What is Richmond Represented? Is it Chevron?
The following is an attempt to document several possible violations of city policy, campaign finance laws, and tax law taking place now in Richmond, California, all involving an entity calling itself “Richmond Represented.” See Appendix 1 for a diagram of the relationships between organizations involved as they are believed to exist.
In addition to describing possible illegal activity, the goal of this is to draw attention to the fact that the Chevron Corporation seems to be exerting undue influence on Richmond city elections once again. There is increasing evidence that Chevron, working through their public relations firm BMWL and Partners, under the “Richmond Represented” banner, and drawing in several Richmond Neighborhood Councils, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to gerrymander Richmond city council districts in early 2022. And now they are spending equal amounts trying to defeat progressive city council candidates and elect others more favorable to their interests.
In Richmond, Neighborhood Councils are un-elected bodies that are supposed to act as a conduit between the city council, city staff including police, and residents. Neighborhood councils are prohibited from campaigning in city elections under their bylaws and also because they are part of a 501c3 charitable organization. But evidence shows that several people have been misusing their status as neighborhood council leaders to help Richmond Represented achieve its aims, and that corporate money has deeply infected the neighborhood council system.
A central figure in this seems to be Joe L. Fisher, a neighborhood council president who formed an additional charitable organization with the same name as the neighborhood council he serves – Coronado Neighborhood Council (1). In early 2022 Mr. Fisher was part of the Richmond Represented campaign to influence city redistricting. As of July 2022, his Coronado Neighborhood Council has joined with Richmond Represented for a large-scale media campaign to oppose progressive candidates in Richmond. No source of funding is given for these activities, but Fisher has decades-long ties to the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, the Chevron Corporation, and the consultancy firm that is secretly running the Richmond Represented campaign.
WHAT IS SOURCE OF THE MONEY THAT “RICHMOND REPRESENTED” IS USING TO INFLUENCE CITY POLITICS AND THE UPCOMING ELECTION?
We now have evidence that Richmond Represented is being managed by BMWL and Partners, which has strong ties to Chevron. We can make that available to reporters and regulatory agencies upon request.
On its website, BMWL and Partners describes itself as a consultancy that helps its clients “influence decision-makers and win in the halls of government, at the ballot box and in the marketplace of ideas.” According to Richmond Confidential, BMWL is a “public relations firm owned by well-known Chevron consultant John Whitehurst and his partners.” When Chevron dumped more than three million dollars into trying to influence the Richmond city campaign in 2014, BWLW was one of the main vendors they used for that work, as The Nation described.
In addition to Chevron, BMWL and Partners have represented soda corporations like Pepsi and Coke through the American Beverage Association. BMWL and Partners created the 2012 campaign to defeat the soda tax initiative in Richmond, which succeeded in large measure by fomenting racial tension between Richmond residents. Not coincidentally, this year’s Richmond Represented/BMWL campaign to influence the redistricting process in Richmond promoted a false narrative that not re-drawing Richmond’s district lines the way they demanded would be discriminatory against black and brown neighborhoods, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Though Mayor Tom Butt took the side or Richmond Represented in the recent redistricting fight, back in 2012 he seemed to understand that BMWL and Partners were bad news for Richmond. In his eForum, Butt shared an article by Bay Area reporter Wendi Jonassen called “Racebaiting in Richmond,” in which she documented the unsavory relationship between BMWL and Partners, Chevron, current city council candidate Corky Booze, Joe L Fisher of the Coronado Neighborhood Council, and frequent Chevron-backed Mayoral Candidate Nat Bates. Though this is 10 years old, there are important lessons for today to be learned. Here’s how Jonassen describes it:
In an interview, Booze (pronounced Boo-ZAY) said that when talk of a soda tax first started, he felt as if whites liberals on the city council were teaming up against him, so he sought out consultation from BMWL & Partners, since the firm had represented him during his campaign for office. "They actually got me elected to the Richmond City Council," he said.
Not long after Booze met with the BMWL & Partners, he said he introduced Finnie to Joe Fisher, forming yet another ideal alliance for the beverage industry. Fisher, a leader of the Black American Political Action Committee (BAPAC) in Richmond, also contended early on that the soda tax was racist.
Over the years, Fisher also has taken money from Chevron to fight progressive and environmental causes, as the Express has previously reported (see "A Friend of Chevron Gives It a Costly Gift," 10/29/2009). And during the anti-soda-tax campaign, Fisher worked for the beverage industry as a consultant; he and BAPAC received more than $30,000. He said his job entailed "sharing my opinion with African Americans, sharing with them what I perceive as being the truth."
For Fisher, the truth meant playing the race card throughout the campaign. And BMWL & Partners hammered home the message by employing numerous black and Latino youth to work on the effort. Racial divisions over the soda tax soon became prominent.
Wendi Jonassen also reported that:
BMWL & Partners worked with Chevron in 2012 as part of the oil giant's $1 million effort to elect Chevron-friendly candidates running for the city council, including (Nathaniel “Nat”) Bates.
As of 2022, Chevron Corporation may have once again enlisted its helpers at BMWL & Partners to try to exert control over Richmond’s city government. Or maybe this time Chevron is combining its money with other large corporations and passing it through the political action committee that the Richmond Chamber of Commerce formed for the first time this year. While the exact path of the money is hard to trace (that’s why it’s called “dark money”), the goals are obvious. The plan was first to redraw district lines in a way that would impede the election of progressive candidates (which failed). Now they are working to discredit progressive candidates. Next will they start supporting their favored candidates – including Nat Bates for mayor – like they did in 2012 and 2014?
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW?
The Richmond Chamber of Commerce has stated its intent to raise and spend money to defeat progressive city council members and replace them with city council members who will undermine Measure U. Measure U is a business tax increase passed by Richmond voters in 2022. The new tax is scheduled to go into effect for Chevron Corporation starting in 2024 – in other words Chevron is about to start paying additional taxes to the city unless it finds a way to undercut Measure U.
Unlike some voter-approved measures, the new business taxes are largely under the control of the Richmond City Council, which has the power to set the tax rates. The Chamber (and Chevron) know that if they are able to elect just two city council members who are amenable to doing so, the new City Council could go against the will of the voters (more than 70% of who supported Measure U) and essentially shut down the new business taxes with a council vote. The only two candidates in the November election who have expressed support the new business taxes created by Measure U (Eduardo Martinez for Mayor and Jamin Pursell for D4 - both endorsed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance) are the campaign’s clear targets.
IS THIS ILLEGAL?
Maybe. Richmond Represented is now running an extensive internet, social media, television, and bulk mailing campaign to encourage Richmond voters to reject Richmond Progressive Alliance-endorsed politicians and candidates. Samples are included below – hundreds of thousands of dollars have likely been spent on these campaigns so far.
People or organizations that spend substantial amounts of money supporting or opposing candidates in California are required to form committees and include their Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) number on all mailings. Regular reports must be filed that detail the source of all money spent on campaigning in city elections. There is no evidence that anyone involved with the Richmond Represented campaigns have formed a committee. They have placed no FPPC number on any of their campaign communications. They seem unlikely to provide the legally-required campaign fundraising and spending information by July 31, 2022.
Attorneys working with BMWL and Partners and Chevron attorneys will likely make an argument that none of what they’ve done constitutes political activity, and thus does not fall under the purview of the FPPC.
But whether or not they have the legal power to avoid FPPC penalties, the fairness of the city election has already been severely compromised by this activity.
NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL BYLAWS VIOLATION
It is unclear whether it is the city-sponsored Coronado Neighborhood Council, or Fisher’s charitable organization which has the same name, that is the entity taking positions on candidates in the upcoming city election. However, campaigning by a neighborhood council and by a charitable organization are both prohibited. So these activities must be immediately stopped by those with the power to do so.
Richmond neighborhood councils are prohibited from campaigning in city elections under their bylaws.
POSSIBLE IRS VIOLATIONS
And charitable organizations are prohibited from campaigning in city elections under tax law.
The “Coronado Neighborhood Council” was formed by Joe L. Fisher as a tax-exempt charitable organization that can offer tax-deductions for the contributions it receives. If Mr. Fisher’s Coronado Neighborhood Council charitable organization is using the money it raised under the guise of charity for political spending, that would violate tax law.
Campaign activity by any neighborhood council, even one that has not itself incorporated as a charity, may also violate the tax laws that apply to charities. This is because the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council, which coordinates the individual neighborhood councils, is itself incorporated as a 501c3 charitable organization (EIN: 68-0050269, Principal Agent Jan Mignone) and subject to those tax laws.
TO DATE THIS CAMPAIGN AGAINST PROGRESSIVE CANDIDATES HAS INCLUDED:
WEBSITE: A “Richmond Represented” website is attributed in the bottom footer to the Coronado Neighborhood Council as well as Richmond Represented (https://www.richmondrepresented.com) (Download PDF of website). Here is the footer that mentions the neighborhood council, and some additional website images showing political activity on the website (RPA stands for Richmond Progresive Alliance):
PAPER MAILING: An eight-page flyer has been mailed to thousands of Richmonders by the Coronado Neighborhood Council. It has been sent to Atchison Village, Pt. Richmond, Marina Bay, and other neighborhoods. It contains no FPPC number, which is legally required for political mailings. Here’s what the flyer says at the bottom.
TELEVISION COMMERCIALS: Once again under the name Coronado Neighborhood Council at the bottom of the screen, and with no FPPC number.
SOCIAL MEDIA ADS: There are Facebook and Instragram ads, once again with no FPPC number. You can see ad details online on Facebook here. Here is a screenshot of the six ads so far – more than $3000 spent in a week.
THE CAMPAIGN TO INFLUENCE REDISTRICTING
In March and April 2022, a similarly-sized campaign of social media, paper mailers, and potentially other communications was also purchased under the name Richmond Represented, this time to influence the redistricting process in the city. Money was spent to pressure the Richmond City council into adopting the particular redistricting map that was favored by those who are financing the Richmond Represented campaigns. You can see the social media ads for the redistricting campaign here.
In the video ads, Joe L. Fisher (Coronado Neighborhood Council President), City Council candidate Oscar Garcia (Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council President), Jan Mignone (Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council president and the principal officer of the 501c3 of that name), and Linda Whitmore (former Santa Fe Neighborhood Council president) identify themselves as speaking on behalf of neighborhood councils on a political issue, in violation of neighborhood council bylaws. There is no FPPC number associated with these ads, no disclosure of the source of the money behind them. Though archived separately on Facebook, these redistricting ads use the same name (Richmond Represented), google phone number (415-320-8382), and email ([email protected]) that is now being used on the social media ads condemning the Richmond Progressive Alliance and those it endorses.
Each of the Richmond Represented redistricting ads promoted the same narrative – that the current city council, with its progressive majority, needed to be pressured to choose a new district map that would fairly represent black and brown residents and follow the Voting Rights Act. By all normal redistricting standards, the district map the city council favored, and eventually chose, did fairly reflect the racial demography of the city and adhered to the Voting Rights Act. If not racial justice, what was Richmond Represented actually trying to achieve with the hundreds of thousands it spent on this campaign? It looks like this was their first attempt to lower the number of Richmond City Councilmembers who would uphold Measure U. What all the maps they promoted had in common was that they drew district lines in such a way to drive at least one progressive City Councilmember – and Measure U supporter – out of his or her seat. One of the maps promoted by Richmond Represented would have placed progressive Councilmember Melvin Willis in the same district as fellow progressive Councilmember Claudia Jimenez – reducing the number of Measure U supporters by one. The map they eventually rallied around – 102c – would have placed Jimenez, a Spanish-speaking immigrant from Colombia, into a largely white district. And given the staggered schedule for district elections, she would have been forced to run for re-election again this year, half way through her current term, if she wanted to retain her council seat.
This gerrymandering to remove progressive supporters of Measure U was very easily hidden by the steady drumbeat that Richmond Represented spread in mailers and media – that accepting any map other than 102c was racist. We now know that this is the same cynical strategy that BMWL and Partners used during their Richmond soda tax campaign – they foster racial division in order to deliver the results that their corporate clients have paid for.
Below are the Neighborhood Council leaders who were featured in the redistricting campaign run by Richmond Represented.
990s show a “The Coronado Neighborhood Council” Charitable Organization | EIN: 68-0118454 | Richmond CA
The address given is 1501 FLORIDA AVE, RICHMOND, CA 94804-2527. Phone is (510) 232-4625. That is also the location of the Southside Church of Christ http://southside-coc.com/ with Minister Mark Sharpe. President of “The Coronado Neighborhood Council” charitable organization is Joe L. Fisher, and the secretary is Maxine Fisher.
APPENDIX 1: Corporate Influences on 2022 Richmond Elections