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A Progressive Vision for Richmond: Mayor-Elect Eduardo Martinez Talks About What Lies Ahead

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An older man with a blue shirt and a sign that says "striking against Chevron"
Then-Council member (and current Mayor-Elect) Eduardo Martinez walks the picket line along with striking Chevron employees and their supporters during a strike for worker safety in front of Gate 14 at the Richmond refinery on April 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The recent midterm elections signaled big changes for local government in Richmond. Mayor-Elect Eduardo Martinez is the first Latino to hold the office, after a close-fought campaign against runner-up Shawn Dunning. A member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and a City Council member of nearly eight years, Martinez will replace outgoing mayor Tom Butt in January when Butt’s second term expires, ending nearly three decades on the City Council, the last eight of those years as mayor.

The election of Martinez, a second-generation Mexican American, and the rise to prominence of the Richmond Progressive Alliance in city government, heralds what many consider to be the start of a new chapter, if not a new era, in Richmond politics. Martinez recently talked to KQED's Annelise Finney about what his plans are and where his priorities lie come Jan. 10 when he takes office.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

ANNELISE FINNEY: So just to get started, I know that you are part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and the alliance in this election has really cemented its majority within the City Council and now the mayorship as well. I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about what this moment tells us about Richmond politics.

EDUARDO MARTINEZ: I believe what it says is that the young voters are beginning to make their presence felt. The people who are against the RPA are generally older voters who can be swayed by narratives of fear. You know, not enough police, high crime, dangerous place to live ... Whereas the young people are looking at Richmond as a place to change, to create a new society, I believe. That's why we have a lot of young people in organizations like Rich City Rides, Urban Tilth, ACCE, Communities for a Better Environment.

One thing that I've heard you speak a lot about is visioning for a Richmond without the Chevron refinery. Can you describe how you plan to make that a reality?

I think the community is already doing that. We have an umbrella organization called [Richmond Our Power Coalition], and they're a conglomerate of a lot of the organizations that I've already mentioned. And they're in the process of putting together an outline and a game plan for making a just transition from fossil fuels to renewables. And I think it's essential because as we all know, fossil fuels won't last forever. And unless we start planning now, we'll end up scuttling to find solutions as opposed to having a well-thought-out map for moving from one to the other.

And when you think about what that map looks like for you as the new mayor of Richmond, what do you see as your first steps to making that happen?

Well, as any good leader, follow the lead of your constituents. I think I want to initiate conversations with Chevron. And if Chevron the corporation doesn't want to have that conversation, I'd like to have a conversation with Chevron, the workers. We supported them during their strike and I plan to continue supporting them in whatever capacity I can, because I see the workers as community, and the community needs to stick together.

I know that during the strike there were a number of workers who talked about wanting to push for the refinery to pay fair wages and to provide safe working conditions. But a lot of people still expressed seeing the refinery as an important source of jobs in Richmond. How do you square that with the desire to maybe deal differently with an industry that has brought so much environmental and health harm to the community?

Well, when Chevron is decommissioned, we're not just going to leave a big mess there. It needs to be taken apart and cleaned up. And the best people to do that are the people who work there now, who are the people who know the plant, know how it's put together, who will know how to take it apart. So I see continued work for them doing that as they train for other types of renewable jobs.

So outside of the refinery, what are some of your top priorities as you approach this new mayorship?

Well, we have the issue of housing and we need to have more housing, but we need affordable housing. Most of the housing in the developments that we've catered to are high-end, especially considering the wages and the economic level that our residents are living at. So I would like to have more affordable housing. And I would like to have it infilled, so that we have higher density.

And the higher density will also promote small business within the city. If you go down Macdonald Avenue, which used to be the main street — and you still have a Main Street Initiative — it's practically dead. You don't see that many people walking the streets. So if we build housing so that there's high density, you'll see more people on the streets and more people means more customers. More customers means more stores throughout. There's other streets that [also] need to be revitalized, such as Cutting Blvd., 23rd, San Pablo ... But I also have a vision of creating what I called "community commercial nodes" so that every community will have an area where they can walk to and do their shopping or stop and have a cup of coffee and relate to their neighbors.

There's a store in North Richmond that is a mom-and-pop. It used to be a problem, but the store only took out alcohol and tobacco. And now people just go there for groceries, and [the owner] told me that by having the store there, he's gotten to know everyone who lives there. So it's more like a community than not. I would like to have places like that all over Richmond.

What do you see as potential challenges to building more affordable housing in Richmond, and how will you tackle them?

It's always finances. You know, building quality housing on the cheap is almost impossible. But I believe that the city can work with developers to work out some way to fix it, to make it happen. We're in conversation with developers, you know, and hopefully we can come to some kind of working solution.

The way I've seen that play out in other places usually involves providing tax breaks to the developer or other types of incentives, especially since affordable housing generally is less profitable for the developer.

Right. But we've also considered doing land trusts, you know, like if the developer doesn't have to buy the property and the property can be put into a land trust that belongs not to the developer but to the citizens of Richmond, then the developer immediately doesn't have to consider the price of the property. And, like you said, tax breaks. There's a lot of instruments — fiscal instruments — that can be used to make something work.

So you mentioned affordable housing and environmental justice as it relates to Chevron. Are there any other top priorities you have as you approach your new role as mayor?

Fiscal responsibility. We've had issues with staff presenting questionable policies that the City Council has voted on. And it wasn't until we got a RPA majority that we started asking questions. And they were pushing what are called swap trades [and] with the swap trades that we had, we ended up paying $60 million in penalty fees. So they were trying to get us to do a swap trade to pay off the swap trade with the penalty. And we basically said "no way." You know, it's time to change the way we borrow money. And so we no longer have swap trades.

And we'll have to worry about those penalty fees that the city's been plagued with. But, you know, fiscal responsibility in terms of making sure that we have enough incoming money. And that's one of the reasons why I've supported Measure U, which will bring the money in that we need in order to do the things that we want to do. A lot of people, in terms of public safety, keep saying we need more police. But they never ask, where is the money coming from?

You know, so the same people who want more police don't want Measure U. So there's a big disconnect between what you want and what the city can afford to do. Already public safety is taking over practically half of the city budget. So if we get more police, then we end up having a larger deficit and end up having to defund Parks and Rec, and defund maintenance.

Yeah. I know something I've heard you talk about in the past is wanting to staff up the city and fill some of the vacant city worker positions. Right now many cities around the Bay are struggling with this. For example, San Francisco has a ton of open vacancies and has been struggling to provide the wages that would draw people to those jobs. How do you square the need to fill the city roles with the need to be fiscally responsible?

Well, we're doing a comp study now to figure out what fair wages are for the staff, and we hope to be able to provide those wages. But I think in order to have buy-in from everyone, we need to have a conversation with the unions — and not with the unions separately, but with the unions together.

I think we need to bring all of the forces that make up the city together to have that conversation. I know several years ago we had a budget deficit, and [newly elected Richmond City Council member] Melvin Willis and I called for a conversation with the unions and with staff to figure out how to find the money in the budget. And we were able to do that. We were able to balance the budget, but it took a group effort to do that.

And I believe that we can continue working that way in order to make Richmond not only a better place to live but a happier place to live, where people aren't trying to take a bigger bite of the budget than the city can actually afford.

I think of your election as a huge change within Richmond politics, especially since Mayor Butt has held the position for the last eight years. I wonder how you see your election. You've said you're the first Latino to be elected mayor of Richmond, so how do you understand that distinction and what this transition means for the city at large?

Well, the demographics of the city of Richmond is trending to the Latinx community, and we have about 40% Latinx. And I think my election mirrors that. I also think that most of the people who voted for me are young people.

And I've actually had some constituents say that I may be old, but I think young. So, I hope that's true. But I do want to think differently. I want to think positively, hopefully. And I want to be innovative. I would like the city of Richmond to become a model for other cities in terms of forming a Blue/Green New Deal where everyone is working together on the just transition.

I think we can do it and it will depend on a lot of creativity, a lot of thinking outside the box. But I think the people of Richmond have that. We just need to find a catalyst to bring it all together and watch it grow.

Is there anything you'd like to say about your new position and what you see as the future of Richmond before we sign off?

Yeah, you know, I think we need to start seeing each other as one community. [Former Richmond City Council member and current AC Transit Director, Ward 1] Jovanka Beckles always said that about Richmond, but it didn't seem that most people agreed with that. It's changing.

You know, I think that we will have one Richmond and that it's the young people who are going to bring it about. I feel very, very hopeful. And I think my style is relaxed, is calm, is thoughtful, and I think that it will project onto the City Council, and our City Council's meetings hopefully will be much more productive and much more amicable.

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