American] population neared a simple majority but never quite made it, before starting to recede.” By 2017 his “rough, rounded off numbers were 20% White, 40% Latino (and increasing), 30% Black (and dropping), 10% Asian, Pacific Islander, Native-American, etc.”

Chevron dominated the economy. Early cites the refinery’s annual profit of $2 billion on sales of $20 billion (2013). It was a large employer of Richmond residents and, as mentioned above, it poured money into local charities and on city council and mayoral races. It also financed campaigns on issues it favored, and lent support to the conservative building trades and municipal public service unions.

ADVOCACY for more sustainable practices was made possible through new alignments. Starting with McLaughlin’s city council victory in 2004, she and RPA aligned with Tom Butt putting pressure on Chevron, raising local hopes that some progress might be possible. Examples included elimination of a “self inspection” practice that removed external control over refinery problems like leaky pipes, prone to gas flares. They also put pressure on Chevron to increase its tax levy.

ADMINISTRATIVE CHANGES were needed to fill the administrative vacuum left in the city. McLaughlin worked with Tom Butt to support the new city manager. Bill Lindsay was essential to counter the fog of incompetence and debt left by the departed incumbent in 2003, strengthening local governance as a whole.

MAYORAL LEADERSHIP was key. McLaughlin used her council seat as a bully pulpit to break what had been a tendency of silence toward Chevron’s employment and safety practices. When the current Mayor proved unsupportive, McLaughlin challenged her and won the 2006 race in an election won largely door to door over the Chevron backed incumbent. Jeff Ritterman, a local physician who had advocated for increased taxes on Chevron, became the second RPA candidate to win a Council seat in 2008, while three other RPA members had appointments on city commissions.

This enabled slow progress on job creation aimed to benefit unemployed youth, one of McLaughlin’s main objectives. But in their job creation agenda, the RPA members opposed the main business proposal for the city, a waterfront casino. The casino was touted to provide 1,000 jobs and was the subject of a citywide referendum on the ballot in 2010. That election, in which McLaughlin won re-election with an increased majority, was a high point for RPA – done in the face of $3.7 million in Chevron campaign spending. Jovanka Beckles won a council seat, marking the first person of color elected from RPA, and the public rejected the casino referendum. RPA now had the mayoralty and two council seats, and with two liberal allies had a 5-2 majority on the seven-person council.

POLICE REFORM. Perhaps Lindsay’s most important step in 2005 was the search and appointment of Chris Magnus as the new police chief. Early’s account of Magnus’ decade in that position is among the great strengths of Refinery Town. Just as the city’s course was a story of a mainly White progressive movement slowly forging a coalition with Black and Latino progressives, Magnus’s challenge was that of a White officer from Fargo North Dakota instilling a “community policing” culture in a department with a tradition of “cowboy” policing in an increasingly vain attempt to suppress crime and murder rates in largely Black neighborhoods. Magnus knew that most community policing reforms amounted to a few officers making a show of cooperative efforts, while the traditional approach prevailed in most areas. In his first year, Magnus inserted officers committed to the community approach at the head of district offices, and in the process he passed over others, including a set of seven Black police who protested and eventually sued the city on race discrimination grounds. Magnus prevailed, drawing on support from the community. The case took seven years and according to one observer it represented a “struggle between what Richmond was and what it’s becoming.”[iv] In rejecting the suit in 2012, Early reports “…the jurors concluded that the plaintiffs were past beneficiaries of a ‘buddy system that facilitated their rise to the highest positions in the department through intimidation, race baiting tactics, and backroom dealing.’”[v]

By 2014, Magnus’ impact on the department was marked. By 2015, only 13 police officers remained, out of a total of 140 on the force when Magnus arrived in 2005. Crime and murder rates leveled off. Murders fell from 42 to 21, from 2006 to 2015, though Early does not claim a direct correlation between Magnus’ leadership and these numbers. It does seem true that the city did not experience the kinds of crises that affected other cities in the wake of police shootings of Black teenagers (such as the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting of 2014).

MCLAUGHLIN’S SECOND TERM. With the 2010 election victory, momentum shifted toward the Progressives, but resistance was very strong, and McLaughlin’s mayoralty continued to be a story of struggle: win on some issues, lose on others. Her second term was a similar mix of innovative, if failed, initiatives on the one hand, and victories on the other. Ritterman took the lead with a penny per ounce tax on sugary drinks, intended to reduce obesity rates. He projected a $3 million annual revenue stream to be targeted toward youth sports programs and health education. There was local support, but also mobilization to defeat it on the part of the nationally based American Beverage Association and Coca Cola, soon dubbed “Big Soda,” spending $2.7 million. Meanwhile Chevron committed $1.2 million to the 2012 election. Ritterman, part of the RPA coalition on council since 2008, declined to stand for re-election, instead pouring his effort into the soda tax campaign, which lost in 2012.

FORECLOSURES AND EMINENT DOMAIN. At least as large was the home mortgage foreclosure crisis following the 2008 financial meltdown nationally. In Richmond there were 900 foreclosures in 2012, and 50 percent of the city’s home mortgages were “under water” by the end of 2013. The city went to great lengths – attracting national attention – exploring a solution that would alleviate homeowner indebtedness though public purchase of these mortgages with eminent domain power as part of the motivation.

But nothing worked. There was resistance from the banks, fear that city action would depress markets further, and later in 2014 the federal government passed legislation prohibiting a federal role in financing homes taken by eminent domain. Other avenues remained, but Richmond’s efforts were in abeyance.

“TEAM RICHMOND” WITH TOM BUTT IN 2014. McLaughlin would be termed out in 2014. She was determined to run to retain her council seat, and RPA urged Tom Butt to run for mayor against the Chevron supported Nat Bates. Butt campaigned as an ally of RPA council candidates McLaughlin, Beckles and Eduardo Martinez, who called their slate, “Team Richmond.” Despite massive spending by Chevron, the progressive slate won, and now it would have the challenge of retaining the city’s confidence, and maintaining its coalition with a liberal leader, a different proposition than had obtained under McLaughlin.

Butt and Team Richmond were tested by housing issues, which would become critical due to pressures on rents as families sought homes and rentals in the city. Early quotes a housing expert to suggest Richmond’s now prime location.

“Bay area urban pioneers might eventually need a new city to call home. [What better place than Richmond,] a city with a working class multi-racial population and a direct BART line to San Francisco. A city with a Green Party mayor, a progressive grassroots political organization, and an already burgeoning arts scene.”[vi]

The problem would be gentrification. It was perhaps brought into focus by a University of California plan to create a large campus in the city – later shelved – but rising rents were already causing families to leave the city. RPA joined others seeking rent control which, while restricted by state law, could still be applied to a significant number of pre-1995 units. Butt was adamant that rent control was a bad idea – he favored increases in numbers of units, hoping the market would limit rent increases. Supporters – including McLaughlin and RPA – disagreed. In a 2015 meeting, Team Richmond seemed to split. On the losing side, Butt finally came to a truce with the RPA faction, the two sides agreed to work together on the issues they agreed on, but not on rent control.

Early ends the story on the eve of the 2016 election, presenting a picture of a probable continuation of a sometimes-fraught coalition, but a city far advanced over its situation in 2004 with the first RPA electoral victory in city council. As he sums it up:

“Richmond city hall was not initially viewed as something you could also fight for –and win. Fifteen years of political organizing by RPA activists and other Richmond reformers before them has altered that calculus.” [vii]

RICHMOND GOING FORWARD: RPA SWEEP IN 2016. Where did Richmond stand in 2017? Early’s text went to press well before the 2016 election, and while he ended on an optimistic note, the RPA seemed in a tenuous relationship to its liberal allies, and with hindsight after the 2016 election – despite the solid Democratic Party success in California - the schism around rent control suggested potential for further splits.

In fact, and too late for Early to mention prior to press time, RPA swept the 2016 election. It won two additional seats on city council, and Measure L, the rent control bill, passed by a massive two to one margin. This would eliminate any sense of deadlock with Butt. Rent control would face its own issues outside of city hall – court cases and state legislative constraints seem likely – and Butt will likely cooperate with his new majority where he thought he could. But it may be instructive to reflect on how “Team Richmond” knit together – or not – in spite of the new mandate and enduring splits, hoping to draw lessons for other cities. One is reminded, in Refinery Town, of at least the following:

PROGRESSIVES ARE SUSTAINABLE IN COALITIONS. RPA never had a majority in Richmond’s city council. McLaughlin was a superb complement to the liberal Tom Butt, taking initiative on sometimes losing issues – usually with Butt’s support and often carrying other votes. Liberals and the progressive RPA presented themselves together as “Team Richmond” in elections, as a combined slate.

"There have been occasions when progressives have won outright city council majorities, but such occasions have tended to be short lived."

That has usually been the way progressives have moved ahead. In Burlington, Vermont neither Bernie Sanders nor his long-term successor Peter Clavelle ever had an outright majority in city council, but each used administrative initiatives skillfully to enact a string of successful measures.

There have been occasions when progressives have won outright city council majorities, but such occasions have tended to be short lived. In Berkeley the progressive faction under mayor Gus Newport, emboldened by an 8-1 majority after the 1984 election, enacted a scattered site low-income housing policy, but found unexpectedly intense neighborhood opposition in some wards, and soon lost their majority.

ROLE OF TIME. Early presents the 2015 disagreement between Butt and the RPA council members as a near schism, but notes their “agreement to disagree” on rent control while working on other items prior to the 2016 election as key to their success. It is hard to make sense of such a compromise except in the context of the long time McLaughlin and Butt had on the city council together – since her election in 2004.

RACE IS CENTRAL. Richmond stands out as a case of a small city where a White minority enters politics and finds a way to survive and prosper with a majority minority population. One can guess – Early does not – at several factors making that possible. One would be the insertion of Bill Lindsay in the city manager position, resulting in the institution of race-blind rules and management routines, and most crucially the appointment of Chris Magnus and the institution of community policing.

Refinery Town sets a standard in progressive city literature. If crossing race lines in politics and administration makes Richmond stand out, Early’s chapter on policing makes Refinery Town stand out in the literature of progressive urban politics. The emergence of a progressive city – much noted in press accounts since De Blasio’s victory along with other mayors in 2013 – clearly demands changes both in politics and administration, but the latter is rarely mentioned.

GENTRIFICATION IS A HAUNTING SPECTER. Seldom noted, but increasingly the case, is the difficult, if not vicious circularity, affecting progressive city politics. The base for progressive politics is largely the struggling inner city neighborhoods, which are outside of downtowns but not reaching the affluence of outlying, near suburban enclaves. The inner city neighborhoods may have a tendency toward out-migration and property value decline, in part a matter of race-based tension on top of job loss, exacerbated by policy biases toward downtown real estate and other issues that increase these tensions and losses. To the extent that progressives reverse these trends, these inner city neighborhoods may revive, attract in-migration and the resulting gentrification. Causation is not that clear, but Early noted something like this in Richmond, and it seems apparent in other “progressive” cases like Berkeley and Burlington, perhaps even larger cities like Chicago and Boston.

Whether there is a progressive answer to such a problematic outcome is a worthwhile question. Pouring tax revenues into programs such as Richmond tried may be a possibility. As with other puzzles confronted by the Richmond city hall under “Team Richmond,” solutions took time, but seemed to emerge more often than not.

[i] Early, S. (2017). Refinery town: big oil, big money, and the remaking of an American city. Boston: Beacon Press, pg 28.

[ii] Early, S. (2017). Refinery town: big oil, big money, and the remaking of an American city. Boston: Beacon Press, pg 11.

[iii] Early, S. (2017). Refinery town: big oil, big money, and the remaking of an American city. Boston: Beacon Press, pg 39.

[iv] Early, S. (2017). Refinery town: big oil, big money, and the remaking of an American city. Boston: Beacon Press, pg 74.

[v] Early, S. (2017). Refinery town: big oil, big money, and the remaking of an American city. Boston: Beacon Press, pg 74.

[vi] Early, S. (2017). Refinery town: big oil, big money, and the remaking of an American city. Boston: Beacon Press, pg 158.

[vii] Early, S. (2017). Refinery town: big oil, big money, and the remaking of an American city. Boston: Beacon Press, pg 158.

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