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- - - - Mark Twain (Roughing It)

Friday, October 31, 2014

How to Buy a City: Chevron money rains down on Richmond election

"Corruptus in Extremis"

  • Yeah, free speech, blah, blah.  But something is very, very wrong when a single multi-national corporation tries to buy every elected official in a San Francisco Bay Area small town.

RICHMOND -- With its mighty East Bay refinery under attack from environmentally minded politicians here, Chevron is pouring staggering sums of money into this blue-collar town's local election -- raising eyebrows across the nation and questions about the role global corporations should play in local politics.
Council candidates who accept matching funds in this city of 107,000 people are limited to raising $65,000 for their election campaigns. Chevron has contributed $3 million to three local political action committees, roughly $72 per registered voter. That is about seven times the amount tech billionaire Meg Whitman spent per voter on a losing 2010 governor's race that was the most expensive nonpresidential race in U.S. history.
The investment -- more than double Chevron's then-record-breaking $1.6 million spending on the last election cycle -- reflects the company's strained relationship with a community where it was historically embraced as an economic engine before a slate of progressives rose to prominence, including a Green Party mayor reports the San Jose Mercury News.

"I can't even point to a race where something like this is happening," said Thad Kousser, a political-science professor at UC San Diego who specializes in California state politics and elections.

Kousser added that because campaign expenditure laws vary by state and city, it's impossible to compare the numbers and definitively say whether, as many have suggested, this is the most money spent by a company in a local election.

"It's not at all unusual for businesses that have a lot at stake in elections to spend money; it's the scale of the donations. You rarely see the kind of money that people spend in U.S. Senate campaigns all coming from one source, on one political side, in a city as small as Richmond."
The spending -- which can be seen in mammoth billboards, stuffed mailboxes and relentless online and television commercials -- comes as the company battles a lawsuit by the city over damages stemming from a major 2012 fire at its 3,000-acre refinery that sent thousands of nearby residents to hospitals. It also comes after eight years of city leadership by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who has protested outside the refinery's front gates and battled the city's largest taxpayer and employer at every turn.

For the company's part, spokesman Braden Reddall defended the enormity of Chevron's contributions.

"The amount of money we spend to inform voters must be viewed in the context of the more than $500 million in local taxes, social investment and spending on local vendors from Chevron over the past five years, and our $90 million social and environmental commitment to the city that will follow once our $1 billion refinery modernization is allowed to proceed," he wrote in an email.

The result of all that money flowing from Chevron's coffers is a sophisticated campaign that promotes its preferred candidates -- Nat Bates, Charles Ramsey, Al Martinez and Donna Powers -- while attacking a slate of candidates -- McLaughlin, Jovanka Beckles and Eduardo Martinez -- supported by a grass roots political activist organization known as the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
The campaign mailers and advertisements, sent out by the Chevron-backed Moving Forward committees, make no mention of the refinery or the candidates' positions toward it. Instead, they largely focus on the travel habits, attendance records and leadership qualities of the people they oppose, often in sharply critical terms.
Billboards and mailers portray McLaughlin, who is running for City Council after being termed out as mayor, as a jet-setter who spent her tenure traveling the world, including lobbying for the release of Cuban spies, while ignoring the city she leads. Mailers call Eduardo Martinez a "radical anarchist" and place his face on milk cartons and missing pet signs as a criticism of his attendance on city and school district boards; and a television commercial done in the style of the once-popular reality show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" lambastes Beckles for expensive dinners (including a $39 lamb chop) while traveling on city-supported trips.

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