Richmond needs district elections like California needs rain.
In the November 2014 election we witnessed Team Richmond (the Richmond Progressive Alliance) and Moving Forward (candidates handpicked and financed by Chevron) as well as the Point Richmond perennial candidates, Jim Rogers and Tom Butt, fighting to control City politics. The remaining candidates, new to the “game,” poorly financed and, for the most part, without name recognition never had a chance. This line-up is typical of Richmond’s bi-annual circus and magic show we call at-large elections.
There have always been political kingmakers controlling our election process, such as the Contra Costa Central Labor Council, the police and firefighters unions, the Contra Costa Democratic Party and, especially, the most powerful of all, Chevron. It’s no wonder that Richmond voters don’t get excited about elections. Why should they, when the results seem prearranged behind closed doors? Such as, for example, when highly bankrolled candidates move into Richmond a year before an election in order to meet residency requirements. For these reasons and many others, at-large elections in Richmond are the antithesis of participatory democracy. The candidates are elected because they are backed by money and/or establishment power brokers, structures or groups, not because they speak for or actually represent the views of Richmond voters. We don’t set the agenda, they do.
Many cities in our area, such as San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, Alameda and San Leandro, have instituted district elections with a resulting increase in grass roots involvement. Without district elections Harvey Milk could not have won an election in San Francisco. Until Oakland initiated district elections Black candidates could not get elected in Oakland. By their very nature, district elections promote local candidates who are known in their districts. Candidates who decide to run in a particular district are those who, for the most part, have already established themselves as community activists. With district elections the voters don’t find themselves confronted, as we are in this election cycle, by the confusion of making a decision based on panels where there are 15 candidates each making 2 minute speeches. There are no mailboxes overflowing with expensive, colorful but vapid and meaningless candidate brochures. A determined candidate can win a district election simply by knocking on doors because there is a manageable size to their constituency. If candidates are taking money from questionable sources or don’t live up to their electoral promises, they can be brought to task in the following election.
In summary, here are some of the reasons Richmond should have district elections:
1. District elections empower neighborhoods.
2. District elections make for accountability.
3. District elections make campaigns affordable.
4. District elections prevent one particular neighborhood, corporation or special interest group from controlling Richmond’s political agenda.
5. District elections put working class candidates on a more equal footing with rich and/or connected candidates.
6. District elections encourage a new generation to get involved with what they might otherwise see as reserved for “the good old boys.”
7. Because Richmond is run by a city manager, candidates don’t need any specialized educational background to be an effective representative. They need only dedication and a willingness to do their homework and ask questions.
8. Richmond has strong neighborhood councils which could work hand in hand with their district's council member.
9. District elections would encourage Council members to work together, in a spirit of compromise and cooperation, ensuring that all districts are represented in a fair and equal fashion.
10. District elections are democratic.
By: Charles T. Smith, Richmond Resident