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Democracy Trampled as Big Money Overwhelms Grassroots Campaigns

In Washington and Maine, a flood of corporate cash swings popular opinion on key ballot issues

Jon Queally

In two referendum battles that took place on opposite sides of the country on Tuesday, the power of big money campaigns funded by out-of-state corporate interests once again revealed itself by overwhelming grassroots campaigns trying to champion a local common good.

From Maine, where a small town tried to thwart a pipeline company from building a tar sands export terminal, to Washington state, where a broad coalition of consumer advocates and food safety groups called for labeling of genetically modified foods—both campaigns won and maintained the support of the local population... until the corporate money started pouring in.

Local backers of Washington's bid to pass the GMO labeling law, known as I-522, were defeated by corporate interests that spared no expense in the final weeks to overcome the strong support the measure had received since the campaign began. As the Seattle Post Intelligencer reports:

The No on 522 campaign, at $22 million, was the most lavish initiative effort — and likely the most brazen — in the history of Washington state. It saw an unprecedented laundering of campaign contributions. Supporters raised a little less than $8 million, a big enough war chest, but were overwhelmed.

Though the ballot initiative supporters once maintained a 3-to-1 edge over the anti-labeling side, that deluge of money—most of it used to purchase expensive television ads leading up to Election Day—was able to turn the tide. In the end, though some ballots remain to be counted, the measure went down to defeat by an approximate margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.

As Jill Richardson, an expert on food and agricultural policy, explained Wednesday in the aftermath: "Shortly before voters got to weigh in on Initiative 522, polls pointed to a tight race but the consumer-friendly measure still looked like it might pass." Then, shortly before Election Day, opposition forces "ponied up nearly $5 million for last-minute ad buys," delivering a win to corporate giants like Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Bayer, BASF and industry lobbyists at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

In Maine, where a local zoning ordinance designed to prevent the possible construction of a tar sands pipeline terminal on the waterfront of South Portland, another grassroots campaign, represented by a citizens group called Protect South Portland, was overwhelmed by record funding supplied by some of the world's largest fossil fuel companies. As in Washington, the money came in strong and heavy in the final, but crucial, weeks of the campaign.

As the local Portland Press Herald reports, the Waterfront Protection Ordinance (or WPO) was defeated by only a slim margin in which 51 percent voted against, while 49 percent came out in favor. That difference was less than 200 votes in total, however, in a local ballot fight that saw the oil industry pour over hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of those trying to defeat the effort.

The oil industry was represented locally by the Save Our Working Waterfront campaign which drew most of its backing from the Maine Energy Marketers Association (or MEMA) and oil giants Citgo, Irving, and the American Petroleum Institute.

As the Bangor Daily News reports:

The campaign received large amounts of media exposure, as it pitted a citizens group against a campaign funded primarily by petroleum industry groups.

MEMA far out-raised Protect South Portland, whose largest single contributor was the Natural Resources Council of Maine. When cash, in-kind contributions and loans are calculated into the equation, MEMA raised nearly $600,000 in support, far outpacing Protect South Portland, which raised roughly $42,000, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the city clerk’s office. The imbalance prompted the ordinance’s local advocates to decry the influence of “out-of-state oil interests.”

As Protect South Portland organizer Robert Sellin told Common Dreams ahead of Election Day, the local spending by the oil industry was "completely over the top."

"Clearly they have all the money," Sellin said of the oil industry's outsized involvement in the local fight. "We are talking about some of the wealthiest corporations in the world. They do not want a community to stand up for itself. They are going to do everything they can to squash our initiative and discourage other jurisdictions."

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