Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin filed for bankruptcy shortly before she was elected to the City Council and sought to avoid paying $119,000 in credit card bills and student loans, arguing in court documents that she suffered serious psychiatric disabilities and could not hold a full-time job.
The Richmond police and firefighters' unions, who oppose the 58-year-old mayor's re-election bid, unveiled a mailer, 30-second television ad and website Tuesday that contained these potentially damaging personal details.
The unions, among other labor groups, have vowed to oust the one-term mayor, largely due to her opposition to the proposed Indian casino at Point Molate and her criticism of the Chevron refinery retrofit project.
McLaughlin, who was elected to the council in 2004 and as mayor in 2006, has two challengers Nov. 2: Councilman Nat Bates and former Councilman John Ziesenhenne.
"There are things the mayor hid from voters when she first ran for office," said Richmond Police Officers Association President Sgt. Andre Hill. "Richmond police and firefighters believe voters ought to know the truth about their leaders."
McLaughlin adamantly rejects critics' assertion that her mental and financial history makes her unqualified to serve as mayor of Contra Costa County's second-largest city. She said she suffered from depression, but has overcome it with therapy.
"They are bringing up something that happened years before I took public office and trying to paint it as having something to do with me now," McLaughlin said. "After six years, hardworking years, I challenge anyone to say I haven't put myself, my heart, my mind, soul and body into the work, day in, day out, with the commitment and with the love of serving the people of Richmond."
McLaughlin also disputes the unions' characterization of her work history. She says she held numerous full-time jobs in her adult life, including four-year stints as a data-entry operator at Time Inc. and as a clerical worker with the American Osteopathic Association.
She describes her struggles with depression as a personal challenge, one she attributes to her experiences as the victim of several crimes while she was in her 20s, along with the illnesses and deaths of close family members.
She declined to elaborate on the crimes and illnesses, and said she didn't bring it up during her past campaigns because she views it as her private medical history.
"I had depression because of traumatic situations in my life," McLaughlin said. "I had short periods when I received disability aid and I had long periods of working. But I rose from my problems. I sought out the help that was needed. I overcame my challenges."
McLaughlin plans to respond with mailers and a letter to voters. She held a news conference Tuesday afternoon in front of City Hall, flanked by more than 40 supporters and the head of the city employees union SEIU Local 1021 who called the attack political mudslinging.
Many people have suffered from some illness, the Rev. Phil Lawson said. And the mayor should be judged by her character and accomplishments rather than by past legal actions, added Yvonne Nair, president of the nonprofit Saffron Strand for the homeless.
"We are here to say this is not right," Lawson said.
At a news conference of their own Tuesday, the police and firefighters' unions said they have had trouble working with McLaughlin and said she has not been supportive of issues they care about, a statement the mayor disputes.
The unions declined to say who they are endorsing, but campaign materials for Bates indicate he is endorsed by both unions.
The mayor blistered the unions' use of her personal financial and mental struggles in the campaign, calling it a repetition of dirty Richmond politics.
In the 2008 council election, the police union issued a four-page mailer that attributed the city's crime to drugs and stated, "Drugs come to Richmond from across the Mexican border." It added that city leaders who oppose driver's-license checkpoints hold public safety hostage.
It urged voters to reject candidates Jovanka Beckles and Jeff Ritterman, and to vote for Bates and Chris Tallerico. Critics blasted the mailer, saying it incorrectly and unfairly blames the immigrant population for Richmond's troubles.
McLaughlin filed for federal bankruptcy in 2001, according to court documents. She listed $19,210 in assets, including a 1960 Paramount mobile home and a 1995 Geo Prism sedan.
Her debts totaled $119,353 but the biggest piece -- $100,000 -- was student loans, which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. In 2003, McLaughlin again sought relief in U.S. Bankruptcy Court from the student loans but her appeal was dismissed without prejudice.
The mayor, who earns $46,500 a year plus benefits from Richmond, said she is still paying off the student loans with interest.
The loans, in part, financed her undergraduate degree and some graduate studies. McLaughin earned a bachelor of science degree in psychology in 1996 from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She later pursued a master's degree at DePaul University and Rhode Island State College but did not finish.
During the 1990s, McLaughlin said she suffered some of her most severe bouts with depression.
She was collecting an $891 monthly Social Security permanent disability payment at the time she filed for bankruptcy but said she has not received the benefit since she has been in office.
She was hospitalized on two occasions in 1999 and continued to undergo treatment including therapy, according to court documents. She also took medications associated with depression, sleep-aid, and seizures or neuropathic pain.
She told the court in 2003 that she has "been unable to maintain employment for any extended period of time." She listed in her court petition a few part-time jobs ranging from a few weeks to a few months from the late 1990s to 2001.
But McLaughlin was elected to the City Council the following year and as mayor two years later. The salary is relatively small but the city offers what many would consider good benefits.
Watch a television ad and view a mailer targeting Gayle McLaughlin at IBABuzz.com/politics.