The Independent U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders was in the city of Richmond, California on Thursday and said local elections in the city have become prime examples of how U.S. politics, at all levels, have become corrupted by the unlimited amount of money wealthy corporations and individuals can spend on campaigns.
"We are not living in a democracy when giant corporations like Chevron can buy local governments. That's called oligarchy, not democracy. We have got to fight back.”
—Sen. Bernie SandersSo far, the oil giant Chevron—which has a major refinery in Richmond and has been in a battle with city officials and residents over safety at the facility following a large fire in 2012—has pumped an estimated $3 million dollars into the local elections, backing its own slate of candidates while funding attack ads on their opponents. One of Chevron’s prime targets is the current mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, an oil company critic who is running for a seat on the city council and who filed suit against the energy company following the 2012 disaster. Chevron, using its virtually unlimited financial resources, has also targeted other candidates for city council who have voiced criticism of the company's role in the community, as Steve Early reported for Common Dreams last month.
On Thursday, Sanders met with local activists and progressive politicians at an event titled "Fight for Justice," hosted by the Richmond Progressive Alliance and which focused on addressing global warming, improving health care for veterans, expanding Medicare and reducing the influence of money in politics. In addition to McLaughlin, two other council candidates, Jovanka Beckles and Eduardo Martinez, are members of the alliance and have also faced attack ads funded by Chevron.
“Chevron is trying to buy the Richmond City Hall. We can’t let them get away with it,” Sanders said ahead of the meeting. “This is not what democracy is supposed to be about.”
According to the Richmond Progressive Alliance, "Chevron is on track to spend between $2 and $3 million trying to gain control of the Richmond City Council on Election Day. The corporation will likely pay out $120 per voter—and that’s just the reported expenditures. The other candidates will be lucky to spend one-tenth as much, combined. Two million dollars buys a lot of billboards, mailers, door knocking and phone-banking. Plus lots of hit pieces on candidates Chevron doesn’t like. It isn’t fair. But it is legal, so this election will be a real test of the power of money in our democracy."
"$3 millions buys a lot of billboards, mailers, door knocking and phone-banking. Plus lots of hit pieces on candidates Chevron doesn’t like. It isn’t fair. But it is legal, so this election will be a real test of the power of money in our democracy."
—Richmond Progressive AllianceSanders' office, referencing a series of decisions in recent years by the U.S. Supreme Court, said that Chevron’s campaign in a local election like Richmond's is "a vivid example" of how the U.S. electoral process has been corrupted by "letting corporations and billionaires spend unlimited sums to sway elections."
According to Sen. Sanders, “Three million dollars may sound like a lot of money, but to Chevron it’s nothing. Over the past decade Chevron has made more than $200 billion in profits ripping off Americans at the gas pump, even as it has paid hundreds of millions in fines for polluting the air we breathe, the water we drink, violating health and safety laws and evading taxes. We cannot allow a company like Chevron that has thumbed its nose at the law to buy politicians.”
Sanders urged progressives in California and across the country make sure they turn out to vote for this year's upcoming mid-term elections and cautioned against a pattern where less than 40 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. “We are not living in a democracy when 60 percent of Americans are not voting, while billionaires like the Koch Brothers are spending hundreds of millions to buy the United States Senate," he said. "We are not living in a democracy when giant corporations like Chevron can buy local governments. That's called oligarchy, not democracy. We have got to fight back.”
On her evening news show on MSNBC earlier this week, Rachel Maddow offered this report on the interplay between Chevron and the local politics in Richmond: