Accusations and Money Fly as Chevron Spends On Richmond City Council Race
An anti-McLaughlin billboard, funded by Chevron, looms over San Pablo Avenue, criticizing her travel history. (Brett Murphy/Richmond Confidential)
A Chevron-funded campaign committee has blitzed the streets of Richmond and the airwaves and Internet in an effort to stop Mayor Gayle McLaughlin’s bid for a City Council seat in November.
Billboards line boulevards, mailers stuff mailboxes, television commercials play hourly and a web video shows McLaughlin, who is termed out after eight years in office, skipping onto an airplane: “Gayle McLaughlin ran away when we needed her the most,” a narrator says. “Why would we elect her to City Council?”
But an analysis of city documents, invoices, travel receipts and bank statements dating to 2010 shows that McLaughlin has traveled less, missed fewer meetings, and spent less money on the trips than City Councilman Nat Bates, a longtime supporter of the oil giant’s mammoth refinery here and the Chevron-backed committee’s favored candidate for mayor.
According to City Council meeting minutes obtained from the City Clerk’s office, McLaughlin has only missed one of 152 meetings since 2010.
During the same time period, Bates missed 11, the worst attendance record of all current council members.
In an interview last week, Bates defended his trips, saying, “You can’t accomplish things staying at home, and not engaging with global community. I don’t apologize for that.”
Several large billboards around town mock McLaughlin as an absentee mayor who ignores Richmond’s problems while traveling the world. They are paid for by the same committee, Moving Forward, that has also blanketed the city with other billboards and ads promoting Bates to be the city’s next mayor.
According to the city’s expense reports, McLaughlin spent $3,890 in taxpayer money on 13 total days of official city travel since 2010. Her two trips were a “Building Livable Communities” conference in Yosemite and, last year, a delegation to Richmond’s sister city in Regla, Cuba with Councilman Tom Butt and two aides.
Bates has been on five city-funded trips since 2010: Two delegations he’s led to Richmond sister cities in China and Japan, two conferences in Southern California, and a “National League of Cities” conference in Washington, D.C.
The councilman spent $13,249 in city funds for 43 days of travel, about triple McLaughlin’s travel time and expenses.* Richmond council members receive a $5,000 annual travel allowance. Last December, Bates also went to the White House on invitation (not with city funds), but he said he could not recall other personal trips.
McLaughlin took two other trips abroad, to Spain and Ecuador, for 12 days total. Neither was paid for with city funds. The Ecuador trip, which was paid for by the Ecuadorian government, included visits to sites of alleged environmental devastation at the hands of Big Oil.
“[The accusations] are so ridiculous, with these billboards, that it’s not even hurtful at this point,” McLaughlin said.
Councilman Tom Butt, who is running against Bates for mayor, said the Chevron-funded campaign to paint McLaughlin as a frequent traveler who has eschewed her responsibilities is hypocritical.
“It’s total bull,” Butt said. “Bottom line is that Bates has missed more meetings and spent more [city] money traveling.”
According to campaign expense reports, as of last month, Chevron’s campaign committee, Moving Forward, has spent more than $130,000 specifically targeting McLaughlin, more than triple McLaughlin’s own campaign spending.
Moving Forward, which defines itself as a coalition of businesses and organizations, has spent more than $380,000 touting Bates, and has received about $3 million in funding, almost all from Chevron.
Moving Forward spokesman Alex Doniach defended the committee's approach.
“We put out 100 percent accurate information about the candidates running,” Doniach said, “in order to provide voters with the facts.”
Bates argued the benefits of his travel, saying developing business deals and possible Chinese investments in Richmond justify his publicly financed trips to Asia.
“In addition to the cultural exchange, it’s also generated financial opportunities,” he said. According to Richmond port director Jim Matzorkis, the end of this quarter could see millions of Chinese dollars move into development projects in the city, though contracts and leases are still being finalized.
McLaughlin sees Moving Forward’s aggressive campaign as an effort to defeat Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) candidates and win support for the oil company on the council. The city’s lawsuit against Chevron for a 2012 refinery fire could cost the company hundreds of millions in damages, and a new council majority sympathetic to Chevron could squelch the suit or pave the way for a settlement more favorable to the oil giant.
Bates downplayed his attendance record at the City Council meetings. His 11 absences were more than twice as many as the next most absent member. Butt has missed five meetings since 2010, according to meeting minutes.
“I don’t research how many I do or don’t attend,” Bates said. “And any meetings I haven’t attended were because I was either ill or representing the city in some capacity.”
Moving Forward spokesperson Doniach said she’s “not directly familiar” with the data showing that Bates traveled more than McLaughlin, missed more meetings and spent more city money on travel.
*The dollar amount of the NLC conference trip (part of the total calculation) was not derived by analyzing finances from expense reports, as were the other calculations, because that data was not made available. This figure was instead derived by cross-referencing receipt dates with bank statements.