Election 2014: Chevron vs. Local Democracy

Chevron has dumped millions of dollars into municipal elections in the city of Richmond, California—where the oil giant operates one of the state's largest refineries—in what critics say is one of the most egregious examples of a corporate interest using nearly unlimited financial resources to overwhelm a slate of local candidates it opposes.

Additional Common Dreams coverage of this issue can be found here, here, and here.

The Basics:

Common Dreams, The Los Angeles Times, The Richmond Confidential, and BillMoyers.com have been among the outlets reporting on how Chevron, with global revenue last year of $220 billion, has been using its powerful financial resources to influence the upcoming municipal elections in this mid-sized California city.  As a progressive bloc of city council candidates—Eduardo Martinez, Jovanka Beckles, and Gayle McLaughling— have voiced criticism against the fossil fuel company and promised to tighten regulations following a large and destructive fire at their refinery in 2012, Chevron has responded by funding relentless and deceptive campaign attacks with at least $3 million pumped into local front groups. 

There is a $2,500 limit on individual contributions that can be made to municipal candidates in Richmond elections, but following the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, spending by independent campaign committees are unlimited. Three separate campaign committees in Richmond, organized by a group called Moving Forward, have received combined infusions from Chevron amounting to more than $3 million, according to recentfilings on October 6th.

As journalist Harriet Rowan reported on October 27 for the Richmond Confidential:

In recent weeks Chevron’s $3 million campaign to influence the Richmond election has helped swarm local television airwaves with a flurry of slick attack ads targeting three candidates.

The ads take aim at current Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, councilmember Jovanka Beckles, and Eduardo Martinez, all running for seats on the City Council. The three candidates are running as a slate through the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and are critical of Chevron’s role in Richmond.

Based on available data earlier this month, Rowan estimated that Chevron could ultimately spend as much as $33 for every eligible voter in the city, which led Michael Hiltzik, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, to write that "[f]or a corporation to manipulate a municipal election on this scale should be illegal. Chevron may pose as a company enjoying its free speech rights, as secured through the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, but a pincer movement employing pantsfuls of money and misleading, manipulative “news” demonstrates the potential of a big company’s speech to drown out every other voice."

Critics of Chevron, according to Rowan, point to two specific reasons the oil giant would benefit by having its backers control large portions of the city government: "First, the company wants selective, soft oversight on its $1 billion modernization project. Second, a Chevron-sympathetic council could reduce the asking price on the 2012 refinery fire lawsuit—or throw it out all together."

Visiting the city recently, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Richmond residents, "Whether you know it or not, the eyes of the country are on you. And if Chevron can roll over you, they and their buddies will roll over every community in America. If you can stand up and beat them with all of their money, you’re going to give hope to people all over America that we can control our destinies."

Who's Running?

  • Current Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. Not able to serve another term as mayor, McLaughlin is running for an open council seat.
  • Current councilmember Jovanka Beckles is running for re-election.
  • Eduardo Martinez, a retired teacher and community activist, is running for city council.
  • All three are members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a local coalition of community activists.
  • Tom Butt, a current member of the city council, is running for mayor and as received the endorsement of the RPA as he opposes Chevron's preferred candidate, Nat Bates.

Chevron's Tactics:

  • Chevron has funneled $3 million into a trio of campaign committees to influence the Nov. 4 Richmond city election, including a nearly $1.3 million contribution on Aug. 8, according to campaign documents.
  • The money has supported the campaigns of Nat Bates for mayor and Donna Powers, Al Martinez and Charles Ramsey in their runs for city council.
  • Local radio and television have been flooded with negative and deceptive advertisements against the candidates opposed by Chevron
  • Chevron has bankrolled a daily news website called the Richmond Standard, which purports to be an "objective local new outlet" but is actually staffed by Mike Aldax, who is an employee of Chevron's PR firm (LA Times)
  • Residents have reported receiving deceptive "push polls" which have specifically targeted the RPA slate of candidates