If corporations are people then one of them has been stalking me.
When humans think about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that corporations are people and money is free speech, and about the impact unlimited campaign spending is having on our democracy, they tend to think too big. The most significant consequences may not be at the national or state level but in cities where elections can determine decisions about property taxes, land-use permits and zoning that have a direct effect on people’s lives and on companies’ bottom lines.
Chevron has one of the nation’s largest and oldest petroleum refineries (built by Standard Oil in 1902) in Richmond, Calif., the low-income San Francisco Bay Area city of just over 100,000 where I live. While Chevron is the city’s major property owner and provides some 1,200 jobs, less than 10% are held by city residents. Two years ago, a major fire at the refinery sent some 15,000 locals to hospitals. Chevron later pleaded no-contest to six misdemeanor criminal charges and paid a $2 million fine.
Until 2008, when a group of candidates calling themselves the Progressive Alliance won seats, Richmond’s City Council was dominated by a refinery-friendly majority known by some as the Chevron Five. Now the oil giant is trying to turn Richmond back into a company town where elected officials don’t force it to pay more property taxes, or demand transparent environmental impact reports or challenge it on pollution and local hiring practices. In recent negotiations for a billion-dollar modernization that will allow Chevron to burn high-sulfur oil at the refinery, the corporation offered $30 million in community “investments” to assuage residents who fear the refinery’s health and environmental effects, but it ended up having to commit to $90 million under pressure from city council members. That may be pocket change for a company with $220 billion in revenues, but Chevron apparently still took notice.
State election filings show that Chevron spent close to $4 million on Richmond municipal elections between June 2010 and June 2014. The company’s Moving Forward political action committee describes itself as a coalition of labor unions, small businesses, public safety and firefighter associations, but Chevron is so far its only reported funder.
Between January and mid-September, Moving Forward raised $1.9 million and had spent about $1.3 million in support of its four candidates (one in the mayor’s race, a slate of three for city council) and against those it opposes. That’s a little less than $50 a head to target me and every other registered voter in town (there are just over 27,000 of us), and about 10 times what all the candidates combined have spent so far.
About half the slick mailers deluging my mailbox attack the candidates who aren’t on Chevron’s slate (they’re anarchists! they’re jet setters!); the other half sing the praises of the company’s chosen ones. Almost all of them say “major funding by Chevron” in tiny type, and that’s not counting the billboard and TV ads, the campaign calls and telephone polls with loaded questions, or what pops up online.
Whenever I click on an online news site, say a local columnist’s story titled “Chevron pouring money into Richmond elections,” an online ad also appears 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 site, named in honor of Standard Oil. One of its recent “news” items trashed the appearance and behavior of Richmond residents who participated in a national climate protest.
Chevron’s spokeswoman told me the company wouldn’t talk about how much it was spending on the Richmond elections, but it will continue to support candidates it feels is best for local government. Richmond’s termed-out mayor, Gail McLauglin, a member of the Green Party now running for a council seat, says, “If they spend millions ... they’ll make it back thousands of times over if they can get the city council in the palm of their hands.”
What’s happening in my town makes me worry about the fate of representative government and a city’s ability to deal with issues like climate change and pollution in its own backyard. It gives off an odor not just of pollution but of corruption, precisely the stink that the Supreme Court majority denied would happen as it allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations.
If you can’t discern the smell in Richmond, I’m guessing your name is Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, Scalia or Thomas.
David Helvarg is executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. His latest book is “The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea.”Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion