Burning Richmond’s Race Card

Chris Thompsonm, East Bay Express (Emeryville, Ca.), Dec. 7, 2005

Last week, after two years without a permanent police chief, Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay announced the new top cop: Chris Magnus, a Pennsylvania towhead who has spent the last six years running the Police Department in Fargo, North Dakota. Magnus will leave the nation’s twelfth-safest city and try to tame its eleventh-most-dangerous one, a place where gunfire is the soundtrack to urban life. But that’s not the most noteworthy development here. Magnus’ appointment caps a quiet but momentous transition in Richmond’s troubled leadership. About two years ago, all the major administrative positions in the city were held by African Americans. Today, they are all held by whites.

And in a city with such a large African-American population, where voting patterns have historically followed racial lines and black administrative leadership has always been such a high priority, nobody seems to care.

“I think the people in Richmond are so frustrated that they are just willing to try anything that works,” says Jim McMillan, an African-American former pharmacist who served on the city council from 1983 to 1995. “And if the police chief or city manager happens to be Caucasian, I think they’re willing to let it work its way out.”

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The city’s newfound indifference to race signifies a larger willingness to grow beyond the politics of cronyism. Of all the cities of Contra Costa County, Richmond has been the most beholden to machine politics, in which a toxic cocktail of money, power, labor, and race have subverted the basic goals of good government. But in the last few years, this has produced an appalling failure of leadership. The city found itself crippled by a staggering financial crisis, and cops watched helplessly as young men shot each other down in the streets. The city’s near-bankruptcy and its homicide rate so unnerved Richmond leaders that for the first time in decades, they may have set aside the luxuries of patronage hiring and machine politics, and focused instead on finding people who can actually solve their problems. In short, Richmond may finally have come to its senses. We’ll see how long this lasts.

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By 1993, Richmond’s machine politics had reached the point where Darrell Reese, a lobbyist and leader of the city’s firefighter unions, is now often credited with single-handedly picking the new city manager, Floyd Johnson. And when Johnson was fired four years later, the city council replaced him with Reese’s choice for a successor: Isiah Turner.

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By 2003, Richmond was reeling under a catastrophic fiscal crisis. The city ultimately faced a $35 million budget deficit. Libraries were slated to close, as were senior and community centers. The city decided it had no choice but to fire hundreds of employees, prompting outrage and pickets outside Mayor Irma Anderson’s home. The streets were left to rot without repairs. State auditors later determined that the city, under Turner’s leadership, had given out fat pay raises to union members—especially police and firefighter unions—and deliberately misrepresented both the size of its reserves and its annual expenses. Turner resigned in 2003, as did his finance director, Anna Vega.

Meanwhile, a murder epidemic plagued Richmond’s toughest neighborhoods. The homicide rate rose to 29 in 2002, then to 38 in 2003. Samuels came under fire for his failure to implement community policing. His closest adviser resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, and officers were charged with child molesting and police brutality. In August 2003, just before the Richmond Police Officers Association was poised to deliver a formal vote of no confidence in him, Samuels resigned.

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