After just two years on the City Council, Gayle McLaughlin nabbed the Richmond mayor's seat in 2006 with high hopes of pushing the city into the green frontier.
Her performance and leadership style have drawn both praise and criticism. McLaughlin, 58, faces opposition in her bid for a second term in November: Councilman Nat Bates, 79, a vocal critic at the dais, wants to unseat her, and businessman John Ziesenhenne, 53, a councilman from 1981-1993, has emerged from political dormancy to try to do the same.
Bates and Ziesenhenne say McLaughlin, a Green Party member and a critic of Chevron, has let her ideals eclipse the city's need for industry and jobs. McLaughlin, they say, is too close-minded to the kind of business Richmond needs when unemployment hovers at 18 percent.
"The huge difference is the philosophical attitude," Bates said. "Her thing is green jobs. In this economy, I don't care if they're green, blue, purple or whatever. We need jobs. We've got to keep some kind of revenue to keep our economic boat afloat."
When it comes to passing the budget or a new law, the mayor's vote carries the same weight as any other council member. No more, no less. But as the city's political figurehead, the top post draws special attention, and this year is no different.
In 2006, McLaughlin won the mayor's seat in a three-way race against incumbent Irma Anderson and former Councilman Gary Bell. Some attribute McLaughlin's victory to her platform and grass-roots campaigning. But political insiders say Anderson and Bell, who draw from the same support base, split votes in the black community and business community, allowing McLaughlin to win by 242 votes.
Some wonder if something similar could happen in November. Behind the scenes, different members of McLaughlin's opposition separately lobbied Bates and Ziesenhenne -- whoever they felt had less political muscle and voter appeal -- to withdraw to skirt another three-way race. Ultimately both decided to run, both on a pro-business and pro-jobs platform.
"Without increasing our businesses in Richmond, our future looks bleak," said Ziesenhenne as he sat in his office surrounded by John F. Kennedy and sports memorabilia. "The message coming from the mayor's office the last four years has not been one of support for jobs, for business."
Bates and Ziesenhenne pledge to change that if elected. Ziesenhenne said more respect should be shown to businesses and residents, even if the mayor disagrees with their points of view. Neither expects a repeat of 2006, because they say their support bases are not identical.
McLaughlin refutes her opponents' characterization of her.
"I do consider myself a pro-business mayor," she said. "I support a different business model. There are different shades of green."
McLaughlin said she wants to see more small businesses and a more diverse economy that reduces the city's financial reliance on the Chevron refinery. The green technology sector is growing while others are not, and Richmond should be a part of the growth, she said. Existing businesses can join the trend by adopting green practices, such as using recycled materials or green building techniques, she said. She also wants to explore the notion of worker-owned cooperatives.
Richmond, she said, is on a good path. Violent crime is down. The number of sworn police officers increased from 158 in 2006 to 193 today. Few layoffs were required to balance the budget.
McLaughlin cofounded Solar Richmond, which trains locals on solar panel installation. She championed a green building ordinance, a ban on plastic foam food containers and waiving solar permit fees. She was a staunch opponent of Chevron's plan to upgrade its equipment, a project she and others said could increase pollution, and heralded Chevron's $114 million settlement over a tax dispute as a victory.
Differences exist among the candidates. McLaughlin shuns campaign funds from corporations, a sentiment neither Bates nor Ziesenhenne share.
The candidates also differ on a key hot-button issue: the proposed $1.2 billion Las Vegas-style casino-hotel resort at Point Molate. Bates is an avid supporter. McLaughlin opposes any development that includes a casino. Ziesenhenne has declined to state his position until after residents vote on Measure U, the November advisory measure on whether a casino should be part of Point Molate's future. That stance has raised eyebrows among locals, and at a Sept. 16 neighborhood candidates forum, drew hisses from some in the audience.
McLaughlin said she isn't surprised Bates is running for mayor. She said she knew her opponents would put someone up against her.
Bates has nothing to lose. He was re-elected to the council two years ago and will remain a councilman through 2012, even if he doesn't become mayor.
"They're looking in the rearview mirror, and I'm looking forward going into the 21st century," McLaughlin said.
Katherine Tam covers Richmond. Follow her at Twitter.com/katherinetam.