Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin isn’t the untested commodity
she was four years ago, when she drew national headlines
by becoming the nation’s only big-city Green Party mayor.
She’s more careful with her words and just a shade more
conservative in her aims, if not her hopes. Her platform
this year now includes more stock-in-trade pledges made by
municipal politicians, including a vow to beef up the police
force to about 200 sworn officers. She also hopes to expand
some of her flagship green-jobs training and youth employment
programs, even if it requires funds siphoned from her own
office’s budget, as it did earlier this year.
The journey from rabble-rousing candidate to sometimes-embattled
municipal leader has been a learning experience, and sometimes
a bruising one, she said acknowledged during a wide-ranging
interview at the downtown offices of the Richmond Progressive
Alliance, a local political group she co-founded.
“The mistake that I would say I made is that I overestimated
the willingness of the full council to engage productively,
in a productive and principled debate of divergent ideas,”
said McLaughlin. “I really didn’t expect so much blocking
of good ideas, blocking of good policy.”
As a challenger in 2006, McLaughlin proved a political rarity
— a candidate who campaigned on raising taxes, at least for
large corporations. She also pledged to re-hire laid off
city workers and launch jobs programs for local youths.
Amazingly to some City Hall watchers, it clicked. Thanks
to a three-way race, McLaughlin squeaked into office with
just over one-third of the vote, giving her the victory over
two-term incumbent Irma Anderson. The Richmond Globe newspaper
ran a headline declaring that Anderson’s “Legacy yields to
McLaughlin’s progressive ideals.”
As America’s first Green Party mayor of a city of more than
100,000 residents, McLaughlin was instantly a national figure.
Weeks later, she would share the stage with Green Party goliath
Ralph Nader at an event bristling with progressive luminaries
in San Francisco.
McLaughlin speaking with local youth outreach worker Jesse
Reed during a June 5 event at Nevin Park.
McLaughlin’s 2006 victory was in part the product of demographic
change. Like other Bay Area cities, Richmond’s African American
population has declined while the number of Latino residents
At the beginning of the decade, the City Council included
six African Americans, but councilman Nate Bates is the lone
black councilman today. To some political observers, McLaughlin’s
victory signaled not just a shift to the left and a backlash
against Chevron Corp., the city’s largest taxpayer, but a
decline in African American dominance over political affairs
To others, it was merely an aberration, made possible by
a three-way race in which another African American candidate
siphoned votes from Anderson’s base.
Four years after her razor-thin victory over Anderson, McLaughlin
is humbled but no less determined to keep her seat. No challenger
has officially declared intentions to replace McLaughlin
in this November’s election, but many residents and officials
at City Hall expect longtime Councilman Nat Bates to run.
Bates remains noncommittal about his mayoral aspirations.
“I haven’t ruled anything out,” Bates said.
McLaughlin one-on-one is the same blend of quixotic activist
and politician that council observers have seen in public
for years. During a nearly 40-minute interview, she acknowledged
some missteps and legislative gridlock, but was adamant that
a second-term was vital ensure the city continues to overcome
the high-unemployment, pollution and crime that has marred
its post WWII history.
As she recalled her four years in office, she ticked off
her undelivered ideas — some thwarted by council colleagues
and some shelved in the face of waning support — like installing
energy-saving windows at the civic center and the establishment
of an environmental task force to help plot green development
But, she said, the disappointments had silver linings.
“Just shifting the dialogue of the city to include discussions
of social justice, environmental issues,” McLaughlin said.
“This wasn’t part of the discussion here before.”
McLaughlin has a mixed record on what voters across ethnic
lines see as the city’s foremost issue: crime. One of her
stated goals during her run for mayor four years ago was
to reduce the violence that has roiled the city for years.
At the time, the city had suffered several years of 40-plus
homicides annually and the highest or second-highest crime
rate in the Bay Area.
“We have had violence reduction over recent years. That’s
something that the citizens of Richmond want to see more
of,” she said.
Crime was down slightly overall in 2009, but the city saw
a spike in homicides. After much-heralded progress in 2008,
the first in years when the city saw fewer than 30 killings,
47 people were slain in 2009.
An FBI report released in May ranked Richmond the second
most dangerous city in America, behind only Baltimore.
McLaughlin has clashed on occasion with law enforcement
leadership. In 2008, Police Chief Chris Magnus joined a chorus
of critics when McLaughlin skipped a news conference hailing
a series of raids aimed at gang strongholds and drug sources
in the city.
At the time, Magnus told local newspapers he was “disappointed”
in the “lack of support.”
McLaughlin has maintained that she is concerned about the
potential effects on children and other innocents who could
be exposed to raids, which often target homes where children
may be present.
She has also cast several minority opposition votes against
police-supported measures, including equipment purchases
and driver’s license checkpoints, which have since been discontinued
While public tensions with the Police Department have cooled
— McLaughlin has not criticized Magnus for an ongoing discrimination
lawsuit filed against him by African American members of
his command staff — she continues to be less than solidly-aligned
with her police chief.
During her State of the City address in January, she cast
a harsh light on local crime. “When unemployment rates double
as they did in 2009, it is not surprising that violent crime
and homicide also skyrocketed,” she said. The comments were
a stark contrast to Magnus’ own public comments weeks before,
when he focused on drops in overall crime.
Unlike potential rival Bates, McLaughlin opposes the casino
project proposed for Point Molate, a former Naval fuel depot
on the city’s shoreline. A Napa-based developer and its Native
American tribal partners have been given exclusive rights
by the city to draw up plans for a project, rights given
over McLaughlin’s minority opposition.
She said project developer Upstream LLC’s promises of economic
growth and local jobs are a mirage.
“Clearly urban casinos are associated with a great deal
of social ills,” including increases in crime, alcohol and
drug abuse and poverty, she said.
“They just take money from the have-nots and put it in the
hands of the haves. Local residents will be the ones who
lose their money,” she said
McLaughlin contends that the project should be opened to
other developers to propose plans for a resort-type facility,
sans the casino, although whether any others would take advantage
of the opportunity is unclear.
It’s when she talks about energy-saving technology that
McLaughlin sounds most impassioned.
“It’s no longer just the emerging green economy, it is now
the green economy transforming the entire economy,” McLaughlin
said. “We believe that we need more stimulus funding to advance
it further and provide those green jobs that our residents
are waiting to receive and are fully trained for.”
She pointed to Solar Richmond — a local nonprofit she co-founded
that works with the city to provide training in green jobs
— as one of her greatest achievements in office.
“Solar Richmond has really put us in the forefront and become
a model training program,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin is adamant that she holds the same values she
did four years ago, and that she has not engaged in what
was once the norm for local politicians: Being a beneficiary
of the city’s heavy industries, led by Chevron Corp., which
operates its largest West Coast refinery in Richmond.
“I take not a penny of corporate funding,” she said, adding
later that, “Particularly Richmond has been under the thumb
of corporations for decades.”
McLaughlin does accept donations from unions, environmental
groups, Planned Parenthood and individual donors. When asked
to explain why she was willing to accept these donations,
but not those from corporations, she said it comes down to
the organizations’ goals.
“We consider unions as … actually the opposite of corporations.
Unions are people coming together to fight for their rights,
ordinary people coming together to fight for their rights,”
she said. “When it comes to organizations that stand for
the public good … that’s a different thing than a corporation
whose purpose is to gain profit.”
McLaughlin has always had an activist streak. She grew up
in Chicago, the third of five daughters to working-class
parents. She recalls that the clashes between demonstrators
and police outside the Democratic National Convention in
Chicago left an imprint on her at a young age.
As a young woman, she would go on to work as a local organizer
for Chicago-based Operation PUSH, and ultimately join the
During public remarks, whether in council chambers or a
small community center in North Richmond, McLaughlin is fond
of paraphrasing civil rights icon Jesse Jackson; she worked
during his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns as an organizer
for his Rainbow Coalition, a multiethnic political organization.
During the 1980s, she also volunteered for the Chicago Committee
in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a
grassroots group opposing U.S. military intervention in the
“I also did volunteer work with other Central American solidarity
groups during that period, focusing on Nicaragua and Guatemala,”
She later enrolled in graduate studies taught pre-school,
first grade and special needs children for several years.
Unlike some of her local political adversaries, McLaughlin
is relatively new to Richmond, having moved to the city in
the late 1990s, around the time she joined the Green Party.
She is married to Paul Kilkenny, a local activist for social
and environmental justice.
In 2004, on her first attempt, McLaughlin was elected to
the City Council, where she quickly burnished her environmental
credentials, leading a successful opposition to a proposed
crematorium project in North Richmond. During her mayoral
run in 2006, she was narrowly-elected on her first try.
Today, McLaughlin speaks of herself more as a piece of a
larger movement than its leader.
“Me as an individual, as a candidate, as mayor, matters
less than me as a member of a collective movement that has
been working hard for several years now to build a better
Richmond,” she said.
An unassuming woman with dark-rimmed glasses and a careful
gait, McLaughlin looks more like a reassuring schoolteacher
or a human resources manager than a vanguard of a national
party. Her public speech, while clearly influenced by the
lofty oration of Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Barack
Obama and others, can be eloquent and emphatic, but isn’t
likely to whip a crowd into a frenzy.
But the 58-year-old leader has given every indication that
she is prepared to battle to keep her spot atop local government.
“We need to continue to work hard to show that the key efforts
and priorities of the city need to be focused on reversing
decades of injustices,” McLaughlin said. “Decades of lack
of opportunity, decades of pollution that has created health
impacts on our community, and decades of economic inequity
– and we have brought forward policy efforts” to address
In April, her campaign re-election announcement rally drew
prominent — and divisive — national figures to the city.
Anthony “Van” Jones, a former member of Obama Administration’s
environmental team whose controversial public statements
drew the attention of conservative pundits and ultimately
led to his resignation, called the Richmond mayoral race
the most important in the country for the “green movement.”
Los Angeles-based immigration advocate Nativo Lopez hailed
McLaughlin as the rare contemporary politician who is “uniting
people, supporting immigrants, and restoring good jobs to
But to her critics — and potential opponents in the November
election — McLaughlin is an ineffective politician whose
extreme rhetoric and national affiliations with the Green
Party act as distractions that hold back a city poised to
McLaughlin has never been shy about publicly weighing in
on national matters. She has criticized war policy in the
Middle East, derided Arizona’s immigration policy as a “hate
law” and, last week, issued a statement condemning the military
action that killed several people on a humanitarian flotilla
in which she called Gaza a “virtual prison.”
McLaughlin addresses supporters during her campaign kickoff
event in April.
Her adversaries assert that she has not built beyond the
narrow base that vaulted her into office, is personally insincere
and that financial shenanigans have occurred in her own office
during her watch.
In 2008, one of her aids was charged with stealing more
than $60,000 from the city through a scheme involving fraudulent
invoices for services never rendered. The aide later admitted
the wrongdoing. At the time, McLaughlin called the scheme
an inexcusable “abuse” of the community’s trust, as well
as her own. The news shook McLaughlin’s credibility in the
eyes of many, given her campaign commitments to probity and
Critics say her hostility toward corporations has stifled
progress for the city.
Bates has made no secret of his distaste for McLaughlin’s
“She hates Chevron,” Bates said. “And that hatred causes
her to refuse to negotiate with this important entity in
the community or even to accept a check from them on behalf
of the community.”
McLaughlin has spotty support among area merchants.
“We need jobs and we need to better educate our children,
and I am convinced that McLaughlin is doing a terrible job
of getting those things done,” said Joe Fisher, a local businessman
and neighborhood council president. “She says and does things
for political reasons, not necessarily for what’s best for
Fisher also noted the rise in homicides last year, and criticized
McLaughlin for what he characterized as minimizing that grim
“It is a fact that the homicides, the killings, are way
up (in 2009),” Fisher said. “But she is not genuine about
that, instead she brags about crime being down.”
But McLaughlin’s supporters, a group that includes council
colleagues Tom Butt and Jeff Ritterman, are adamant that
it is crucial for her to earn another term. Her record over
the last 4 years may be mixed, but within a context of a
city essentially founded a century ago on oil refining and
heavy industries, the rate of positive change McLaughlin
has helped usher in has been swift, they say.
“Although she has only one vote like other council members,
she has the bully pulpit and can set a tone for the city,”
Butt said. “Compared to most cities, Richmond is pretty well
off in these tough economic times. We have had to make no
Add to that the stark difference between her and her most
likely challenger, Bates, and City Hall observers think her
base of supporters will be sufficiently energized.
McLaughlin during her State of the City speech in January.
“From the viewpoint of the progressive community, Nat Bates
as mayor would be disaster for Richmond,” said Tony Sustak,
a member of the Richmond Greens Steering Committee. “If you
like McMansions on the shoreline, casinos, contempt for the
environment, attacks on the undocumented community … Bates
is your guy.”
Anthony Adams, an African American neighborhood leader in
the city’s Iron Triangle, said McLaughlin has the support
of many, if not most, of the city’s African American voters.
“Folks here know that the color of your skin alone doesn’t
mean you’re going to be good for the community or that you
deserve the vote,” he said.
Unlike her upset win in 2006, McLaughlin knows that she
is the marked incumbent this time around. Whether she has
built on the narrow base that vaulted her into office with
just 37 percent of the vote can only be determined by the
ballot box in November.
But she still rings the clarion tones of an outsider straining
to unsettle the establishment. She talks about her cadre
of a few hundred loyal volunteers who will begin walking
door-to-door with her this month.
When she gets impassioned, which happens often, especially
when she speaks about Upstream LLC or Chevron — her multinational,
seemingly inexhaustible foe — McLaughlin’s high, almost girlish
voice lowers into a slow, drawn-out cadence. It’s as though
she strains to make her listener feel — rather than merely
hear — each aching syllable.
She still portrays herself as the underdog. Whether she
is comes down to who you’re asking.
“I expect to be greatly outspent,” she said. “But we’ll
oppose the power of money with the power of ideas.”