Measure Would Bar Out-of-Town Money in Humboldt County Races

Times Staff Writer

Sky-high redwoods, a fogbound coast and unabashed liberalism: It’s the last that drew Ohio transplant John Emig to Humboldt County, where one recent night he cold-called dozens of residents in a campaign to all but kill corporate spending in local elections.

“I love the politics here,” Emig said, putting aside a half-eaten slice of cold pizza in the downtown Eureka headquarters of Measure T. “In the Midwest, I felt like a voice in the wilderness.”

In Humboldt County, a Connecticut-sized chunk of real estate 250 miles north of San Francisco, Emig has plenty of company in advocacy that much of the United States would consider distinctly Left Coast.


Over the last few years, the City Council in Arcata, home of Humboldt State University, has issued resolutions condemning the war in Iraq, urging President Bush’s impeachment, inveighing against the failings of the U.S. electoral system and making it illegal for any city official to comply with the Patriot Act.

But the county’s Measure T, on the ballot Tuesday, would carry more weight than a stern municipal harrumph. If it passes and then survives an almost inevitable legal challenge, it would bar donations to local candidates or initiatives by any out-of-town corporation.

That would cover almost all of the world’s companies. As defined in the measure, a “non local” corporation is one with even a single employee, director or shareholder outside the county. However, the measure would allow labor unions with just one Humboldt County member to donate freely.

“I’d liken it to what the early abolitionists did, to the early steps in the struggle for women’s suffrage, to the early stages of trade unionism,” said Arcata resident David Cobb, the 2004 Green Party presidential candidate. “It would be the beginning of a populist progressive revolution at the ballot box.”

Similarly impassioned rhetoric has been uncorked by the opposition.

It’s “a grenade in the face of democracy,” said Robert Zigler, an attorney who heads the Fortuna Chamber of Commerce. “It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen happen to the democratic process.”

If Measure T is an assault on corporations, it’s one that appears to resonate in this laid-back region of loggers, pot growers, artists, academics and just plain folks. It qualified for the ballot with nearly 6,700 signatures, just shy of what is believed to be the record set by a failed 2004 ban on genetically modified crops, according to county officials.

A poll by Eureka’s Chamber of Commerce, however, found more than 90% of its members against it.

Opponents say they’re being outspent 10 to 1 by Measure T supporters, who have raised about $20,000 -- including a small portion from out-of-county nonprofits that would be taboo if the measure succeeds.

Volunteers hand out tea bags encased in folders recalling the Boston Tea Party, “an act of defiance by our Founding Fathers against unchecked corporate power.”

A number of prominent local officials have endorsed the measure, including Humboldt County Dist. Atty. Paul Gallegos, the target of a 2004 recall financed by a Texas company with vast logging interests in Humboldt County.

“This is fertile ground,” said Gallegos, a Southern California emigre who was elected in 2002. “People here have a clear picture of the abuses that are possible when corporations dump money into local politics.”

A few months after taking office, Gallegos unsuccessfully sued Pacific Lumber, alleging fraud and contending that the company had lied to the state about its timber-cutting plans.

Owned by Houston-based Maxxam Inc., Pacific Lumber poured more than $250,000 into the bid to boot Gallegos, who beat it by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

But the next time big money cascades into the small county (population 128,000), the results might be different, Measure T’s supporters warn.

“People spent thousands of hours to keep someone in office who was just elected,” said Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a leader of the Measure T campaign. “Everyone was saying, ‘Why is this legal? There should be a law.’ ”

Not this law, retorted Chris Crawford, a courtroom technology consultant who is a leading critic of the measure.

Crawford, who supports limiting corporate donations to $500, casts Measure T as a blatant attempt to gag businesses large and small.

“Any idiot can see how slanted it is,” he said, pointing out that even small family businesses would be barred from donating if they were bankrolled by out-of-town relatives.

At issue is the long-established doctrine that corporations have the same constitutional rights as individuals.

Arcata, which boasts a Committee on Democracy and Corporations along with one on parks and recreation, declared otherwise in a 2004 resolution on “the legal fiction of corporate personhood.”

“When critics of Measure T say it limits free speech, they’re assuming that corporations are humans and money is speech,” Councilman Dave Meserve said. “I think both are false.”

To the opposition, the lofty oratory of Measure T’s supporters masks their real motives.

“It’s a naked power grab,” said Zigler, the Fortuna attorney. “It has to do ultimately with timber and the development of industry on Humboldt Bay.”

Both sides say that the next likely magnet for corporate money will be a weedy, contaminated 38-acre parcel beside the Eureka waterfront. Voters fended off a $235,000 campaign by Wal-Mart to put a store on the site in 1999, but now it has been acquired by Rob Arkley Jr., a wealthy Eureka developer who wants to build, among other things, a Home Depot.

Arkley, a major contributor to state and national Republican candidates, has urged county supervisors to “do everything in your power” to defeat Measure T.

“We do not need any form of fascism here in Humboldt County,” he wrote in an April 7 letter to the supervisors, adding that the measure would be “challenged promptly” if it passes.

Experts in the field say that laws banning corporate contributions to candidates have long been upheld, although companies have breezed around them with the aid of political action committees and other gimmicks.

But backing ballot measures has been seen by the courts as less likely to breed corruption. That’s one reason the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Massachusetts law limiting corporate contributions in support of initiatives.

Given the 1978 decision in First National Bank of Boston vs. Bellotti, Measure T is “probably unconstitutional,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles.

Stern, formerly an attorney for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, offered little hope that the current Supreme Court would look kindly on the measure.

“I’d say good luck,” he said. “This court is very pro-business.”

Other attorneys are less certain.

Richard Hasen, an election law expert who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that rulings since Bellotti have signaled the court’s possible willingness to reexamine its stance.

And John Bonifaz, a Massachusetts attorney who founded the National Voting Rights Institute, said the Bellotti ruling opened the door for a ban on corporate spending in places where corporate dollars have “undermined the integrity of the political process.”

Insisting they live in such a place, Measure T boosters say they are unfazed.

“Money in elections is like rain on the roof,” Sopoci-Belknap said. “It might get in somehow, but it’s better to have a roof.”