RICHMOND -- Jael Myrick may be young, but Richmond's newest City Council member has no illusions about what he's getting himself into as an elected leader of a city known for its bare-knuckle politics.
"I'm not naive, I know this is Richmond," Myrick says with a half-grin, hands tucked in the pant pockets of his dark business suit. "There's a lot of land mines I could step on."
The affable 27-year-old is no newcomer to politics -- Myrick has worked as Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner's Richmond field rep since 2009 -- but he knows he'll need a steep learning curve to be effective on a sharply divided council in this city of 105,000. Chatting Thursday morning in the Civic Center plaza, before a briefing with city staff, Myrick reflected on his improbable rise and the challenges and opportunities that await.
Myrick edged out a field of 12 for the council appointment thanks to some deft maneuvers. After weeks of sharp debate between the council's competing factions over who should replace Gary Bell, who fell into a coma shortly after his November election, Myrick came to Monday's council hearing with a speech ready, and a key ally already on board.
Councilman Jim Rogers, who waffles between the council's progressive and more conservative wings, had spotted something he liked in Myrick and spoke with him before the hearing.
Before the vote, Rogers showed his hand, signaling he would support Myrick, a move that effectively forced
The shrewd move ruffled some members.
"(The candidates') presentations fell on deaf ears because (Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and council members Jovanka Beckles and Tom Butt) along with Jim Rogers had made a prior deal," Councilman Nat Bates wrote in an email he distributed the next day. "The fix was in."
Rogers maintained over the days before the hearing that he was keeping an open mind on whom to appoint. Myrick, who finished a distant eighth in November's council election, said he did speak with Rogers before Monday's meeting but declined to share the content of the conversation.
In any event, Myrick was appointed, with Councilman Corky Booze voting against him and Bates abstaining. Myrick is the youngest council member since John Ziesenhenne, who turned 24 just before his 1981 election.
"Corky called me the next day to tell me it wasn't personal," Myrick said of Booze, who supported Kathleen Sullivan for the appointment. "I told him I am going to vote with him on some things and be opposite on others, but that that shouldn't define our council."
On Bates' letter, Myrick said, "I respect what he does, but the way he framed
Myrick, whose seat will be up for election in 2014, grew up in San Pablo and attended John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond, graduating in 2003. He said he has one brother, and his parents and grandparents now live in Richmond. He and his fiancee live with their 1-year-old son in the Belding Woods neighborhood.
People who know Myrick see him as an ideal peacemaker, the kind of guy who has a lot of friends and seems to get along with everybody. It was in part those qualities that scored him the job with Skinner's office, along with a deep interest in politics and empowering minority groups.
"Jael has had an interest in politics and public service since a young age," Skinner said. "I was impressed early on with his knowledge of politics, history, districts, races, campaigns; he's a student of politics."
Some on the council hope that Myrick will be a calming presence.
"Jael is a good choice," Butt said, noting that the city could use a dose of good cheer amid the constant council bickering. "He has scrupulously avoided alienating anyone in an otherwise deeply divided Richmond."
Skinner said she has a nickname for Myrick.
"I jokingly call him 'Switzerland,'" Skinner said. "He's a calming presence in our office."
Which way Myrick will go politically remains to be seen. Some think he's more ideologically disposed to side with the council's progressive wing, which he has repeatedly praised for its work easing re-entry for parolees and reducing barriers to employment, initiatives he also has worked on, first as founder of Standing To Represent Our Next Generation (STRONG), a political youth group.
But others aren't so sure about Myrick's political leanings, and wonder whether he'll be more aligned with Booze and Bates. Of the constant bickering on the council and the marathon meetings, Myric said, "I'm not going to feed into it."
Bates noted that in his first words from the dais, Myrick thanked a list of people that included John Marquez, Maria Viramontes and Ludmyrna Lopez, former council members more aligned with him than with the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
"Jael's success on this council is going to depend in part on being independent and following his own judgment, not becoming someone who just does what those who appointed him want," Bates said.
Asked about his selection of "thank you"s in his first meeting, Myrick smiled and gently tugged at his purple necktie.
"I was nervous and there were so many people I needed to thank, and so many I didn't have time to thank," Myrick said. "There's nothing to read into it other than 'thank you.'"
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.
Occupation: Richmond field representative of Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.
Education: Kennedy High School in Richmond
Past experience: California League of Conservation Voters, where he worked on environmental issues and fundraising. Cofounded Standing To Represent Our Next Generation, STRONG, whose purpose was working toward involving youth in the political process.
Past positions: Opposed Measure N, the "soda tax" that lost in Richmond in 2012. Ran in 2012 on a platform that included the city putting up $5 million to ensure every young person in Richmond who wanted to go to college or trade school could go.
Past statement: "I will focus on increasing opportunities for young people as a long-term strategy to combat unemployment and reduce violent crime."
Personal: Father of infant son