Q&A: Progressive Policies Put Richmond, Calif. In National Spotlight

 Q&A: Progressive Policies Put Richmond, Calif. In National Spotlight

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Editor’s Note: Seven years ago, Richmond, Calif., became the largest city in the nation to elect a Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin. During her tenure, Richmond has made national and even international headlines by trailblazing progressive policies and causes, which include calling for a citywide “soda tax,” suing the oil giant Chevron, and threatening to invoke eminent domain laws if banks don’t agree to work with the city to keep residents facing foreclosure in their homes. McLaughlin spoke to Richmond Pulse about her standoff with the banks and a recent trip to Ecuador, where she visited communities devastated by the environmental impact of Big Oil.

RP: What do homeowners facing foreclosure in Richmond need to know right now about the city's plan to invoke eminent domain?

We call it the Cares Program or the Local Sensible Reduction Program because, first and foremost, we would like to continue to call on the banks to work with us, to cooperate with the City of Richmond to sell us these underwater mortgages, and to do it voluntarily in a cooperative way so that we don't have to invoke the eminent domain process, although we hold open the option. We fully believe it's within our legal rights to do so, to help our community.

We continue to have this ongoing housing crisis. Many of our neighborhoods continue to spiral downward. When one home goes into foreclosure, nine other homes are impacted. [Foreclosures] create blight in the neighborhood, and then all the property values of the neighborhood go down. That means less property tax revenue for the City of Richmond. It also means more crime, because blight attracts crime.

So this is an opportunity for the city to acquire these loans and work with the homeowner to refinance with a lower principal. That way, families stay intact and they’ll have money in their pockets [that will help) our local economy.

RP: Once again, Richmond is making national headlines.

We're in the process of building a national movement. We want other cities to join us in a JPA -- a Joint Powers Authority. Just this morning I was in San Francisco at a meeting with two supervisors, and there are other cities in California looking at this: Oakland, Vallejo, El Monte. Across the nationa there are cities like Newark, New Jersey, Long Island, New York, and Seattle. And Richmond has played a leading role. We got articles in USA Today, the Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, MSNBC, CNBC, and we were on PBS News Hour.

The idea is to build a national movement to put pressure on the banks that got the $1.2 trillion bailout. They (the banks) haven't provided a solution and the federal government hasn't provided a solution, so we're stepping in with a common sense fix that will help everybody. It'll help the housing market because we'll be fixing a problem that continues to spiral down.

RP: What kind of timeframe do you see this being played out on?

GM: We didn't really put forward a timeline as to when to come back to the council but I'm going to guess that within the next couple of months, staff will have moved forward (with the creation of a JPA) and in the meantime I am reaching out to other cities to actually join this JPA. We're moving forward step by step, cautiously but firmly, because we have to.

Even though the city has done nothing as far as eminent domain at this point, Wells Fargo and Deutche Bank attempted to sue the city [on the grounds that] we were considering it. And the court said (to the banks), you can't do that. At this point though, they're still trying very hard and we want to be able to move forward and again, we hope that the banks open their eyes and say, hey, this is a good thing.

RP: What do you say to critics who claim the move would hurt the city financially in the long run by dissuading potential investors and damaging credit?

GM: The threats that Wall Street and their lobbyists have made to restrict credit in Richmond are totally illegal. What they’re talking about is called “redlining.” We went through that years ago, and we fought battles to stop redlining of communities where credit had been restricted. We overcame that, and we can’t go back in history. There are laws on the books, and in fact, there are civil rights firms that have engaged with the City of Richmond to say they’d be happy to defend us if any of these practices actually get implemented. In Richmond, 70 percent of our community is people of color. Restricting access to credit -- either to residents who want to move within the city or to people who want to move into Richmond – would [be] a civil rights issue. But we actually don’t think they (the banks) will act in that way. These banks and these lobbyists are trying to scare, and they have managed to scare some on the Richmond council. But, by far, the larger number of community members are in favor of this. I get so many emails, hard copy letters and phone calls from people in Richmond, and from people all around the country, who think this is really a sound, innovative solution.

Richmond Pulse: Switching gears now, why did you recently visit Ecuador, and what did you see there?

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin: I was invited (by government officials) to go to Ecuador to see the contaminated areas of the Amazon rainforest. It was a wonderful trip -- so profoundly important and informative. I saw some of the worst (environmental) damage. The Ecuadorian rainforest is just a beautiful area and to see [a] pit filled with sludge -- this thick, oily sludge -- was just really tragic.

There are something like 1,000 open pits in the rainforest where there is sludge and contaminated water from Chevron-Texaco's processing and drilling. This contamination was just haphazardly thrown into the rainforest, thrown into these pits, without any lining. This was a deliberate spilling onto the roads and into the rivers and streams. [The waste] in these pits has seeped down into the water table, into the ground water, and this impacted the lives of the indigenous people who lived [there], who drank the water, washed their clothes, did their dishes, did their cooking, and fished in the rivers and streams. So now they have a huge outbreak of cancer, a huge outbreak of birth defects and miscarriage, and they can no longer live in the areas where they lived.

Texaco did the damage but (then) Chevron and Texaco merged, so Chevron Corporation is responsible for cleaning up the rain forest. I felt a strong commitment to share with them the problems we’re having… you know, we're suing Chevron as well in the City of Richmond for the damage they’ve done to our community by way of the refinery fire of 2012. So, solidarity with the people of Ecuador… it's the start of an international coming together, holding oil companies accountable for the damage they do to communities everywhere.