Richmond’s Newest Councilmember Brings Activist Credentials to the Job

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday November 26, 2008 - 10:34:00 AM
Newly elected Richmond Councilman Jeff Ritterman talks with a constituent during a program held at the city’s RichmondWORKS program.
By Richard Brenneman
Newly elected Richmond Councilman Jeff Ritterman talks with a constituent during a program held at the city’s RichmondWORKS program.

As a heart doctor, it’s probably only natural that Jeff Ritterman has his fingers on the pulse of the community. Wherever he goes in Richmond, he’s certain to recognize someone, often eschewing the traditional handshake for the hug, as befits a long-time activist with a pony tail that reaches well down his back. 

But beneath the jovial exterior is a seriousness of purpose, appropriate both for his professional role as chief of cardiology for the Kaiser Richmond Medical Center and in his newest guise the public’s top pick in the November race for three seats on the Richmond City Council. 

“I’m really gratified to have come out on top,” he said over a heart-healthy breakfast in Point Richmond. “It was largely due to the work of more than 300 volunteers.” 

Ritterman ran as a member of a three-candidate progressive slate, along with incumbent Tom Butt, who came in second, and Jovanka Beckles, who was narrowly edged out for third place by incumbent Nat Bates.  

Two other incumbents, John E. Marquez and Harpreet Sandhu, were defeated. 

“We really changed the political landscape of Richmond with this election,” Ritterman said, “even though we were significantly outspent and opposed by the Democratic Party.” 

Ritterman and his allies had also taken on the biggest power in the city by the active support of Measure T, another winner on Nov. 4. 

That ballot measure imposes a new business tax that reaches into the deep pockets of Chevron, the city’s dominant landowner. 

“Chevron put a lot of money into defeating us,” he said. “But my popularity is based on my work as a doctor, and that cuts across lines of race and class.” 

As for neighborhoods where he didn’t fare so well, “They just show where there’s tremendous work yet to be done.” 


Mayoral ally 

The doctor and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin have been allies ever since Ritterman became active in city politics five years ago. He backed the mayor in her runs first for a seat on the council, and then two years later, when she won election as California’s first Green Party mayor. 

The 60-year-old activist has been at the Kaiser’s Richmond center since 1981, and he’s been an activist in national and international political issues for decades. 

Ritterman first came to the Daily Planet’s attention early in 2004, when he joined with other Richmond activists in opposing a plan to build a high-rise housing complex atop a massive mound of buried hazardous waste at Campus Bay. 

Clad in his white lab coat, he marched in several demonstrations at the site, drawing the ire of Chamber of Commerce CEO Judith Morgan, who sent an e-mail to Kaiser administrators complaining about the use of Kaiser’s name in a press release announcing the demonstration. The release, however, didn’t mention Kaiser. 

She later claimed Ritterman had been “called on the carpet” as a result of her complaint, something both the doctor and his employer denied. 

While his ideas may alarm some in the chamber, Ritterman has friends in the business community—with strong allies among Richmond’s growing green entrepreneurs. 

“We need a Green New Deal,” he said. “That’s the only way to address climate change.” 

One of the hopes he has for the millions of new revenues from Measure T is that “we can take oil company profits and use them to transition to alternate forms of energy and a sustainable future.” 

Long active in organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), he also cofounded the Committee for Health Rights in Central America, the Salvadorean Medical Relief Fund and the South African Medical Funds. 

According to the San Francisco PSR website, “he has personally delivered medical supplies to Salvadorean refugees living in camps in Honduras and Costa Rica during the war in El Salvador in the 1980s” and delivered medical aid to the African National Congress in Lusaka, Zambia, before the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. 

“I’ve done a lot of international work,” he said. He’s even met the Grand Ayatollah in Iran during a trip to the nation last year by a group of activists, and has been supporting the treatment of victims of chemical weapons injured in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. 

Ritterman and his companion Vivien Freyer are also sponsors of an Iraqi paraplegic they met during a trip to Amman, Jordan, in 2005. With their support, he runs a website www.childrenofiran.com and is attending graduate school at San Francisco State. “He’s got a million friends,” Ritterman said. 

The website was momentarily offline when a reporter checked Tuesday. 


Reasons to run 

Ritterman said he became interested in running for council “because I was very disappointed with the present city council, especially with the way they handled the Chevron expansion plans.” 

Another issue that raised his level of frustration was the council’s refusal to approve changes plans for the new city hall that would include windows that occupants could open. 

“It was clear that the majority really didn’t represent the interests of the community, and when it became clear who was running this time, I decided to enter the race,” he said. 

And while Beckles’ loss didn’t given the council a progressive majority, he said, “we may not quite be there yet, but we’re at the edge.” 

There are major political struggles ahead, signaled during the campaign by a mailer from the Richmond Police Officers’ Association that attacked the progressive slate and blamed Latinos for Richmond’s drug problems. 

“Their attack was really unfair to the mayor, to Jovanka and to me,” said Ritterman. The POA later repudiated its own mailer, and one of the candidates it backed, Chris Tallerico, withdrew from the campaign because of his inclusion in the political hit piece. 

Ritterman said he was also dismayed by an attack from Bates, an African American, on Beckle’s mixed racial heritage (she has both African and Latino heritage)—a critique he didn’t level at the Afro-Anglo Barack Obama. 

“We have a lot of work ahead,” Ritterman said, with the onset of recession adding to the city’s already complex problems. 

The solution adopted by the old City Council—creation of a major tribal casino and resort complex at Point Molate—also worries the new councilmember. 

“I’m not in favor of urban gambling,” he said. “If you want to gamble, invite some friends over and play poker.” 

Then there are the complex issues raised by race and ethnicity, visible during hearings of the casino plans, which brought out emerging animosities among the city’s black, Latino and Asian communities. 

“There’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “We need to build a truly beloved community, one where no one is excluded.” 

That inclusiveness also applies to gays. 

The Ritterman family activism isn’t confined just to the Richmond heart doctor. His sister was half of the couple that brought the case in Connecticut that ended with the state supreme court decision legalizing gay marriage in the Nutmeg State. 

“They were the first couple to get their license in New Haven,” he said, smiling.