Burning Richmond's Race Card 

Facing a financial crisis and rising crime rates, Richmond sets aside race as a factor in management.

Last week, after two years without a permanent police chief, Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay announced the new top cop: Chris Magnus, a Pennsylvania towhead who has spent the last six years running the Police Department in Fargo, North Dakota. Magnus will leave the nation's twelfth-safest city and try to tame its eleventh-most-dangerous one, a place where gunfire is the soundtrack to urban life. But that's not the most noteworthy development here. Magnus' appointment caps a quiet but momentous transition in Richmond's troubled leadership. About two years ago, all the major administrative positions in the city were held by African Americans. Today, they are all held by whites.

And in a city with such a large African-American population, where voting patterns have historically followed racial lines and black administrative leadership has always been such a high priority, nobody seems to care.

"I think the people in Richmond are so frustrated that they are just willing to try anything that works," says Jim McMillan, an African-American former pharmacist who served on the city council from 1983 to 1995. "And if the police chief or city manager happens to be Caucasian, I think they're willing to let it work its way out."

In 2003, Isiah Turner served as city manager, Malcolm Hunter was city attorney, Joe Samuels ran the police department, and Joe Robinson was fire chief. Today, Bill Lindsay is city manager, John Eastman is city attorney, Chris Magnus is the new top cop, and Michael Banks the interim fire chief.

The city's newfound indifference to race signifies a larger willingness to grow beyond the politics of cronyism. Of all the cities of Contra Costa County, Richmond has been the most beholden to machine politics, in which a toxic cocktail of money, power, labor, and race have subverted the basic goals of good government. But in the last few years, this has produced an appalling failure of leadership. The city found itself crippled by a staggering financial crisis, and cops watched helplessly as young men shot each other down in the streets. The city's near-bankruptcy and its homicide rate so unnerved Richmond leaders that for the first time in decades, they may have set aside the luxuries of patronage hiring and machine politics, and focused instead on finding people who can actually solve their problems. In short, Richmond may finally have come to its senses. We'll see how long this lasts.

Of course, diversity in representation is its own virtue, especially in a city where black neighborhoods have long suffered from poverty, blight, and neglect. But Richmond's power politics have all too often corrupted the basic functions of city government, as kingmakers and special interests battle endlessly for turf. Heavy industry, led by Chevron and its refinery, vie for power with the public safety unions, the labor bosses at the Service Employees International Union, the building and construction trades, developers, and local kingmakers like political fixer Darrell Reese. And because African-American empowerment has been such a high priority, each interest group uses race to advance its agenda in both subtle and obvious ways. "I can remember campaign brochures back in the '80s that said, 'Save the black seats on the council,'" says County Supervisor John Gioia, who is white. "This was done by the police and fire unions."

By 1993, Richmond's machine politics had reached the point where Darrell Reese, a lobbyist and leader of the city's firefighter unions, is now often credited with single-handedly picking the new city manager, Floyd Johnson. And when Johnson was fired four years later, the city council replaced him with Reese's choice for a successor: Isiah Turner.

Turner was the classic example of how the real issue should not be race or connections, but competence. In addition to enjoying the support of Reese, Turner was born and raised in Richmond, and was working as the city's director of employment and training. So even though he had resigned from a government job in Washington state after auditors determined he had misused $22,000 in public funds, the council entrusted him with the city's daily management. "We all like it when one of our local boys makes good. So the council says, 'Hey, let's hire this guy to run the city,'" says Bob Campbell, a white man of Mexican and Irish descent who served on the Richmond City Council before representing the area in the state Assembly for sixteen years.

In 1999, Turner was looking for a new police chief. He picked longtime associate and politically connected Oakland bureaucrat Joe Samuels, who had just been forced by Jerry Brown to resign as Oakland's top cop. Samuels was explicitly charged with the task of setting up an extensive community policing program, just as he was supposed to do in Oakland. But he again dragged his feet on the plan, letting it wither on the vine in favor of traditional patrols.

By 2003, Richmond was reeling under a catastrophic fiscal crisis. The city ultimately faced a $35 million budget deficit. Libraries were slated to close, as were senior and community centers. The city decided it had no choice but to fire hundreds of employees, prompting outrage and pickets outside Mayor Irma Anderson's home. The streets were left to rot without repairs. State auditors later determined that the city, under Turner's leadership, had given out fat pay raises to union members -- especially police and firefighter unions -- and deliberately misrepresented both the size of its reserves and its annual expenses. Turner resigned in 2003, as did his finance director, Anna Vega.

Meanwhile, a murder epidemic plagued Richmond's toughest neighborhoods. The homicide rate rose to 29 in 2002, then to 38 in 2003. Samuels came under fire for his failure to implement community policing. His closest adviser resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, and officers were charged with child molesting and police brutality. In August 2003, just before the Richmond Police Officers Association was poised to deliver a formal vote of no confidence in him, Samuels resigned.

Today, city leaders claim that the crises of the last few years have made it impossible to factor anything but competence into their hiring policies. "Richmond, as you know, had to lay off so much of its workforce because of structure deficit problems," says Councilman Jim Rogers, who is white. "People are more focused on that than worrying about racial issues at this point. If you have libraries close and fire engines idle and police officers going out the door, it affects everyone."

Racial diversity is still an important goal in Richmond, as well it should be. But racial patronage was part of the cronyism that crippled the city's ability to help its own citizens. No one knows whether its new leaders will turn the city around. But until its most dire problems are solved, Richmond has apparently decided it can no longer afford the luxuries of power politics. "We don't care what flavor you are," says City Councilman Richard Griffin, who is African American. "We care about who would do the best job for the city of Richmond."


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