The People's Politician 

Eccentricity, unpredictability derailed promising political career.

His critics in the legal world say he's more interested in himself and his fee than the needs of his clients. His critics in the political world say pretty much the same thing -- the People's Politician spends more time in service of his ambition than his constituents.

In 1994, before finishing his first term on the Richmond City Council, Jim Rogers ran for county supervisor. Less than a year after taking office as county supervisor, he announced that he was going to run for state Assembly. He lost in the Democratic primary, but came in a respectable second place behind Dion Aroner, who enjoyed the backing of then-incumbent Tom Bates. His decent showing meant he still had an opportunity for career advancement in the future. That is, until his doomed 1998 reelection campaign seemed to foreclose any hope of a political career.

Opponent John Gioia, a former Rogers supporter, made a big deal about Rogers being missing in action in his district. Gioia pounded away at accusing the incumbent supervisor of being "out-of-town and out-of-touch." During the campaign, Rogers' chief aide estimated she'd only seen her boss in his district office twice in his entire term. His elected colleagues scoffed at him for doing legal work for his law practice while sitting behind the dais at board meetings. Gioia also exploited Rogers' troubles with the state Bar for overcharging his clients. On election day, Gioia trounced Rogers by a three-to-two margin.

Rogers' defeat seemed to quash a once-promising, if peculiar, political career that had begun with an expensive bang a decade earlier. In 1988, he spent more than $300,000 of his own money to help pass a statewide campaign-reform measure that he wrote. The courts later struck down the measure as unconstitutional, but it gave Rogers a statewide profile as a reformer.

A couple of years later, Rogers won a seat on the Richmond City Council, buoyed in part by the name recognition he enjoyed from his advertising as the People's Lawyer. A former council colleague, Jim McMillan, recalls being instantly struck by Rogers' eccentricities. McMillan and other black leaders backed Rogers in 1994 when he ran for supervisor, though McMillan says he had an unusual reason for doing so. "I supported him because I wanted to get him the hell off the city council," he explains.

When Rogers reached the runoff for supervisor, supporters such as McMillan knew he needed a makeover. San Francisco political consultant Jim Rivaldo, famous for having helped elect the late Harvey Milk across the bay, was brought in for the job. Rivaldo looked through his new client's closet and was aghast at his client's total lack of fashion sense. "He lived like a college undergrad." Among Rivaldo's first tasks was getting Rogers to get a decent haircut and buy a few new suits. When they went shopping for shoes, Rivaldo recalls, Rogers showed up wearing sandals with no socks. Rivaldo came up with the campaign slogan "Unbossed and unbought," borrowing the same line used by onetime black presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm, painting Rogers as a fiery independent and his opponent as a tool of special interests. Indeed, Rogers was unbought -- he financed practically his entire campaign, loaning the effort a reported $214,400.

After his election victory, Rogers raised eyebrows by accepting tens of thousands of dollars in donations from special interests to help recover some of his money. What he didn't do, according to Rivaldo, was pay his consultant an agreed-upon $1,100 bonus for winning the election. Four years later, Rivaldo ran Gioia's successful campaign against Rogers. To his surprise, his former client called him the following year asking Rivaldo to run his upcoming bid to return to the Richmond City Council. The consultant agreed on the condition that Rogers pay him the $1,100 he was owed from the '94 campaign. Rogers agreed and then, Rivaldo says, stiffed him out of $1,000 after he lost his comeback attempt.

In 2001, Rogers returned to the Richmond City Council without Rivaldo's help and has since taken high-profile roles in backing the utility tax measure and the more recent proposal to build a Vegas-style casino on the waterfront. Will the People's Politician run for higher office again in the future? Rogers won't rule it out, but says he has no plans to do so.


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