Take your pick: naïve anarchists, or corporate puppets. This is the face of Richmond’s hotly contested race for three council seats in the November 2012 election, at least going by the massive billboards and glossy mailers that have dominated the campaign season in this city of 100,000 residents.
The majority of candidates running for council in Tuesday’s election are qualified and sincere public servants, but, on both sides, campaigns have created a parallel universe of never-ending caricatures, spending nearly $4 million dollars since January.
The stakes are high, as this is the first council election since the city’s largest business and world’s eighth largest oil corporation, Chevron, lost control of the city with the defeat of candidates sympathetic to its operations in 2008. This is also the first election since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in the Federal Election Commission v Citizens United case) that the First Amendment prohibited the FEC and government from limiting the amount of money unions and corporations could spend on campaigns in independent expenditures.
Before the progressive victory of 2008, Chevron enjoyed the support of a majority of legislators at Civic Center, the seat of Richmond’s city government. Since then, Chevron has seen Richmond, home to one of its largest refineries in the nation, drift further to the left under a predominantly progressive administration led by mayor Gayle McLaughlin of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
McLaughlin’s administration, backed by the activist Communities for a Better Environment, has aggressively rejected Chevron’s plans to upgrade its plant, demanding higher safety standards and slowing down plant upgrade plans worth millions of dollars.
Then came the fire on August 6, sending toxic fumes across the city and drawing the ire of an already pollution-weary population.
Angry residents demanded Chevron’s withdrawal from the city, as lawyers from across the country, some from as far as Houston, Texas, swarmed local hotels, filing 23,700 injury claims from residents within three months. Gas prices climbed the next day, as Chevron shut down it’s crude distillation plant, paving way for months of federal investigations.
With public sentiment tilting against the refinery and its traditional backers on city council facing a chorus of anti-corporate speeches at public forums, the stage was set for the November election. Chevron, classified by non-profit watchdog, Center for Responsive Politics as a “Heavy Hitter” in federal campaign spending, poured $1.2 million in campaign contributions towards the Richmond election through a constellation of organizations ranging from PACs to 527s and non-profits.
Alliances formed quickly, as soon as Chevron funded Political Action Committee, Moving Forward, which describes itself as a “coalition of labor unions, small businesses, public safety and firefighters associations” declared its opposition to RPA candidates Eduardo Martinez and Marilyn Langlois.
Operating from across the San Pablo Bay in San Rafael, Moving Forward’s funding for the 2012 election energized the campaigns of the “Three Bs”, candidates Bea Roberson, Gary Bell and senior councilmember Nat Bates, through towering billboards extolling their service records and thousands of mailers and door hangers discrediting their opposition.
The three candidates themselves did not raise significantly more money in individual contributions than their opponents. What made the difference, especially in Bell and newcomer Roberson’s case, were the hundreds of thousands spent on their campaigns by Moving Forward. Factoring in Chevron’s expenditures, RPA candidates and Richmond citizens were outspent by a factor of nearly 1 to 10.
Moving Forward’s campaign literature throughout the campaign season has been characterized by satirical overtones, with the latest mailer against Eduardo Martinez accusing the former school teacher of planning to “overthrow the government by failing to show up for work.” Martinez, a retired schoolteacher with 18 years of service under his belt, has served on several boards in the city, and yet the PAC has spent $275,000 on campaign literature discrediting him and his counterpart, Marilyn Langlois of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
Martinez and Langlois’ retaliation to the campaign mailers has been just as negative, portraying their opponents Roberson, Bates and Bell as corporate agents doing Chevron’s bidding. A mailer released by the Martinez-Langlois campaign shows Roberson, Bell and Bates under a flaming Chevron refinery, with the title “Chevron’s candidates”.
While Bell, a returning candidate who lost his seat in 2004, has fought to dissociate himself from the $422,000 Chevron has spent on his campaign in independent expenditures through Moving Forward, Bates and Roberson have embraced the support, touting it as evidence that they are pro-business and will bring much needed jobs to the city.
“Some candidates spend their time fighting business, that’s not how you build a city” Bates said at a council meeting a few weeks after the accident at the Chevron refinery, “We have brought a lot of businesses to Richmond through working closely with investors.”
And then there’s the soda tax. The issue started back in 2010 when Contra Costa County supervisor John Gioia called for a “soda-free-summer.” Then earlier this year, outgoing Councilman and cardiologist Jeff Ritterman wrote a measure proposing a one cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, igniting a national debate that has seen the American Beverage Association, Cinemark INC and Regal Entertainment spending nearly $2.5 million in efforts to defeat the measure.
With nearly $4 million in combined campaign expenditures on both Measure N and candidate campaigns, campaigns in Richmond have spent at least $40 per resident on the 2012 election, the highest election expenditure in Richmond’s history.
“A lot has changed since my last book,” said Stephen Medvic, a professor of campaign finance law at Franklin Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Medvic wrote a book on campaigns and elections in 2009. In Campaigns and Elections, Players and Processes, Medvic said it would be a mistake to treat the various PACs, 527s and 501 [c] 3s that corporations and interest groups use to move money around campaigns as different entities, arguing they are often doing the same thing.
The Supreme Courts’ ruling in the Citizens United case has wrought profound changes on the electoral landscape. It blurred the lines between charitable organizations – 501 (c) 3s and PACs like Moving Forward, allowing 527s to spend more in independent expenditures closer to the election. The concept of “Corporate personhood” extended to the boardroom, granting corporations the right to spend more on securing support from local authorities. Ultimately, the Citizens United ruling effectively places cities that host big, politically active corporations under increased political pressure through the influence of campaign financing.
“Citizens United has created a new category in the way we talk about money in politics, “dark” money,” said Jay Self, a professor of communication and director of the Truman in Washington Program at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. “This is the unlimited money that corporations and unions can donate to 501(c)(4) groups. They can raise and spend unlimited funds.”
Self said although it seemed like the impact of “dark money” would not be as large as some have feared, there was much research to be done at the state and local level after the 2012 election to establish what impact organizations like Moving Forward and their affiliates had played.
“It is hard to say what effect Citizens United will have on city or local politics,” Self said. “But it isn’t difficult to imagine that corporations or unions with big pockets could have a major impact on local politics considering that politicians and activist groups won’t have the money to fight back.”
The Citizens United ruling may have changed American politics forever. And here in Richmond, residents are seeing the impact of the Citizens United up close and in person.