Building Independent Political Power: An Interview with Gayle McLaughlin

Richmond, California has become a bastion of independent working-class politics. One of Richmond's leading organizers explains how they did it and the possibilities of expanding the movement.

Gayle McLaughlin is one of the leading political revolutionaries in the U.S. today. She is a DSA member and one of the founders of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), an independent political organization based in Richmond, California that unites left activists across party lines. She served as a Richmond city council member from 2005-2007, mayor from 2007-2015, and again as a city council member from 2015-2017. During this time, the RPA has distinguished itself as one of the most important political organizations in the country. Through electoral activity and community organizing it has challenged the power of Chevron, the oil company that dominated Richmond for decades, and implemented a wide array of local reforms including rent control and a $15 minimum wage. She is currently working to expand the RPA model to towns and cities across California and connect corporate-free organizations through a new statewide formation called the California Progressive Alliance (CPA).

Here, Gayle speaks with Socialist Forum about her recent campaign for Lieutenant Governor, the RPA and the CPA, democratic socialism and the role of elected officials in the movement, and the meaning of political revolution today. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Socialist Forum: You just ran for Lieutenant Governor in California. Why did you run, and how did the campaign go?

Gayle McLaughlin: I ran for the statewide office of Lieutenant Governor because I have served nearly 13 years in elected office in Richmond: eight years as mayor and over four-and-a-half years as a city council member. Overall we did some major work in Richmond by beating back this big oil giant in our city, Chevron. Over the course of about a decade, we beat Chevron’s money to the point where we have five city council seats filled by corporate-free council members. That’s out of seven total, so it’s a super majority.

That’s because we have an alliance called the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). I am a co-founder of the RPA, which we started back in 2003 to build a local movement and run corporate-free candidates. Because we had success in the electoral realm and building our local movement, we were able to do some major things like reducing crime by addressing the roots of violence and giving people opportunity – the homicide rate is down 75%. We also won over a hundred million dollars in additional city taxes from Chevron, and we were able to limit their pollution. We’ve raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour and passed the first rent control law in California in 30 years, and we’ve implemented many green policies and supported our immigrants as a sanctuary city.

All of these things came about because we had our local movement and our corporate-free representatives in office. People started asking us, all over the state and even in other parts of the country, how we did it. So I began giving presentations around the state about the RPA model and that led to running a statewide campaign. When you run a statewide campaign, you have a larger stage, and we wanted large numbers of people to hear our message about building local political power.

The campaign for Lieutenant Governor really had two wings. One was to encourage local progressive alliance building, like the RPA, and about a dozen new progressive alliances have formed all over California and more are coming. And the second wing of the campaign was to try to actually get elected. That was a harder challenge because California’s a big state, but we galvanized so many people. We didn’t get into the top two in California’s open primary, and the top two winners spent millions of dollars in getting elected and essentially buying those spots. But we reached hundreds of thousands of supporters, and got over a quarter million votes.

I gave presentations to hundreds of groups and we had 39 California Our Revolution (OR) endorsements as well as the national OR. We had a number of chapter-level DSA endorsements as well as the national DSA endorsement, Green Party endorsements, the Peace and Freedom Party, Movement for a People’s Party, and so on. We had a hundred groups supporting us, more than any other statewide candidate in terms of getting this level of progressive group endorsements. It would have been great to have won the Lieutenant Governor’s seat because we could have rallied around it to continue the organizing, but the organizing continues regardless.  I now have more statewide name recognition and am touring, still, around the state to bring people together, to bring groups together and to network. We’re calling ourselves the California Progressive Alliance (CPA) and we’re planning a statewide founding convention in February 2019.

SF: You mentioned something called the “RPA model.” What exactly is that? What is the RPA, where did it come from and how does it operate?

GM: We got tired of seeing our city spiral downward. Prior to the founding of the RPA in 2003 the whole city council was in the hands of Chevron. Council members were bought off by the company, or they were intimidated by Chevron, and the corporate model was in place for how decisions were made. It was always, “Well, just wait, things will trickle down to help the people struggling the most in Richmond.” We’re a low income community, a working-class community, and a lot of things were just left to deteriorate. So we decided to be the leaders we were waiting for.

We were activists in Richmond, and many of us had a long-term history of activism and other struggles, anti-war and such. We decided to come together regardless of party preference. Some of us were Green Party members, some were progressive Democrats, and some had no party preference. We came together to build local political power and we did this by running candidates without any corporate money and also by just working with the city’s issue-based organizations. We started holding forums, held a people’s convention in the city, and joined with the unions, SEIU in particular. We fought against the police union, which was extremely corrupt, as well as the corrupt fire union which had bought off elections in the past. As activists, we just decided we had had enough and we were going to take control, put the power in our own hands by having some of us step up as candidates and having community leaders join together and stand for a new way of doing politics in Richmond.

SF: You said that the RPA is the result of a range of local political forces coming together: Greens, Democrats, unaffiliated or unaligned people working across various lines on a common project. It was successful, you won the mayoralty, you have a majority on the council, and you won a lot of important victories. I’m sure that socialists in a lot of other places would like to do something similar. Is there anything particular to Richmond itself or maybe to California – say, the local or state electoral system – that helped to make RPA’s success possible?

GM: Conditions in Richmond were really bad. We were known to be a high crime city, a city with Chevron domination. In that respect people knew that the council was very corrupt, and we were known to be a heavy polluted place because of the Chevron refinery. The conditions were pretty bad and I think that led us to come together sooner, perhaps, than some communities that haven’t had or that aren’t in quite as dire straits. But the situation nationwide, and certainly in California, keeps getting worse in terms of its desperation. I think similar conditions exist, in one way or another, in other communities up and down the state.

California is the fifth largest economy in the world, but it has one of the highest levels of inequality in the country. The level of homelessness is outrageous, the number of homeless people on the streets is skyrocketing. Rents are skyrocketing, so people can’t afford to pay the rent or find a place to live that’s affordable. I think the conditions are such that, more and more, communities are recognizing that they have to do something as well. So, maybe we were one of the first to move forward because we saw the desperation of our community early on.

Also, Richmond was a more affordable place to live at one time. It still is to some extent, and with our rent control law we have slowed gentrification. I would say a lot of activists came to live here, in Richmond, because of its affordability in the 1990s and early 2000s. As activists, we had a sense of consciousness to begin with, and we wanted to bring that consciousness to the people of Richmond and to tell them, “Hey, you don’t have to live under these conditions.” People, I think, had a sense of resignation that you can’t beat City Hall. That kind of philosophy that runs rampant across the country that you just have to accept what you’re given. So we wanted to let people know that by organizing we can change things and people were very receptive, because ultimately I think the progressive values that the RPA holds are shared by the vast majority of people. It was just a question of reaching people and sharing our values and they reciprocated by saying, “Well, I believe that too” and little by little our membership grew. People were really excited to have someone to vote for or to have people to vote for over the years that shared their values.

SF: As you well know, one of the perennial debates on the Left when it comes to electoral politics is the question of the Democratic Party. How does the RPA address this issue, and do you see the question of the Democratic Party and our relationship to it as the most important question here?

GM: The way the RPA related to this was that we had to build an independent local alliance, an independent movement in our city. So, even though people may be registered in the Democratic Party the progressive Democrats understood that the two-party system and the Democratic Party leadership was corporate controlled, is corporate controlled today, and that we needed something independent. Some people felt it was important that they kept their Democratic Party membership, they have a view that working within the party makes sense. I was a Green Party member the whole time I was in office until Bernie Sanders ran in 2016 and then I switched to No Party Preference (NPP). In California, you can vote in the Democratic presidential primary if you’re registered as NPP.

I personally chose to stay outside the Democratic Party, but I saw the momentum that Bernie Sanders created and it was really phenomenal, and I felt that people were rising up and rallying around him. Even before Bernie there was the Occupy movement, so there was a consciousness and a radicalization that was growing. I wanted to keep building that movement and have an opportunity to vote for Bernie, so I switched to NPP.

I believe people need to work outside the two-party system, but I also support the good fight within the Democratic Party that is happening today. There are people working within the Democratic Party who don’t want to just reform it, there are people who are seeking to take it over. There are people who really see it as a strategic move to work inside the party to educate people rather than falling into line with the corporate Democratic leaders. So what I always say when I go up and down the state is to keep fighting the good fight inside the Democratic Party and those of us on the outside will keep fighting the good fight outside. I think we need it all. And I believe there are independent thinkers inside and outside the Democratic Party. So we can all, regardless of party, build an independent organizing movement. I think that’s key, regardless of where you’re registered. That you’re independent in your thinking and independent in terms of movement building, that you don’t just fall in line with the Democratic leadership and their hierarchy of discipline within the party.

SF: So in practice this means that the RPA has elected leftists and progressives to office as Democrats, Greens, and independents?

GM: That is correct. Like I said, I was always a Green. For the last couple of years I was NPP, independent. Most of the elected RPA members are themselves progressive Democrats, but they were never endorsed by the Democratic Party. Our county Democratic Party recognizes that the RPA is an independent organizing force. And even though some of our candidates, and now our council members, are Democrats, they were never endorsed by the Democratic Party which feels threatened by our independence. Some of our candidates sought endorsement from the Democratic Party, but did not receive it. I believe the Wellstone Democrats have endorsed some of us at times, but they’re very much on the far left wing of the Democratic Party.

But overall, it’s clear that we are an independent force, and too often the Democratic Party is in line with the big corporations (Chevron for example, in Richmond) and they did not want us to win a super majority on the council. Three of us ran against $3.5 million of Chevron’s money in 2014, and all three of us won – all the Chevron candidates lost. So it’s become clear that we can overcome the power of money, but it hasn’t stopped the opposition. Chevron certainly wants to regain control and I would say the Democratic Party’s corporate leadership would like to regain control as well.

SF: The RPA is not actually a political party, it’s an independent political organization. But does the RPA have a view towards eventually constituting itself as a new party? Or do you intend to remain as you are, as an independent organization outside the framework of the Democrats and other existing parties?

GM: Some people see us kind of as a quasi-party, but we are not. We are, as you said, an independent organizing movement and we are looking to expand that idea. A dozen new progressive alliances have emerged from San Diego all the way up the north coast and more. I was just in Sacramento where they’re forming a progressive alliance. So I think our goal is to build a movement to connect corporate free progressive organizations whether they have built progressive alliances or are OR groups, DSA chapters, Greens, Peace and Freedom Party, Movement for a People’s Party or other real progressive entities. We think in California we could do some statewide organizing that’s inclusive of everyone. That, I think, is the goal. And ultimately, the purpose is to accumulate power in the hands of working people.

A party is an important thing, but at this point I think our focus is on movement building and helping people connect the dots. We can help them connect the dots so they understand the nature of the problems we face. We can work on all fronts, in election and non-election years. The RPA is a year-round organization, and isn’t just active in election years. And this California Progressive Alliance that we’re building, the CPA, is also going to operate in election and non-election years so we can build consciousness and accumulate power year round.

Eventually when we move the masses to the left in significant numbers a new party may be in order, or perhaps even the Green Party structure, which has ballot status in many states. I’m not going to argue with people who say the Democratic Party can be taken over. If they can, I say go for it. And if they can, it really will no longer be the Democratic Party as we know it, it will be something new.

SF: You mentioned Bernie and the enthusiasm and the mass political awakening that his campaign generated. One of the main themes of his campaign and everything he’s said and done since is the concept of “political revolution.” This idea resonates for many people in DSA and more broadly, and speaks to what they perceive to be wrong about our society and what needs to be changed. How do you conceive of that idea, and how does it relate to the work you’re doing as a politician and a member of this broader movement in the RPA?

GM: The political revolution can be looked at in various ways. One of the first things it brings up for me is changing the nature of elections, and that’s why we stand for corporate free elections and take a vow to take no corporate money. That’s what the RPA did, that’s what my Lieutenant Governor campaign did. And we actually had a whole cadre of candidates in the 2018 California primary from different parties who vowed to be corporate free, and it was a great source of unity. Some of them made it to November, others brought forth our values which resonated and continue to resonate with people.

So the political revolution is getting corporate money out of politics so that we can have a true democracy. Democracy should be of, by, and for the people, right? And unfortunately corporations have been seen by the Supreme Court as people, but they, of course, are not. As Bernie said the political process is rigged, and it’s set up against the interests of working people. It allows candidates to be bought and that creates a pseudo-democracy, a fake democracy. And then elected officials end up doing what their corporate funders want. They might change a little minor aspect of life for their constituents, but ultimately they keep a system going that’s rotten to its core. It’s rotten by way of greed and economic inequality, social oppression and environmental destruction, and of course, permanent war.

If we can get corporate free candidates to run for office and, ideally, to win, we’ll have more and more people in office playing a role in organizing working people. And that’s really important because people think that elected officials can change things for them. But ultimately what we have to make clear is that it’s the accumulation of power in all of our hands, in the hands of working people, the 99%, that’s going to change things. Elections play a role because we lay out a people’s agenda in the public sphere through campaigns. And if we get corporate free candidates into office, we want to make sure that these candidates understand that their role is to be an organizer in addition to politician. We don’t want them to get into office and say, “Oh now I’m in this club of elected officials” and become detached from the movement. That does not help to build the kind of power we need.

So what we want are elected officials who are dedicated to organizing. And then when they get elected, they continue being a part of this organizing structure that we’re building. They can help by utilizing their office to help build the local movement, as I did when I was mayor of Richmond. So I would say that Bernie’s political revolution concept means that we build the movement and we get those individuals into elected office who understand their role entails building the movement and breaking the grip of corporations on our democracy.

SF: What you just laid out is very similar to the ways that socialists have thought about these questions throughout history. In that regard, how do you think socialist ideas and socialist politics are relevant to the electoral work that you and others are doing around the country?

GM: I embraced democratic socialism as young person back in the early 1970s right as the Vietnam War was ending. I was engaged with people who were involved with different socialist organizations, and it was a consciousness-raising period for me. Once I came to understand that it’s an uneven playing field and the capitalists are manipulating the situation for their own benefit, it became clear that this isn’t the home of the free and the USA isn’t a place that offers equal opportunity for all.

People are starting to see the whole concept of socialism in a different way. I think, for years, it was seen in a negative light. The Stalinist period in the Soviet Union, which was ruled by a bureaucracy that didn’t give the people the rights that they needed and deserved and was very corrupt, gave socialism a bad name. Bernie has resurrected the concept of socialism in a positive way, a democratic socialism. DSA was around before Bernie, of course, but he was able to make it okay to say you’re a socialist in the broadest company without feeling like you’re going to be attacked, so that’s a very good thing.

I do think that the label isn’t as important as the people coming to understand that our lives are being dominated and that the 1% is really pulling all the strings here. Once people understand that this is how our society works and that it’s not right, they’re immediately outraged. Whether one calls that understanding socialism or not isn’t quite as important to me. I think the way we need to make change is by including everyone in decision-making.  In time, I think that the concept of democratic socialism will be understood more and more by the masses of people, but I think what’s most important at first is to connect the dots for people. It’s not like you have to understand the theory of socialism first in order to understand that our lives are being controlled. Some of us may have come to activism by way of understanding theory, whereas others will be activated solely by the fact that there’s so many problems in their lives and our planet is in crisis, and that propels them to make change. At some point in the future, I think that democratic socialism will be embraced by masses of people, but it may not be a necessary label that people have in terms of what they call themselves initially.

SF: How do we continue to build our capacities and acquire the resources we need to achieve those goals? You were able to effectively confront the power of Chevron’s money in Richmond, but you also noted that the top two candidates in the Lieutenant Governor’s race basically bought their way to the top. So how do you think we can continue to build the resources and strength we need to continue to fight the political revolution and really contest for power?

GM: I would say the way is by coming together and not being sectarian. Leftists have been sectarian for decades. There have been various efforts to try and unify people, and the efforts still continue because the silos still exist. That’s one of the reasons why we’re organizing the CPA and welcoming participation from all Left parties and Left activists within parties, organizing progressives that are not registered with any party as well.

In California, we have five million people that are registered No Party Preference. We can organize them, and a lot of the ways we can do that is through Bernie’s campaign. A lot of people donated to his campaign who were registered NPP. We have lists of people who have made such donations, and we can organize them, get them out more frequently for elections and get them participating in issue-based campaigns.

One of the ways we’re doing this in California with the CPA is through my statewide campaign infrastructure. I think the Internet is a good way for us all to organize, and I think it is the wave of the future. My opponent ran all these expensive TV ads while we used social media instead, which I believe is the more economical and publicly beneficial way to campaign. Our Lieutenant Governor campaign had more social media engagements than any candidate throughout the state because we tracked our posts and saw what issues brought people into discussion. We want to keep using the expertise of technology and share resources such as information and data among corporate-free campaigns.

An organization like the CPA can have people research the issues and push model legislation. We can push that in the legislature and, if we have some corporate-free legislators, we can have them carry good legislation. We can also use ballot measures in California to bring forward good policies.

When we have our founding convention in February we want to start preparing for the 2020 election. The California primary elections will happen in March 2020, on “Super Tuesday.” We will have one of earliest primaries in the nation so all eyes will be on California, and we want to keep pushing and educating people and organizing. Elections are good for that, so I think that’s an opportunity to spread the issues. If California has some real success in building a statewide progressive alliance, maybe other states will form something similar, and then we can connect them nationwide. And from there, perhaps we could choose to form a new party or utilize an existing party and see through the political revolution that Bernie’s calling for.