Compare Your Candidates: Rex Richardson wants to be mayor. Who is he?

Rex Richardson was in his 20s and working as a labor organizer when a newly elected councilman in North Long Beach offered him a job as chief of staff.

Richardson’s task for then-Councilman Steve Neal was to organize the district, which had lost out on public services because no one in the community was showing up to meetings.

At the time in 2010, there were four neighborhood associations in the 9th District; there were 13 such groups by the time Neal left office four years later.

“I knew he was bright and intelligent, but I didn’t know how bright until I brought him on,” said Neal.

Neal’s decision to run for a state Assembly seat in 2014 opened the door for Richardson, who, at 30, would become one of the youngest councilmen ever to serve in Long Beach after a landslide victory.

After two terms on the council, Richardson, now 39, is hoping to become the next mayor of Long Beach in the Nov. 8 election. He would also become the city’s first Black mayor—a fact he says is important, but “what’s spoken at the table” would be far more important.

He is running against fellow Councilmember Suzie Price, who represents a district that is furthest geographically, and socioeconomically, from North Long Beach.

Price’s southeast Long Beach district hugs the coast, has a quaint shopping district in Belmont Shore and a median income of over $92,000, while Richardson’s district, with a median income of $53,299, has been historically bereft of amenities like sit-down restaurants, coffee shops and banks—a reality the councilman has worked to reverse.

Though both are Democrats, Price is backed largely by business and law enforcement, while Richardson boasts strong support from unions, and is much more the insider in Southern California political circles.

And, if the primary is any indication—he beat Price by 7 percentage points—Richardson is heading into next month’s general election as the favorite to succeed Mayor Robert Garcia.

Those who have worked with Richardson over the years say he is tenacious, smart and energetic, but he also has a reputation of being dismissive, overly sensitive and a consummate politician who takes too much credit for achievements.

“He knows how the city works, and was one of the best chiefs of staff ever,” said Jeff Rowe, who’s active with the North Long Beach Neighborhood Alliance. “And he’s outgoing, gregarious.”

But Rowe and others also acknowledged that Richardson prioritizes his own political future.

“You turn to the dictionary page for the word ‘politician’ and you see Rex’s picture,” said Dan Pressburg, a North Long Beach neighborhood association leader for 40 years.

‘Once a Toro, Always a Toro’  

Richardson was born on Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois on Aug. 18, 1983. According to Richardson, his parents divorced when he was 3 or 4. He and his siblings stayed with his mom, moving between Michigan, Missouri and Minnesota before settling in Pickens County, Alabama.

His mother’s family roots there date to Emancipation, Richardson said.

“My grandfather is buried next to his father, who is buried next to his father,” he said. “My great-grandfather built a church, and a store, which was burned down by the Klan before it was finished.”

When Richardson was 11, his family moved to California, settling in the Covina area. He ended up attending Covina High School—the same one Mayor Robert Garcia attended.

His mother, who had been a union welder at General Motors back in Illinois, was now working at Arby’s, while Richardson went to work at Jack in the Box. “My contribution was paying the Edison bill,” he said.

When it came time to apply for college, Richardson wanted to go to Cal State Long Beach, but its enrollment was impacted, meaning there was a higher bar to get in. The fact that he’d attended 14 public schools across five states before he was 17 probably didn’t help his case, he said. So he applied for Cal State Dominguez Hills and got accepted.

Many years later, when Richardson was attending a summit at the White House on the opportunity gaps faced by young people of color sponsored by the Obama Administration, he spoke of that acceptance’s profound importance in his life.

“When I was 17 years old and I received that letter, that said to me: ‘You overcame barriers, you have value and you matter, and since you matter, you have a commitment to pay that forward,’” Richardson said at the time.

Richardson has made similar comments on the 2022 mayoral campaign trail. What he hasn’t talked about is that though he did well in college, and eventually became student government president, he quit school before graduating.

“I had to work,” Richardson said.

Thomas Parham, president of Cal State Dominguez Hills, discovered this in 2018 when he met Richardson, who was just completing his first council term, he said.

“I told him, ‘I need you to finish your degree,’” Parham said. “‘I need you to finish it for you, and I need you to finish it for the people you inspire.’”

Richardson, who still needed about a semester’s worth of classes, agreed. Initially taking classes with 20-year-olds was tough, but the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced colleges to do remote learning, ended up helping him immensely, he said.

In the fall of 2020, Richardson graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills with a degree in philosophy.

Today, Parham holds up Richardson as a model of the university’s “Once a Toro, Always a Toro” program, which has so far convinced 352 students who left before graduation to return to the college to finish their degrees, Parham said.

“Along the way to dreams and aspirations, life happens,” said Parham. “That’s what happened to him.”

Richardson has now lived in North Long Beach for the last decade, with his wife Nina and two daughters, ages 7 and 5.

Racial reconciliation  

When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, Richardson was out in front in calling for reforms to policing.

“Should we defund the police? Absolutely,” Richardson said in June 2020. “Am I advocating to take out the police completely? No.”

Those statements led to attack ads largely funded by the Long Beach Police Officers Association, which has endorsed Price, and criticism from some in his community.

“He wasn’t thinking about what was best for his constituents when he said that,” Pressburg, the longtime neighborhood association leader, said.

As public sentiment has shifted toward alarm at rising crime rates, so has Richardson. In fact, though was one of the architects of the Racial Equity and Reconciliation Initiative, a sweeping plan aimed at eliminating racism in the city that was adopted in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, it isn’t listed on his campaign website, nor is it a subject he talks about much on the campaign trail.

For his part, Richardson says the website is for “what you delivered,” whereas the reconciliation initiative is a “commitment.” He said the equity work he has done in office is weaved into all of the items listed as accomplishments on his website.

“I think voters understand that I’ve been a leader on equity well before the events of 2020,” he said.

Richardson, some say, does what he needs to do to get ahead politically.

“Rex is like any guy who’s been in politics for a while,” Pressburg said. “Sometimes, he’s a little tone-deaf and doesn’t hear us. Often he does, though.

“I’m not going to condemn him—that’s how politicians operate. He’s still my friend and a really good guy. But you know what he is right up front. It’s not hidden from anybody.”

‘It wasn’t about us’

Richardson talks a lot on the campaign trail about becoming a homeowner at a relatively young age. Though it happened nearly 15 years ago, it led to events that continue to haunt Richardson to this day.

“I bought my first home at 25,” Richardson said at a Sept. 22 candidate forum at the Alpert Jewish Community Center. “That opportunity isn’t available for young people today.”

The day he brought one of his baby daughters home from the hospital, there was a homicide at the nearby Luxury Inn, Richardson said. Resident tensions grew. He began to feel threatened at neighborhood gatherings, where people identified the location of his home, he said.

Richardson, a Councilmember at the time, was feeling targeted. He said he thought that “if I want to focus on this community, then I need to protect my family.” His family moved to another part of North Long Beach, but Richardson kept the house, and today rents it out.

Carlos Valdez, former president of the Coolidge Neighborhood Association, said Richardson has since ignored this part of town, located west of the 710 Freeway, where he once lived. Richardson, Valdez said, was “dismissive” of residents’ concerns and didn’t prioritize getting prostitutes off of Long Beach Boulevard, where they remain prevalent.

While Richardson did push the city to take over the Luxury Inn—one of the largest nuisance motels in the city—and convert it into temporary housing for homeless people, Valdez said Richardson wasn’t interested in focusing on a deeper revitalization of Long Beach Boulevard.

“With Rex it’s always been a challenge,” said Valdez. “After a while, we realized it wasn’t about us, it was about him.”

When asked about this criticism, Richardson rolled his eyes, then said that even though he had once voted for Valdez for neighborhood association president, he was no longer credible.

Richardson is very sensitive to criticism—so much so that he’ll bring it up unprompted in conversation.

“‘Rex likes to take credit for other people’s work’—not true,” he suddenly said during an interview, explaining that everything his office has done since he joined the City Council was an extension of work begun under former Councilmember Steve Neal.

Charges that Richardson can be dismissive with those who don’t share his priorities aren’t new. In fact, Neal readily acknowledged the criticism.

“People may think he doesn’t listen, but he does listen,” Neal said. “His brain is just moving so fast. A lot of people don’t recognize that.”

Though Richardson began pushing for a nuisance hotel ordinance in early 2018, which was eventually passed by the council in late 2019, and the city has since taken over the Luxury Inn, Richardson says the situation near Coolidge Triangle today is his biggest regret as a councilmember.

“It’s taken too long for Long Beach Boulevard to see the changes it needs,” he said.

LA scandal

Richardson, selected as vice mayor by his colleagues, has some benefits of quasi-incumbency. He presides over City Council meetings and other official functions when the mayor is away.

Garcia, the mayor, has endorsed him, as have other high-profile Democrats such as Gov. Gavin Newsom and four of his City Council colleagues.

A labor organizer with SEIU Local 721 before he entered city government, Richardson has been endorsed by 28 unions, including the Long Beach Firefighters Association and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents 800,000 workers in 300 unions and is sponsoring the largest independent expenditure committee supporting Richardson.

Ron Herrera, who is the father of Richardson’s longtime chief of staff, was the federation’s president until Oct. 11 when he resigned following revelations that he participated in an October 2021 closed-door meeting with three L.A. City Councilmembers in which the participants made crude racist remarks while discussing how to use redistricting to reduce the power of Black residents, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Though Richardson called for the councilmembers to resign after news organizations reported on the meeting, he stopped short of asking Herrera to do the same.

This has been a line of attack by his opponent, Price, who issued a statement immediately after the Los Angeles scandal broke, and called for resignations of the three councilmembers and Herrera.

“If you are silent in the face of this, you are fundamentally part of the problem,” Price said in the statement.

Leadership

In addition to his high-profile supporters, Richardson has an impressive list of policy achievements: the PATH young adult diversion program, the Everyone In Initiative, the North Long Beach Education Fund, the Long Beach Veterans Commission, participatory budgeting, the city’s Office of Equity and the Racial Reconciliation Initiative.

“He’s very thoughtful,” said former Councilman Neal. “I’ve seen his leadership, his ability to bring people together, people of differing ideas.”

After Richardson won his council seat overwhelmingly in 2014, his office set about creating what he called the “Uptown Renaissance”—a set of policies and projects designed to revitalize North Long Beach.

What ultimately became the Uptown Commons shopping center started with this process, Richardson said. So did participatory budgeting, when Richardson’s office asked everyone in the district who was over the age of 14, regardless of felony conviction or immigration status, to give their ideas on how to spend $300,000 to beautify the community.

That turned out to be an even greater success than organizers anticipated, said Joni Ricks-Oddie of the DeForest Park Neighborhood Association, who also serves on the Planning Commission and is running to succeed Richardson on the City Council.

Initially, residents asked for a better kiosk at Jordan High, but legally, city funds couldn’t be spent on the school, said Ricks-Oddie. While it was agreed that some of the funds would instead go to a new kiosk at Houghton Park, the Long Beach Unified School District agreed to fund the Jordan High kiosk because of the level of community involvement, she said.

Richardson also pointed to converting the old Fire Station 12 into a community center as one of his achievements: “No other councilmember has done cool stuff like that,” he said.

Richardson also pushed to get the new North Long Beach library named after former First Lady Michelle Obama. It was a controversial move, with Val Lerch, who had represented the 9th District before Steve Neal, saying at the time that the library should be named after someone who directly contributed to the community.

Renette Mazza of the Hamilton Neighborhood Association also thought it was misguided. She told Richardson that naming things after people who are still alive wasn’t right, and that, in any case, he needed to ask the community what they thought, she said.

Richardson still pushed for Obama’s name, but he agreed to open up the choice to the community as a whole.

“He took the time to listen to my concerns,” said Mazza. “He took it to more people. Then everyone decided that’s what they wanted. He could have blocked me, been a jerk, but he wasn’t.”

Five thousand people showed up to the library’s opening, Richardson said. Peter Bostic of Leadership Long Beach, which Richardson had attended a decade prior, thought it was a “bold” move on his part.

“It took some risk, but he would inspire people for the next hundred years,” Bostic said of Richardson.

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.
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