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article imageCalifornia refinery city sends industry-backed candidates packing

By Nathan Salant     Nov 8, 2014 in Environment
Richmond - Voters in the Northern California city of Richmond rejected four refinery-backed candidates in Tuesday's city council election despite $3 million in Chevron-funded campaign advertising.
Chevron Corp., owner and operator of the city's 240,000 barrel-per-day oil refinery on the San Francisco Bay shoreline, made no secret of wanting more-sympathetic representatives on the Richmond City Council to change a sometimes adversarial relationship that had further deteriorated since a 2012 accident at the plant.
The accident sent thick, black smoke across half the Bay Area and sent tens of thousands of local residents to area hospitals complaining of respiratory distress, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
But Chevron needs city approval for a long-planned modernization now deemed essential by accident investigators and wants to settle a lawsuit Richmond filed over the accident.
So, Chevron took an active role in the 2014 election, blanketing the 107,000-population city with campaign advertising, the newspaper said, estimating the company spent $72 for every voter and outspent opponents by 20-1.
But Richmond voters defeated all four oil company-backed candidates, including longtime councilmember Nat Bates, who was running for mayor.
Instead, voters chose left-leaning candidates for the city council, including outgoing mayor Gayle McLaughlin, an outspoken refinery critic.
City Councilmember Tom Butt was elected mayor, and incumbent Jovanka Beckles and retired teacher Eduardo Martinez won the remaining seats.
“It’s extraordinary; this is a celebration of democracy,” Robert Smith, a San Francisco State Univ. political science professor who studies Richmond politics, told the newspaper.
“This means that big money doesn’t always win, that ordinary people can defeat huge corporate power,” Smith said.
Chevron spokesman Braden Reddell acknowledged the company’s defeat at the ballot box.
“The voters have spoken, and Chevron will work hard to find common ground with this City Council to push for sound policies that allow Richmond to grow and thrive,” Reddell said.
“Chevron will continue to work to create economic opportunities for all residents," he said.
But local observers blamed Chevron's excessive campaign spending for alienating most voters.
“This was an all-out attempt to destroy the (left-leaning Richmond Progressive Alliance), and people just said, 'This is too much,’" Smith said.
"They were repulsed by it,” he said.
Butt, the new mayor who is not part of the RPA, blamed Chevron for being overly aggressive in the campaign.
"The amount of money they spent, the national publicity, the obscene amount of mailers, the stupid hit pieces … it all just backfired,” Butt said.
Bates retained his council seat even though he will no longer be mayor and is expected to be a lone opposition voice on the newly elected left-leaning panel, the newspaper said.
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