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Hey Chevron, Oil and Democracy Don’t Mix

After Chevron spent more than $3 million to elect Richmond, California, municipal officials, shareholders may call a halt.

Protesters march at a demonstration against Chevron in Richmond, California, April 20, 2012. (Photo: Daniel Arauz)

I was born and raised in California, and never have I heard someone say that we need more corporate money funneled into our elections. If you spoke with Californians from Los Angeles to Eureka, it’s unlikely anyone would willingly surrender our democracy to special interest groups, let alone to a major corporation like Chevron.

And if you spoke with the people of Richmond, California, who were outspent by Chevron nearly 20-to-1 in the last election cycle, they would tell you about the hard-won fight for their democracy. In 2014, Chevron dumped more than $3 million into municipal elections in a town of 107,000 in an attempt to select pro-industry candidates to the City Council and mayor’s office. They rolled the dice and lost.

Chevron’s efforts to “buy Richmond’s election” caught national media attention, while grassroots organizations quickly mobilized to counteract the spending. Thanks to California’s campaign finance disclosure laws, it was not hard to follow Chevron’s multimillion-dollar spending spree, which included a barrage of glossy mailers and aggressive billboard campaigns.

Although Chevron is Richmond’s highest taxpayer and largest employer, the corporation’s relationship with the community has been strained since a major fire broke out at one of Chevron’s two Richmond oil refineries. The 2012 fire endangered workers and miles of coastline, sending nearly 15,000 people to the hospital for respiratory complaints. Chevron pleaded no contest to six criminal charges related to the fire and agreed to pay $2 million in fines in a plea deal reached with state and county prosecutors.

The following year, the Richmond City Council voted to sue Chevron for “a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.” As the Contra Costa Times explained, “The city’s lawsuit could cost the company hundreds of millions in damages, and a new City Council majority sympathetic to Chevron could squelch the suit or pave the way for a settlement more favorable to the oil giant.”

Chevron had an opportunity to address these grievances and to mend ties with the community, but it instead used its unlimited resources to silence the concerns of the people. In a city where the median income is less than $52,000, Chevron’s 2014 election spending bordered on overkill given the “small war chests of its opponents.” The corporation’s “investment” in Richmond’s elections demonstrates more than an interest in local politics, rather it suggests the possibility that the corporation was trying to select candidates likely to rollback regulations to the detriment and safety of our climate, our communities and its workers.

The people of Richmond are paying the price, but it’s Chevron’s shareholders who are footing the bill for the company’s failed political gambles. While Chevron may have positioned itself as a corporation benefitting from the “free-speech” rights provided by the 2010 Citizens United ruling, Chevron’s spending proved wasteful, given the victory of people-powered Progressive candidates.

Until legislation is passed that calls for more disclosure and limits on campaign spending, it is up to Chevron’s shareholders to hold the company accountable for its political missteps.

On May 27, in San Ramon, California, the Sierra Club, joined by a coalition of Richmond leaders and Chevron shareholders, will deliver nearly 100,000 petition signatures in support of a shareholder resolution calling on the company to stop funneling corporate assets into elections. A similar proposal was submitted in 2013, but the national spotlight on Richmond’s elections has renewed the momentum calling for a lasting solution to getting big oil money out of our democracy – or at least local elections.

Maybe this time Chevron will get the message: Oil and democracy don’t mix.