RICHMOND -- To his supporters, Corky Boozé personifies his city. Blunt, colorful and earthy, with boundless energy and a bootstrap style, the councilman and the hardscrabble industrial town of Richmond pair like peanut butter and jelly.
But critics see Boozé as a viper-tongued, loose-lipped provocateur who plays by his own rules, flouting city laws, inciting the body politic's darkest impulses and pitting racial groups against one another. He gleefully tosses verbal matches on the powder kegs of rancor commonly known as Richmond's City Council meetings, and his rough-and-tumble style has reportedly turned physical on occasion.
He's said to have scuffled in the street with a political opponent and a female aide, and he once threatened to slug a political rival while on the stately dais. A female council opponent accused him of threatening her with "physical harm" and moved her seat to the opposite side of the dais.
His property-related battles with local officials go back decades, and he is being sued by the city he represents for allegedly refusing to clean up a hazardous property where he stores old cars and boats.
In many ways, the blustery former race car driver is a throwback to an era that Richmond's younger leaders want to leave behind. He has been a screaming wheel in the progressive council majority's drive toward turning away from Chevron and toward bicycle paths and a green agenda a la Berkeley.
As a councilman, his attire has gone from work boots to sharp suits, but the junkyard-dog tenacity remains, and he still holds court at the Caspers Hot Dogs diner on Macdonald Avenue, referring to it as his office.
When a member of the powerful Richmond Progressive Alliance that routinely clashes with Boozé criticized him from the public speaker lectern, Boozé shot back: "You ain't as big as a flea." The dust-up was over adopting a code of ethics. Boozé voted no.
But some complain that the never-ending skirmishes have had a real impact on the council's ability to conduct public business. Even his one consistent ally on the dais, Nat Bates, concedes this is the most dysfunctional council he has ever seen; Bates was first elected in 1967.
Councilman Tom Butt, Boozé's buddy-turned-rival, pulls no punches when describing Boozé's tumultuous three years on the council: "In 40 years in this town, I've never seen anything like this. It's a disaster."
While Butt and others express frustration and weariness from Boozé's antics, the battles have only fueled the Berkeley native. Forged in the high-octane cauldron of 1960s drag racing, the 69-year-old's energy is indefatigable, and his zest for drama by any means necessary shows no signs of flagging.
"I never thought I'd find anything in my life to match the rush and thrill of drag racing," Boozé said. "Being on the City Council has topped it. I love every minute."
In 1972, Boozé said, he became the first African-American to win the Winternationals in Pomona -- with trademark panache.
"On the back of my '68 Camaro race car, it said 'Powered by the Black Man' in big, bold letters," Boozé said.
Forty-one years later, he never hesitates to invoke race and his work on behalf of "his people," or to paint his rivals as dismissive of the city's still-large black community.
When he gave up racing, Boozé took to running local gas stations and auto shops in Richmond. Beginning in the 1970s, he battled the city over a slew of ordinances and regulations that he said nearly broke him. He also began his turn as a local gadfly, haranguing the council every Tuesday night for more than two decades and losing elections every two years.
In 2010, he finally won after nine defeats, thanks in part to endorsements by candidates who are now among his staunchest critics. No one was quite sure what to expect, just that it wouldn't be dull.
Who's to blame?
The one thing Boozé and his critics agree on is that his tenure has not gone the way either had hoped or planned.
The critics are led by the RPA, the new political force in Richmond that helps drive the environmental, anti-Chevron agenda du jour. They hoped Boozé would be a powerful voice for them, thanks to his opposition as a candidate to a casino plan for Point Molate.
Now they see him as an abject failure whose antics drag meetings past midnight and foster interruptions, outbursts and recesses, often called to muzzle him mid-diatribe. Millions of dollars in public projects are routinely held over for weeks, and consultants and others who trek to Richmond to discuss the items close their briefcases and leave, work incomplete. Department heads quietly grumble that Boozé tries to bully them publicly.
"He is often simply out of control, but it's more than buffoonery, he tyrannizes," said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who supported him in 2010. "He creates a toxic atmosphere, insults staff and deters (the public) from coming. ... He's hurting Richmond."
Boozé, meanwhile, argues that his colleagues have marginalized him and refused to grant him the respect owed an elected leader. Asked what mistakes he has made, Boozé says he was "naive" and duped by rivals into thinking they supported him.
Asked to list his proudest accomplishments, he points to $200,000 he says he coaxed Chevron into giving a local workforce development program.
"(But) I haven't been able to accomplish for the southside the things I promised, like street repairs and a new community center," Boozé said. "I'm not being respected as a colleague, and so it's hard to get things done."
While Boozé seems to view his jousts as politics as usual, his opponents often take it more personally. Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles reacted to news in January that Boozé was awarded a Martin Luther King Jr. Peace and Freedom award by calling Boozé a "bully" who "has threatened to have physical harm done to me and to others."
One thing no one can dispute is that Boozé is usually at the center of the drama and turmoil engulfing Richmond's City Council. On July 23, a council meeting devolved into a near-riot, with city officials clearing the chamber of more than 100 residents because a small portion of them were unruly.
While his cohorts remained at the dais or retreated to an anteroom, Boozé plunged into the scrum, looking to separate two people he said were about to fight.
Many blamed Boozé for the disturbance, alleging that he and a few acolytes dubbed "Corky's Army" recruited people from the street to create a mob scene, a charge Boozé denies.
"They're going to try, but they can't pin this on Corky," Boozé said.
Days later, with criticism mounting that he was behind it all and that he fosters anti-gay bigotry in the city (some of the protesters routinely use anti-gay slurs), Boozé issued a news release announcing his solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
With the people
Allies saw the statement as Boozé unfailingly standing with the people and opposing an out-of-touch city government. Cynics saw it as an overt attempt at damage control. "Corky hasn't changed," said Joe Fisher, treasurer of Black Americans for Political Action. "He's always been abrasive and spoke what was on his mind. But make no mistake, he stands for African-Americans in this city."
In September, Boozé squared off with a 72-year-old RPA member in Point Richmond. Boozé says David Moore "cold-cocked" him, while Moore insists Boozé hit him first.
No charges were brought. Even more troubling, the East Bay Express alternative weekly newspaper reported that days before the scrap with Moore, Boozé battered his volunteer chief of staff, dragging her out of his campaign office and onto Macdonald Avenue after she caught him in a tryst with another woman. The woman declined to press charges, and Boozé dismisses the reports as "RPA smear stuff."
Through it all, he never seems to lose his sense of humor, his zest for gamesmanship or, as former Councilman Jim McMillan once called it, his "visions of public grandeur."
Bates, who often sides with Boozé on votes, says Boozé deserves some blame for council dysfunction but notes that it takes two to tango.
"It's pretty obvious that Corky can lose his cool, and the RPA's strategy is to poke at him until he does something to respond," Bates said. "This is the worst council I've ever seen, and Corky contributes to that, but he's not the only one. My advice to Corky is to be cool, that's the best thing for everybody."
But Boozé gives no hint of cooling his full-throttle agenda. The drama, the cacophony, the vitriol, he seems to relish it.
"I love going to the (council) meetings and standing up for the people," he said.