Black and White in Contra Costa 

The surprising rise of Federal Glover in East Contra Costa County highlights the start of a new era for black political representation.

He's a supervisor at a big chemical plant. Liberal Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson says the man doesn't return his phone calls. He hails from East County, the land of ranches and subdivisions. The Contra Costa Central Labor Council opposed him. And he's black.

In fact, Federal Glover is the first African-American politician to hold countywide office in Contra Costa County. Political observers have been waiting for a black leader to emerge in the land of Proposition 13 and the Traditional Values Coalition, but thirty years after the rise of Willie Brown and Lionel Wilson, no one had made it higher than mayor of Richmond. It wasn't until 2000 that Glover broke the logjam by becoming the first black county supervisor. During this long dry season, everyone thought that when Contra Costa's black leaders finally emerged, they would hail from West County, which has the largest and most established black community. And, of course, they would hew to traditional African-American issues.

But Glover surprised them all. When he rose to prominence three years ago, he talked about growth and traffic -- in fact, holding the line on sprawl was his biggest campaign issue. The first black supervisor in the county's history just didn't act like anyone thought a black politician ever would.

For a man who's had as much trouble with unions as Federal Glover has, he hails from surprisingly labor-friendly roots. Both his parents held union jobs in Contra Costa; his mother worked in the canneries, and his father was a steelworker for 33 years. Glover grew up in a blue-collar household in Pittsburg, the only industrial island in a sea of East County ranchlands. Growing up in the shadow of his godfather, then-city councilmember Taylor Davis, he inherited a taste for public service at an early age. "I've been president of my class since the seventh grade," Glover says. "I've been involved in the community all my life."

After getting his bachelor's degree from San Francisco State, Glover moved right back to Pittsburg, where he worked first at the POSCO steel mill, then the Dow Chemical plant as a supervisor. In 1995, he made his first bid for public office, winning a seat on the Pittsburg City Council. Five years later, he ran for county supervisor. Officials with the Contra Costa Central Labor Council opposed his candidacy, worrying that as a Dow Chemical manager, he could be part of the same industry-dependent political machine that had corrupted Pittsburg politics for decades. Yet with Latino Antioch City Councilmember Mary Rocha serving as Glover's main rival, no white candidate was in the running for the first time in the county's history.

Glover's tenure as supervisor was almost immediately shaken when, just months after the election, he was arrested for drunken driving after careening across a concrete divider and flattening two tires. But his damage control was surprisingly professional: Glover immediately owned up to the incident and apologized, cauterizing the scandal. Since then, he's emerged as a major player in county politics. Many people credit him with orchestrating last November's campaign to unseat Pittsburg City Councilmember Frank Quesada and Mayor Frank Aiello, whose ties to developer Albert Seeno raised questions about their political independence. "There was a certain aligning of the stars, which I think he used well," says county Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier. "I personally think it's a good thing for Pittsburg."

Without a doubt, Glover is best known for holding firm on the urban limit line, which restricts sprawl development in Contra Costa County and is easily the most contentious issue in his district. In May, he proposed requiring approval by referendum of any changes to the urban limit line, in order to keep East County cities from bypassing the line with case-by-case exemptions. The move infuriated many growth advocates in Antioch, prompting speculation that Mayor Don Freitas would challenge Glover for his seat next election.

Glover has a tough job representing East County, a district that is rife with bitterness and rancor over growth issues, "East County is probably the most contentious of the county's districts," DeSaulnier says. "I don't know why that is. Part of it is it's a region that's changed over the last couple of decades. It went from rural to very suburban, with a lot of pressure on the infrastructure. It has its own unique inferiority complex, at least on the part of the politicians."

Still, there's something a little incongruous watching a black politician wading into suburban politics. Why here and not Richmond? After all, Richmond and its adjacent unincorporated black neighborhoods have never fielded an African-American candidate. This is partly due to a history of powerful white incumbents -- Tom Powers virtually dominated West County politics for almost two decades, serving as the district's supervisor from 1978 to 1994 and running unopposed in two elections -- but also to low black voter turnout that cedes the field to the electorate of El Sobrante and El Cerrito. "Richmond is half the district in terms of population, but in terms of voter turnout, it's not quite half," says West County supervisor John Gioia. "African Americans comprise a larger percentage of the population in West County, and two of the former mayors of Richmond were black, but that's been the highest political position they've reached. I think a lot of it is just timing. I think their time will come soon. It's definitely long overdue."

But Gioia's got it wrong. What's overdue is the public recognition that the first phase of black political empowerment is over. Once upon a time, when cities like Richmond and Oakland were dominated by a white business elite, the need for black representation was so dire that Lionel Wilson could sleep through three terms as Oakland's mayor and still come out looking like a winner. Now, as an entire generation has gotten used to wielding power, voters are finally able to see beyond the race of their leaders and demand tangible results from them. If white politicians such as Gioia represent their black constituents well, they can count on being returned to office. According to Jim McMillan, the president of Contra Costa's Black American Political Action Committee, there was talk of running a black candidate for West County supervisor in 1999. "But along came a guy named John Gioia," he says. "And while symbolically it would be nice if there had been an African-American candidate, I think John does an excellent job."

If black voters regard the need for African Americans in higher office as less of a priority, white voters in East County are able to look past a candidate's skin color as well. Fueled by the growth in Antioch's black population, the region is adopting a much more inclusive approach to politics, in which politicians are viewed on their merits, and their race is steadily diminishing as a prominent factor. No one has taken better advantage of that than Glover. "It wasn't African Americans alone that put me in office," he says. "This was a community that put me in, and a changing community over the years. My poll numbers are representative not of the African-American community, but of people."


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