RICHMOND -- Two years ago, when the behemoth beverage industry set up shop here and poured millions into local politics to defeat a tax on sugary beverages, people used military metaphors to describe the political bombardment.
This year may rival it.
Five of the city's seven City Council spots, including the mayor's seat, are in play, a contest that promises to be another installment in the ongoing struggle for Richmond's leadership between big money industries and tenacious, volunteer-based grass roots progressives.
Chevron, whose local refinery is the city's largest taxpayer, has already signaled it will jump into the political fray with both feet, hiring renowned public relations advisers, launching community websites and buying up billboard and bus stop space throughout the city. The battle promises to be pitched, even by Richmond's bare-knuckle standards.
"In 2012, the money and messaging from Big Oil and Big Soda was overwhelming," said Andres Soto, a local activist and founding member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. "We stayed away from negative campaigning while our candidates were pummeled by it, and that's a lesson we learned and won't repeat."
Until the November 2012 election, the RPA and its volunteers enjoyed a series of improbable victories, wresting control of city government from the big business-supported leaders that historically dominated city politics.
This year, with no soda tax to bear down on its candidates, RPA leaders are pushing for a minimum wage hike on the November ballot and touting the city's recent gains in public safety, employment and amenities like newly opened park space and bike lanes.
RPA and Green Party candidate Gayle McLaughlin won the mayor's seat in 2006 and 2010 -- both times with less than 50 percent of the vote -- and the progressives took command of the Richmond City Council in 2010, all while operating on shoestring budgets and without accepting corporate contributions. 2010 was a particular high point for the RPA. Not only did it defeat two Chevron-backed incumbents but also helped quash plans to build a Las Vegas-style casino on the Point Molate shoreline.
Things were different in 2012, as RPA-backed candidates were dogged by their support of the beverage tax, which drew millions in advertising and campaign organizing from the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association.
The coming election cycle could be similarly challenging for the RPA, whose four-candidate team refuses corporate donations, particularly if national and local real estate interests funnel money into the race in response to the proposal to seize underwater mortgages through eminent domain. Fliers funded by real estate interests have already arrived in local mailboxes decrying the city's eminent domain plan, which has stalled because the council can't muster the supermajority required to move forward.
"I think the eminent domain program will dog the candidates who backed it," said Contra Costa Realtors Association member Jeffrey Wright.
Termed out as mayor, McLaughlin is planning to run for a council seat this year, while RPA newsletter editor Mike Parker seeks the mayoral gavel.
With five seats open, the opportunity is ripe for Chevron and other business interests to regain control of the council.
Chevron, which has a major refinery upgrade proposal set to be vetted by the City Council beginning this year, has seen its political fortunes darken in the past few election cycles.
Chevron has spent successively more money on its candidates over the past three elections, which means the oil company could increase its spending in 2014 in its effort to regain control of the council. The likelihood of that is increased by the fact the refinery will be moving forward with upgrades and may face mandatory safety reforms as the various state and federal investigations into a 2012 fire at the refinery are completed In 2010, the oil giant backed two incumbents who lost and in 2012 it backed one candidate, Bea Roberson, who lost, and another, Gary Bell, who narrowly won but died soon after from a severe bacterial sinus infection.
Chevron refinery Public Affairs Manager Heather Kulp said the company has learned from past elections.
"The focus on money really clouded what the election last time was about," Kulp said. "It was about candidates who spoke about issues that mattered. (Opposition candidates) had a good message that resonated."
This year, Kulp said, Chevron has its finger on the pulse of what local voters want.
"Public safety, education and economy," Kulp said. "The polling that we have done is consistent: Those are the three things that have come up over and over again."