Richmond blazes new trails to success

by Gayle McLaughlin, Mayor of Richmond on November 4, 2013

(Ed Note: This piece recently appeared as a guest commentary in the Contra Costa Times. It again highlights how entrenched interests are battling a Richmond mayor committed to progressive change)

In a recent column, Tom Barnidge was clearly distressed about some of my activities as Richmond Mayor. He took grave offense to my recent visit to an Ecuadorean community ravaged by oil pollution, and he slammed our city’s bold plan to assist homeowners in danger of foreclosure.

Barnidge may not live in Richmond, but I certainly respect his right to disagree with my positions and the strategies I promote. I also understand that leaders representing movements that challenge “the powers that be” often become lightning rods, subject to ridicule and attack from the press. But the bile of Barnidge’s column seems oddly divorced from the reality of Richmond’s remarkable progress in the last decade.

By any measure, our city is rising from a history of scarcity and despair, and gaining national attention as a community courageous enough to define its own destiny.

For nearly 10 years I have served on the Richmond City Council, the last 7 years as mayor. I proudly stand by the positive achievements that we, as a community, have achieved during my time in office:

Crime has decreased substantially, with homicides down more than 60 percent.
Chevron was pressured into agreeing to a $114 million tax settlement.
Lawrence Berkeley National Lab has chosen Richmond for its second campus, which will bring ancillary business and increased local jobs.
Richmond’s community survey shows residents are experiencing increased quality of life and city services.

And this is just a sampling of the transformation that is taking place!

Let’s be clear: 99 percent of my time as Richmond Mayor is spent in Richmond, focused on local issues. But does anyone still think that the solutions to complex, chronic problems faced by cities like Richmond can be identified — or must be pursued — strictly within city limits?

Some critics disparage my insistence that Chevron operate more responsibly in Richmond. This is not my personal crusade; far from it, as my council colleague Tom Butt recently wrote to his E-Forum readers, “Not just the mayor, but the entire City Council, has serious reservations about corporate power in general and Chevron in particular The entire City Council authorized a lawsuit against Chevron that accused the corporation of placing ‘profits and executive pay over public safety,’ of failing to ‘exercise care in its ownership, operation, management, supervision, inspection, maintenance, repair and/or control’ of the Richmond refinery, and of causing a diminution of Richmond property values, among many other things.”

Some community members wonder why I accepted an invitation from the president of Ecuador to visit a rain forest community devastated by oil pollution.

Like Richmond, this low-income community is standing tall to one of the world’s most powerful corporations, demanding Chevron obey a court order to repair the damage. I went to Ecuador to demonstrate solidarity with this community, but the trip also had tactical benefits for our local lawsuit, as Butt describes: “Collaborating with and supporting litigation of other plaintiffs against a common defendant is an entirely common strategy for litigants.”

As we look for new, creative ways to solve Richmond’s age-old problems of income inequality, crime, living wage jobs, and sustainable development, we realize that not all efforts will bear immediate fruit.

Wealthy and powerful special interests may fight us every step of the way, but we will remain undeterred. Our community has come too far to turn back.

Will fear of criticism or controversy stop us from trying bold and innovative solutions? Will sarcastic columnists convince us never to stray from the beaten path? Will cynicism prevail?

Not on my watch.

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