Chevron funds brazen campaign to buy a city government
Fans of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling should be thrilled by all the corporate cash and billionaires’ big donations being thrown around in campaigns this year. Fans of democracy, though, probably feel a bit less enthusiastic, not only because spending by interest-group super PACs is hitting record highs all across the nation, but because of the way some of that money is employed to create an extreme imbalance between contending sides.
This year’s top prize for brazen conduct by a giant corporation in the political sphere should probably go to Chevron. This is a multinational company that, according to a Los Angeles Times report, is bigger than General Motors or Apple and took in nearly $58 billion in revenue during the second quarter of this year. Chevron has funneled a generous chunk of money to Republican campaign committees and individual candidates, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and wrote a million-dollar check to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a conservative PAC.
But backing pro-business conservatives hardly constitutes extraordinary conduct on the part of a corporation. Chevron’s brazenness has been manifested in the local politics of the Bay Area city of Richmond, where Chevron has been refining oil for a century. In 2012, a fire at the refinery sent noxious smoke into the air that sickened thousands of Richmond residents. Chevron paid a fine, but the Richmond City Council did not think that was enough. This was the third refinery fire since 1989, a period during which there had also been 14 toxic gas releases from the Chevron facility, according to city officials.
The city took Chevron to court seeking to force the company to improve safety procedures and oversight. Corporate leaders were not pleased and, in response, Chevron decided to back a slate of candidates for mayor and city council to replace the people who have dared to challenge the way the company does business in Richmond. Chevron’s chosen candidate for mayor has benefited from more than $1.4 million that the corporation has spent on his behalf while his opponent is trying to compete with a mere $40,000 in campaign funds. Chevron’s total spending in these local races is reported to be around $3 million.
Chevron’s big bucks have paid for TV attack ads, purchased space on virtually every billboard in town, funded a flood of mailers, financed a “news” website run by a Chevron employee and backed push polls all aimed at disparaging Chevron’s adversaries and electing a more pliable, less litigious group of city officials.
According to a recent report by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, when a local group calling itself Richmond Working Families began to organize to counter Chevron’s campaign, the company set up a puppet committee with virtually the same name, Richmond Working Families for Jobs 2014, and bought rights to the URL “richmondworkingfamilies.com.”
This goes far beyond a simple donation to a candidate or a cause. In Richmond, Chevron’s money is drowning out any opposing voice. During a visit to the city, Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “We are not living in a democracy when giant corporations like Chevron can buy local governments.”
But can we be surprised? Buying local governments is the logical next step for big corporations and wealthy individuals who are free to spend as much as they want to get whatever they want. Arguably, big business has already done a pretty good job of buying most of the United States Congress, so why shouldn’t Chevron buy a mayor and a few council members in a town the company treats like its private plantation?
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