RICHMOND -- Everyone agrees that this is a big election.
The question is, who will be the big winners in the City Council race?
"This is the year, I think, that the voters are going to want something more," said Jim Rogers, a city councilman who is not up for re-election. "People are really hopeful that Richmond is going toward some major progress, and the winners this year will be the people who can convey a vision and plans to get there."
This year's field comprises eight men and three women vying for three seats. The candidates are incumbents Nat Bates and Tom Butt and challengers Mike Ali-Kinney, Gary Bell, Anthony Green, Marilyn Langlois, Eduardo Martinez, Jael Myrick, Ella "Bea" Roberson, Eleanor Thompson and Mark Wassberg.
Councilman Jeff Ritterman's decision to not seek re-election ensures that there will be at least one new face on the council.
In a city that has become increasingly polarized between two factions, who replaces Ritterman could be key to the balance of power for the next two years.
Ritterman has been a strong -- some would say the most energetic and effective in advancing his agenda -- and reliable member of the council's dominant progressive wing, a set of leaders backed by local group the Richmond Progressive Alliance that has had firm control of the city's direction since 2010.
The city had a watershed political election in 2010. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, an RPA-backed leader and member
Instead, McLaughlin won a tight three-way race, and Chevron backed-incumbents Ludmyrna Lopez and Maria Viramontes were knocked from office.
A council that had been roughly balanced between progressives and industry-backed candidates was tilted decidedly in favor of a progressive majority. Contested issues are typically settled with progressive-leaning 5-2 or 4-3 votes, with Rogers occasionally joining council members Corky Booze and Bates in the minority.
"This year's election is going to determine whether we completely go way over to this small group of progressives or whether we return some balance to the council," said resident Don Gosney, who is working with the campaigns of Bell, Bates and Roberson. "In the latter scenario, the swing votes on the council will hold tremendous sway, but at least we will approach issues more pragmatically."
RPA supporters see it different.
"This election is a referendum on whether Richmond is moving forward, which it clearly is, and whether we want to elect candidates who are going to help continue this progress," said Mike Parker, editor of the RPA's e-newsletter. "It's not just the council vote, it's about who will work the way Ritterman did in the community for positive change."
Bates, 81, is the city's oldest and longest-serving leader, having served from 1967 to 1983 and continuously since 1995. He is known as a business-friendly, savvy legislator who has been a steady backer of major industry -- namely Chevron -- for decades. Thanks in part to Chevron funds, Bates also holds the unofficial title of best-advertised candidate, with massive billboards on some of the city's biggest thoroughfares.
Butt, 68, is the second-longest serving member. He enjoys a solid base of support in Point Richmond, where he runs an architecture firm, and also has support from the RPA and in other neighborhoods. Some think his is the safest seat in the city.
The challengers fall into three broad categories, with some overlap: the business and industry friendly; the progressives; and the gadfly-community activists looking to take the reins.
The business candidates are Bates, Bell, Thompson and Roberson. The progressives are Langlois and Martinez, with Butt getting many of those votes as well. The activists are Wassberg and Ali-Kinney. Less is known about Green and Myrick, who works as a field representative for Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner.
Bell is a banking professional who served one term on the City Council from 1999-2004. Polished and charismatic, he was seen as a rising star in city politics and within the city's African-American power base until 2006, when he ignored critics and ran against incumbent Mayor Irma Anderson.
Bell and Anderson split largely the same vote, opening the way for McLaughlin to win by a razor-thin margin, and earning the scorn of many in Anderson's political base. Thompson and Roberson are both newcomers to council races but veterans of neighborhood-level politics, Thompson in North Richmond and Roberson within the city's neighborhood councils.
Langlois and Martinez are the RPA-backed candidates, with good name recognition and a vaunted door-to-door ground game, courtesy of the RPA's strong organization. Martinez, a retired schoolteacher, lost his first bid for council in 2010. Langlois stepped down from her post on McLaughlin's staff to make her first run at elective office.
Ali-Kinney has been a Native American and social justice activist in the city for years. Wassberg, an amateur filmmaker, has made headlines for his unruly behavior at council meetings, often being ejected by police for profane remarks and flouting other decorum rules.
Whatever happens, most observers expect another chapter in Richmond's history of colorful politics and hope for a period of detente between warring political factions.
"The acrimony and partisanship is unattractive to businesses and investment looking at Richmond," said Jim McMillan, a three-term councilman in the 1980s and 1990s. "We need an atmosphere of more cooperation and problem solving and less negative bickering."