RICHMOND -- With the mayoral election triumph Nov. 4 of Councilman Tom Butt, the question of where real power resides in the new City Council could come down to the decision of whom to appoint to the pivotal seat vacated by his ascent.
Three "Team Richmond" candidates from the Richmond Progressive Alliance won election to the City Council and, if they succeed in appointing an ally to fill Butt's vacant seat, their camp could control the council for years to come.
"It's not complicated," said longtime resident and political watcher Charles Smith. "Whoever has the majority four votes is going to be able to get pretty much whatever they want."
With the stakes high, the local rumor mill is in overdrive as to who is front-runner and what will be the political calculations by the six members of the next council in filling the seventh seat.
Various names have already floated to the surface, based on the neighborhood in which they reside, their stance on controversial issues and their ability to foster overlapping alliances on the council.
Not only will four votes be key on the next council -- it's a requirement to appoint the next member.
According to the city charter, the new council, which takes office in January, can appoint a member to fill the empty seat. If a majority can't decide, the seat would be filled by a special election, a prospect no one on the council says they welcome.
If the seat were to go to election, Councilman Jim Rogers, who came in fourth during the Nov. 4 election, would be the immediate front-runner.
"The new council will come to a consensus to fill the vacant seat," said Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, the second-highest vote-getter Nov. 4. "Absolutely, this is not going to require a special election."
But there may be divisions among the new council already with the Richmond Progressive Alliance threesome of Beckles, current Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Eduardo Martinez favoring someone from their camp while allies Butt and Jael Myrick want someone more moderate, according to sources close to both sides.
Councilman Nat Bates, who lost his bid to become mayor, is politically marginalized but could throw the balance in one side's favor if he could be persuaded to back a candidate.
Potential candidates for the appointed seat include Doria Robinson, a popular urban gardening advocate, 2012 council candidate and RPA member Marilyn Langlois, 2014 candidate Dameion King and Ben Choi, a planning commissioner.
All council members, with the exception of Myrick, live in the city's outskirt neighborhoods, raising the importance of a representative from the city's poorer, populous urban core.
Myrick said he has been "approached by many people" to gauge his interest in candidates since Nov. 4. He declined to say whether he would favor a member of the RPA but said he values "diversity, in terms of thought and some other forms of diversity."
Butt was more blunt.
"I'm looking for someone whose politics are as close to mine as possible, which I would describe as moderately progressive," Butt said.
Richmond's elected government has been one of the most progressive in the Bay Area since 2010 as candidates who eschew corporate donations and focus on environmental and other issues have ridden a wave of support and a strong volunteer voter outreach network.
In the past four years, Richmond has led on a host of public policies, including banning plastic bags at grocers, hiking the minimum wage, installing miles of bicycle lanes, supporting novel crime-intervention programs, pushing a failed measure to tax sugary beverages and suing Chevron's local refinery over a fire in 2012.
This will also be the second time in two years the council has an opportunity to appoint a new member. In 2012, Chevron-backed candidate Gary Bell died after falling ill with a severe sinus infection near the end of his victorious campaign. The council appointed Myrick after a field of several candidates lobbied for its support during public hearings.
Rogers, who led the effort to appoint Myrick -- the RPA wanted next-highest vote-getter Martinez, who finally won this year -- said there will be plenty of maneuvering in the coming weeks.
"There's a lot of different possible scenarios and it's not clear to me where it's headed," Rogers said. "The question is whether the seat goes to an RPA member or not."