- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Jovanka Beckles moved to Richmond, California in 2005. Back then Richmond bordered on a company town — the Chevron oil refinery is the largest employer in the city, and the city council was staffed almost entirely by politicians the company backed financially.
Beckles had no political background, but as a children’s mental-health worker for the county, she’d seen the hardships of working-class people throughout the Bay Area and felt that the wealthy needed to pay their fair share. New to town, Beckles started seeing yard signs for a Richmond ballot measure that levied a tax against Chevron to pay for social programs, public education, and infrastructure. She supported the idea but thought the language on the sign was overly technical. So she called the group responsible and suggested it should read simply: “Measure T: Taxes Chevron, Not You.”
That’s how Beckles fell in with the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), an anti-corporate, pro-worker independent political organization in the city. By winning a supermajority on city council, RPA has broken Chevron’s stranglehold over the city council.
Beckles has been a councilmember for eight years. In that time, Richmond passed the first rent-control measure in California in three decades, raised the minimum wage to $15 well ahead of the curve, and massively reduced crime and gun violence while also subjecting the police department to more community oversight and facilitating reentry for people who have been incarcerated.
Beckles was born in Panama and immigrated to the United States when she was nine. She attended Florida A&M on a basketball scholarship and has lived in the Bay Area for thirty years. Now she has her sights set on the state house: she’s running for State Assembly in California’s AD-15.
Her opponent this time isn’t Chevron. It’s Buffy Wicks, a former Obama aide who was dubbed “Buffy the Bernie Slayer” in the 2016 primary for her efforts to defeat Bernie Sanders as Hillary Clinton’s California campaign director. Wicks has never held office before and moved to the district two years ago. Even without an organic local social base, she’s pulled in nearly $1.5 million, making this race the most expensive in the district’s history.
Much of the money comes from wealthy donors across the country — and a big chunk of it comes from the pro-charter, anti-union Super PAC Govern for California. You can acquaint yourself with Wicks’s donors at the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America-run website buffywicks.money.
Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, Beckles is a member of DSA, and her campaign is endorsed by the group locally and nationally. The contest between Beckles and Wicks is yet another round in the ongoing battle between democratic socialists and establishment Democrats who boast hefty donations from the mega-wealthy — and in turn protect the interests of private insurers, real estate developers, and school privatizers.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Beckles about squaring off with a multi-billion-dollar corporate giant, the California housing crisis, the necessity of single-payer health care, the problem with charter schools, and the meaning of democratic socialism.
What brought you to Richmond, and to Richmond politics?
I commuted up here from Alameda for five years, working for the county. My wife and I wanted to buy a home, but at the time it was on top of that crazy housing bubble where people were out-bidding each other. It was ridiculous, like someone saying, “I’ll sell you this loaf of bread for three dollars,” and you saying, “Oh absolutely not, I insist you take ten dollars.” So, we couldn’t afford a home in Alameda. At the time, Richmond had a reputation as a high-crime area. But we liked it — it was diverse, and we could afford it.
When we moved here, we knew we weren’t just moving into a house, we were joining a community. So we decided we wanted to learn about the politics. The mayor then wasn’t doing much besides cutting ribbons, but Gayle McLaughlin of RPA was running for mayor and she sparked our interest. She was basically running against Chevron.
Richmond’s schools were dilapidated and underfunded, as were its community health services, parks and pools, and so on. There were no resources for children, no resources for substance abusers. And yet here we were in a city dominated by a multi-billion-dollar corporation.
We learned that the majority of councilmembers had won their elections with money given by Chevron. No wonder Chevron was riding high, with policies in place that increased their bottom line. Not only were they not paying their fair share in taxes, but there were policies that did nothing to reduce the levels of pollution they were raining down on the city.
Lots of children who came through the clinic where I work have asthma. I started to see the connection, and I knew I had to become politically involved.
Did you join RPA immediately?
My wife and I really wanted to get involved with black organizations. But then we started seeing how, unfortunately, all the black organizations were in bed with Chevron. The local NAACP got a lot of money from Chevron and didn’t want to challenge them.
There was an organization called Black American Political Action Committee, and it was mostly black men. At first, I was so excited — all of these black men involved in local politics! Turns out they were getting a lot of money from Chevron, so they always endorsed the Chevron candidates.
At the time, RPA was almost all white. It wasn’t as diverse as we had hoped, but it shared our values. There was this majority-white organization fighting for economic, environmental, and social justice, and then there were these black organizations that weren’t doing jack except helping Chevron elect more Chevron candidates. Even Irma Anderson, the black mayor, you followed her money and it all led back to Chevron. It was so disappointing.
So I joined RPA, and at the same time I started my own black progressive organization. The goal was to reach out to black progressives and channel them toward RPA, and when we got it running most of our members were also in RPA. So RPA wasn’t diverse at first, but they were about what we were about. And now RPA is predominately people of color.
I ran for City Council on an RPA slate in 2010 and won. In 2014, Chevron spent $3 million to defeat the RPA slate but they were unsuccessful, which gave us a supermajority. Now Chevron pays higher taxes, we’ve curbed their pollution, and meanwhile our municipal infrastructure has been renovated and crime is down 33 percent.
Not only did we stop one of our two high schools from being closed, but our schools are so much better funded now — they even have health care centers in them. We passed a $15 minimum wage. We declared homelessness a crisis and passed the first rent-control ordinance in California in thirty years.
The first plank in your platform is called Housing for All, a program you want to pay for by taxing economic elites. How can we address the housing crisis in California?
The housing crisis in California is out of control. We’re seeing more homeless encampments, people who are working forty hours a week living out of their cars. The reason is because we have a for-profit housing system that’s failing to build enough homes that working people can afford.
Housing for All is a plan to build hundreds of thousands of units of new affordable and public housing. Developers are not going to do that on their own, because they just want to build the most expensive housing possible. We can pay for this new housing by raising taxes on housing speculation and vacant investment properties.
In addition to building new affordable and public housing, we need to protect tenants with rent control. That’s why I support Proposition 10, the Affordable Housing Act. But we also have to protect working homeowners, because big banks and housing speculators are buying up whole neighborhoods, and the speculation is making homeowners more vulnerable to market crashes and foreclosures. And we need to protect working-class homeowners against predatory lending, price-gouging, foreclosure, and eviction.
What’s going on with health care in this country, and where do we need to go?
We need to create a single-payer health care system that covers all Californians — not just a few, not just the elites who can afford it. The current system leaves millions uninsured, people get their claims denied all the time, and it’s ridiculously expensive. We need a system that covers for everyone and everything, no deductibles or premiums, no exceptions. California has the fifth largest economy in the world, with the highest concentration of billionaires, and we can have single-payer health care.
We also have to protect and expand existing health care access during the transition to a single-payer system. We have to protect Medi-Cal from budget cuts, and we also have to keep hospitals open rather than just letting corporations up and leave our communities without health care.
In addition to those two things, I’ll also be advocating for implementing a publicly funded care-coordination system between hospitals, social services, school districts, and other care providers. It’s hard for working people to coordinate their own care in a fragmented system. We should offer wrap-around services, so that nobody falls through the cracks.
In your platform you also say that health care workers’ working conditions are patients’ healing conditions. Can you explain that a little bit?
It’s kind of like when you’re on a plane and they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping someone else. If nurses, techs, and aides have poor working conditions — you know, if health care providers are feeling drained, overburdened, under-resourced, demoralized — how in the world are they going to be able to provide quality care for their patients?
We have to make sure that their working conditions are safe for them in order for them to be safe for us. This means enforcing safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, competitive wages, and supportive conditions, as well as collective bargaining rights. Ultimately, it’s simple: happy workers lead to the best quality care.
There are a couple things that stand out to me about your education platform. One of them is free tuition for public college. What’s the current state of public college tuition in California, and why make it free?
It’s ridiculous. First of all, you have parents who are still in debt from their college education, and now they’ve got students they’re trying to put through school who are going to have even bigger debt. It’s a vicious cycle. Our universities used to be funded almost entirely with taxes and now they’re funded almost entirely through tuition. They’re transforming from public to private before our eyes.
We need free public education all the way from preschool through college. We can do it for the same reason we can do single-payer: we have the fifth largest economy in the world with the largest concentration of billionaires. Those billionaires and corporations made their fortunes on the backs of working people. Among other things, they benefit from the education their workers receive before entering the workforce, and they should pay for it.
This privatization you describe isn’t just happening in colleges but in K–12 education too.
Yes, and that’s why we have to have a moratorium on charter schools, so that we can fully fund our public school system instead.
So many of the opportunities that I had in school — music, art, shop — they’re disappearing because of cuts. But it’s more than that. Teachers’ positions are being eliminated due to cuts. The ones who are left aren’t getting raises while housing costs are going up, so they just stop teaching. The classroom sizes are increasing. In big classes, students don’t get the attention they need, and they don’t get the opportunity to ask the questions they need to ask in order to learn and keep up.
It’s very intentional, what we’re seeing. We’re defunding public schools, which causes all of these problems. Then we present charters as an alternative to failing schools and divert public money there instead. But it’s not the schools that are failing our children. It’s the politicians who are taking money from those who want to profit off our education system, and those who want to lower their taxes by slashing public education.
The whole point of school privatization is that wealthy people don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes. Like the Waltons and the Fishers, who throw so much money into charters, what dog do they have in this fight? They can send their kids to private schools, so why do they care? They want to shrink the public sector to lower their own taxes. They want to get rid of unions, which of course destabilizes the power that teachers have to bargain for good wages and benefits. It all comes back to profits for the wealthy.
We can’t continue in this direction. It’s not fair to our students and it’s not fair to our teachers. Until we fully fund our public school system, we don’t need any more charters.
You also include universal childcare. How would that impact life for working people in California?
It would mean the world. For the parents of the kids I work with, struggling parents who work minimum-wage jobs, childcare is very expensive. It’s expensive for people with good jobs too, but when you have no money, it’s prohibitive.
If you can’t afford childcare, and you don’t have a family support system, what options do you have? A lot of people say, “Go to grandma, she’ll take care of you while I work,” but housing costs have caused mass displacement and now grandma lives all the way out in Antioch. Or maybe grandma has to work too.
When people can’t afford childcare or find a replacement, they have a couple of options. They can quit their job and potentially not be able to pay rent or experience food insecurity, or they can leave their kids at home by themselves. We see this in my work, really young kids being left at home because their parents have no options.
Universal childcare would be phenomenal policy to help working families. It would change lives.
You have a huge number of union endorsements, and you’re a Teamster. Why are unions important? How are they under attack, and how do you propose to fight back?
Without a union, employers can fire you without cause. They can have you in situations that are so unsafe that you might be killed. And they can pay you wages that are far from living wages. You deal with this sometimes if you’re in a union, but the point of the union is to give you a structure to fight back. It’s because of unions that we have workplace safety standards and the weekend.
I’m a proud member of Teamsters Local 856, and I really believe it’s because of my union that my job hasn’t been outsourced yet, although the county is really trying hard to break us up. And public unions are under attack in general because of the Janus Supreme Court decision. Private sector unions are too, since there are so many laws that make it easy for corporations to participate in union busting.
We have to protect workers’ right to organize and take state action against union busting. And we need universal just-cause protection for all workers, union or not, and to raise the minimum wage to $20 per hour statewide, because that’s what it costs to live in California.
What’s the Democratic Socialists of America’s relationship to your campaign been?
DSA members have been phenomenal in providing their people power for this campaign. Phone-banking, canvassing, providing their unique talents like graphic design. I’m really happy and proud to have a great relationship with this organization that really believes that we can take back power and put it in the hands of the people. And I’m a proud member of East Bay DSA.
Why do you call yourself a democratic socialist?
Capitalism isn’t working for us. It’s only working for the few, and we need a new economy that works for the many.
Democratic socialism is about understanding that we do have the resources to be able to provide everything that we need. Not only do we have those resources, we create them as working people.
We can have free and good quality housing, health care, childcare, education, and more, but our current for-profit system won’t give it to us. Capitalism gives us homeless people sleeping in cities with vacant housing units. It gives us people dying because their insurance company refused to pay for a simple procedure. That’s what we get from a system that puts profit over people.
Socialism means putting people over profit, so we can have the society we’re all dreaming of. And it’s possible. It’s not far-fetched. It’s very possible to tax the rich and redistribute the wealth.