Power of Progressives Key in Choice to Fill Richmond City Council Seat

Council members from left to right: Eduardo Martinez, Gayle McLaughlin (retired), Jael Myrick, Mayor Tom Butt, Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, Melvin Willis, Ben Choi. (City of Richmond)

Richmond city councilmembers could vote Tuesday night to fill a seat left open by one of the city's most well-known names.

The people seeking the post range in age and experience, but the most important element could be what's become a powerful progressive advocacy group.

A total of 13 candidates have applied to replace Gayle McLaughlin, who resigned in July to run for lieutenant governor of California. McLaughlin, a former mayor, helped create the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) -- a group that has endorsed progressive candidates who now make up a majority of the council.

The group had a major influence during the 2014 election when Chevron -- the major economic driver for Richmond -- spent more than $3 million on candidates who ended up losing, according to the East Bay Times.

Robert Smith, political science professor at San Francisco State University, said he's impressed that a group of ordinary citizens has been able to organize the way RPA has without much wealth or many resources.

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“This is virtually unheard of in American urban politics,” he said.

A majority council vote is needed to appoint McLaughlin’s replacement. Richmond Mayor Tom Butt wrote in the Chevron-backed online publication The Richmond Standard that the decision of who replaces McLaughlin likely lies in the hands of the progressive alliance.

"The RPA controls the City Council and the appointment process," he wrote.

Critics of the group say it often takes stances that are anti-economic development, said Smith. For example, the RPA supports raising the minimum wage and strengthening rent control -- two hotly debated issues in the expensive Bay Area.

“They’ve advanced a broadly progressive left agenda pretty much across the board that some people think from time to time is too rigid or too ideological," he said.

The RPA has endorsed three of the 13 candidates and has named Marilyn Langlois as its preferred choice. Langlois lost her run for City Council in 2012 and was unsuccessful the last time the council had to appoint one of its members in 2015.

At Tuesday night's meeting, the council is set to interview the candidates and the public will have a chance to comment. If the council does not fill the seat by its Sept. 16 deadline it must hold a special election, which would happen next year.

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To learn more about the 13 candidates see their official statements by clicking here.

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