As local preemption debate heats up, new book charts CA city’s progressive renewal

978-080709426-6Mayoral elections are on the horizon in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. Corporate lobbyists at the Minnesota Capitol are taking aim at local ordinances expanding access to earned sick and safe time.

The timing, it seems, couldn’t be better for author Steve Early’s book reading and discussion at 7 p.m. March 7 at the East Side Freedom Library. The labor rep-turned-journalist’s latest book, “Refinery Town,” traces a progressive revival afoot in Richmond, Calif., an industrial city in the Bay Area long dominated politically by its largest employer, the Chevron Corporation.

The book charts the course activists took, beginning more than a decade ago, to combat the deindustrialization, poverty, crime and public corruption plaguing Richmond in the late 20th century by electing municipal representatives who have since passed a string of progressive reforms, from a higher minimum wage to a nationally heralded approach to community policing.

In the forward to “Refinery Town,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argues that Richmond’s success “reflects the lessons of grassroots organizing elsewhere,” and Early’s latest book “offers ideas and inspiration for making change where it counts the most – among friends, neighbors, and fellow community members.”

We asked Early what lessons Richmond’s progressive renewal might offer for activists in Minnesota and what to expect at the book event March 7. His answers have been edited for length.

UA: Why did you decide to write about the progressive turnaround in Richmond?

SE: “I retired (from the CWA) in 2007 and started doing a series of labor-related books. Five years ago I moved to Richmond from Boston, and that’s when I first got invested in the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which is the subject of the book. I got invested as a rank-and-file member of the RPA, and as it attracted more attention because of the unusual trajectory from a company town to a widely hailed progressive city, I decided it was going to be a good subject for a book.”

UA: The list of progressive policies coming out of Richmond City Hall is impressive. Is it replicable?

SE: “In some ways the agenda of people thinking about running for local office in Minneapolis and St. Paul seems to be very similar: trying to raise the minimum wage, raising labor standards, making housing more affordable, trying to make the police accountable and trying to provide greater environmental protections to the extent any municipality can impact the problem of global warming.

“They might not be the big-picture issues that motivated you to go to Bernie Sanders’ rallies or to join the resistance to Trump… It isn’t going to begin to change electoral politics as much as we need, but it is one way to do that incrementally, to start locally, to build a bottom-up base for a broader – hopefully nationwide – progressive movement.”

UA: What lessons does Richmond’s progressive success story offer for the rest of us?

SE: “To be successful here in Richmond, progressives really had to set aside some of the differences they had. People here have been willing to coalesce and campaign under a common banner. That’s paid off. And you have to be patient and persistent in pursuing your goals. You can’t expect to accomplish them overnight. Also, don’t just pop up every two years and run candidates. The RPA functions year round, it’s a membership organization that people pay dues to, and it’s constantly engaging in issue-based organizing. That’s not the usual model for political parties in this country.

“And the key part is RPA candidates are corporate free. They refuse corporate donations, just like Bernie.”

UA: In Minnesota, Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill to restrict local governments’ power to act on issues like sick time and minimum wage. Have you seen similar pushback in California or around the country?

SE: “This is very definitely part of a wider pattern to curb public policy initiatives at the city level, where governments have become more progressive. But this is happening not just as a conflict between progressives or Democrats at the city level and Republicans at the state level. In New York, progressives on the New York City Council adopted a modest measure to tax plastic bag use, trying to wean people away from an environmentally destructive practice, and this was blocked by a Democratic governor.”

UA: What can people expect at the event March 7?

“I try to make these events not just about telling tall tales about a city in California, but exchanging ideas and strategizing jointly with people who are similarly engaged in progressive local politics and community organizing.”

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