If the Supreme Court is right that corporations are people I need to take out a restraining order on Chevron. To date this oil company has pumped $3 million into the November 4 municipal election in Richmond, California, the low-income multiracial town of just over 100,000 where I live. It's spending well over 10 times what all the candidates -- including the four it's backing -- have spent. Its spending is, to shift metaphors, like an uncontrolled blowout a visually and ethically toxic spill of postal mailers, billboards, phone calls, push-polls, internet and TV attack ads (that even show up when I'm watching the Colbert Report). It's Moving Forward political action committee describes itself as a coalition of labor unions, small businesses, public safety and firefighter associations, but Chevron has provided 99.7 percent of its funding.
I don't really blame Chevron with its annual revenues of $220 billion (that would rank it 43rd in wealth among the world's 195 nations); after all, if you're part of the most powerful industrial combine in human history and it turns out your product -- petroleum -- could prove lethal to much of life on earth, you do what you have to in order to stay on top a few more decades. In Chevron's case they've funded climate change denial, spent over a billion dollars fighting a pollution lawsuit and conviction in Ecuador and are now spending $75 a head to get into my head and that of every other voter in Richmond, where the company has one of its biggest and oldest refineries. You might recall the news coverage when the refinery caught fire two years ago, sending 15,000 residents to area hospitals. I took pictures of the black column of smoke rising over my town. The company then pled no contest to six criminal charges and paid a $2 million fine in lieu of anyone going to jail.
Richmond was a Chevron company town until six years ago when progressive activists won a majority on the city council and forced the company to pay higher property taxes, increase its investments in the city and respond to challenges around pollution and hiring practices.
In that context Chevron's promoting its candidates and attacking three 'Team Richmond' Progressives makes sense for its bottom line.
Who I really blame for the blizzard of corporate propaganda on my doorstep, computer, phone and TV is the Supreme Court and its 5-4 Citizens United ruling that says corporations are people and money is free speech and therefore unlimited corporate campaign spending is free expression (for those who can afford it). That would include the $15,000 Chevron spent hiring a private investigator to dig up dirt on our Green Party mayor in 2010 (they're spending $56,000 on anonymous polling and opposition research this year). That would also include the daily mailers I now get like ones with old Occupy Oakland riot scenes on their cover describing retired elementary school teacher and Team Richmond candidate Eduardo Martinez as a dangerous anarchist (they circle the A in his name to look like something you'd see spray-painted next to a shattered Starbucks storefront). His picture does look pretty weird and squinty-eyed but that could be because it was a Halloween dress-up photo he posted on Facebook before they downloaded it (hint look for the tiny "major funding by Chevron" at the bottom of 90% of the campaign mailers and 100% of the billboards in town). But if you think you might still vote for the soft-spoken community education, immigration and pollution reform advocate Ed Martinez, you might want to make sure that on election day you don't accidentally vote for the guy listed above him on the ballot, a little known Chevron-backed candidate named Al Martinez.
Now if I want to get better informed about these kind of election shenanigans and go to an online news site, say to read a story by a San Francisco newspaper columnist titled, "Chevron pouring money into Richmond elections," an ad will appear encouraging me to subscribe to the Richmond Standard. While it touts itself as a free "community driven news" site, the Richmond Standard is a Chevron creation, named in honor of Standard Oil. Along with a negative "article" on climate change activists they've run unflattering and factually misleading stories on Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Vice-Mayor Jovanka Beckles, the other two "Team Richmond" candidates. What they haven't run is a story on Chevron's unprecedented campaign spending. Here's a link to a short video on what Team Richmond really stands for:
What's happening in my town makes me worry for the future of our democracy as well as our ability to deal with issues like climate and pollution at the local level. On October 16 independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont visited and told 600 Team Richmond supporters gathered at our civic center, "If you stand up to them and all their money, you'll give hope to people all over this country." As Lincoln, who appears on the five-dollar bill, said "You cannot fool all the people all the time." Chevron has spent over five million dollars in my town's elections since the Citizens United ruling of 2010. The good news is they haven't fooled us yet.