Home to one of the largest oil refineries in the state, Richmond, California, was once a typical company town, dominated by Chevron. This largely nonwhite, working-class city of one hundred thousand suffered from poverty, pollution, and poorly funded public services. It had one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the country and a jobless rate twice the national average. But in 2012, when veteran labor reporter Steve Early moved from New England to Richmond, he discovered a city struggling to remake itself. In Refinery Town, Early chronicles the fifteen years of successful community organizing that raised the local minimum wage, defeated a casino development project, challenged home foreclosures and evictions, and sought fair taxation of Big Oil. Here we meet a dynamic cast of characters, from ninety-four-year-old Betty Reid Soskin, the country's oldest full-time national park ranger and witness to Richmond's complex history; to Gayle McLaughlin, the Green mayor who challenged Chevron and won; to police chief Chris Magnus, who brought community policing to Richmond and is now one of America's leading public safety reformers. Part urban history, part call to action, Refinery Town shows how concerned citizens can harness the power of local politics to reclaim their community and make municipal government a source of much-needed policy innovation.
Chevron's huge oil refinery in Richmond was started in 1903, when the company was known (or was soon to be known) as Standard Oil of California. The author devotes a bit of the book to the town's history, one important factor being the massive changes brought about by World War II when Kaiser's big shipyards increased the number and changed the demographic of the population. Then he gets into the details of the story about the time of the "Great Recession." The refinery has just suffered a major fire which almost cost the lives of nineteen workers. The community's concern about safety inside the plant subsequently leads to concerns about other factors such as delivery of crude oil by train, environmental problems, income inequity and lack of training due to use of contractors instead of company employees, and Chevron's stance on climate change to cite a few examples. Needless to say, Chevron is not anxious to address these issues with the town.
Eventually, organizations are formed and others enlisted to fight many other battles. Home foreclosures, affordable housing, health care, crime and drugs, police relations with the community, cronyism and corruption in City Hall - in short, the problems that face the entire nation. Every step of the way, they were opposed by special interests. In every political campaign, they were outspent by orders of magnitude. The effect of the Supreme Court's misguided decision in Citizens United was almost overwhelming. Of course they did not win every battle but eventually progress was made.
The author warns early on that "out-of-towners may feel they've acquired more local knowledge than they want or need." I admit that I was feeling that way initially, but then I realized that it was only by getting into the nitty-gritty that the author could convey the tremendous effort required to get anything done. Just one example: a couple of members of the City Council deliberately created chaos in public meetings, then ran for reelection on the basis that the Council was dysfunctional. Yes, it takes time to read the details, but in the end it was rewarding. I hope that others facing the same problems will see that they are not alone. This is what it will take if progress is to be made.
The author is a labor historian who tries to be objective but not impartial. His book certainly has its strengths. It provides an inspiring example of how the people fought and won against a huge corporation and other special interests. At the same time, it demonstrates the practical difficulties of building and sustaining a progressive coalition of white liberals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, gays, environmentalists, peace activists, labor, and others. Richmond provides an example of what can be done at the municipal level but also of municipal efforts that can be thwarted by even a state government controlled by the Democratic Party. The book is fact-filled, so much so that readers with no previous knowledge of northern California or Richmond politics may at points find the reading tedious. But in the end, the reader is amply rewarded.
In a way, Richmond, a city of a little more than 100,000, exhibits many of the same political issues as the United States as a whole. The unlimited financial resources of Chevron weigh heavily in the policy of the city. Channeled and disguised through various “public interest” groups, Chevron's expenditures in local elections overwhelmed the opposition. Only when safety and health issues motivated a core group of grass-roots activists was power wrested away from corporate sympathizers. Richmond citizens suffered problems with housing, crime, health and unemployment. The book chronicles the efforts of the city administration (mayor, city manager, council, and police) to ameliorate those problems. To say that they were successful would be overstating the case. Their efforts, however, are an object lesson to those in other cities who are beset by the same issues.
Admittedly, this is not a book for someone who is only vaguely interested in city politics. Steve Early gives extreme detail about the internal workings of the progressive alliance that may not be of interest to all. On the other hand, a local activist may find in this volume an enhanced understanding of the dynamics of local politics.