In the midst of the midterm elections and the obsession with which party would control the US Senate, there were races at the local and state level with deeper implications for the future of the country.
In the small city of Richmond, California, a slate of progressive candidates faced off against a challenge from pro-business candidates backed to the tune of more than $3 million by the energy giant Chevron. For years, Chevron has treated Richmond like a company town and its large refinery there has been a constant source of health and safety concerns.
Since 2007, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party leader, and her allies on the city council have faced down not only Chevron but other corporate interests like the real estate and financial industries as well. This year, Chevron fought back with an expensive barrage of negative campaign media. But on Election Day, the progressive slate triumphed, despite the roughly $250 per vote Chevron spent.
McLaughlin – who this year was term limited as mayor but won a city council seat — and Harriet Blair Rowan, a college student and journalist who uncovered the Chevron money story for the news website Richmond Confidential, talk with Bill this week about the role unlimited sums of corporate cash have played in Richmond. They discuss the great success of the billions spent by wealthy individuals and companies in other races across the country and how to fight back, using Richmond’s example as a model for future fights of organized people versus organized money.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. In Tuesday’s elections, money tore its way through our political system like a flash fire and burned its way right down to the foundations. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics finds that in races for the House of Representatives, the candidate who spent the most money prevailed about 94 percent of the time; in Senate races, about 81 percent of the time.
Much of it was “dark money” from shadowy groups that do not have to disclose their donors. You may never know who really owns the senator or representative, the governor or state judge you voted for. In this penumbra of politics, where corporations and billionaires can safely and secretly purchase shares in America, Inc., the big winners on Tuesday were the Republican bag man Karl Rove, whose candidates prevailed in at least six senatorial races, and the organization Americans for Prosperity, backed by the oligarchs Charles and David Koch, who added at least five Republican senators to their portfolios.
And why not? The conservative majority on the Supreme Court wrote the prescription: exercise all the free speech you can buy. That’s prompted the watchdog journalist Harvey Wasserman to write this week: “The GOP/corporate coup d’etat is nearly complete.” But not quite. Look at what happened in Richmond, California.
Richmond is a city of more than a hundred thousand in the Bay area. Chevron, one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the Fortune 500, has a refinery there, with big pollution problems. After that refinery erupted in fire two years ago, the city, led by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, sued Chevron for what it alleges is a long history of negligence. What’s more, the city is making Chevron pay an additional two hundred million dollars in taxes and other payments to make Richmond, once a danger zone of poverty and crime, a better place to live.
This election year, Chevron came out with guns blazing, spending more than three million dollars against progressive candidates in Richmond who refused to follow the company line. Chevron money bought expensive fliers and mailers, paid for billboards and slickly produced attack ads that tried to make the candidates they didn’t like look bad…
VOICE OVER from Moving Forward Ad: Vote no on Eduardo Martinez.
BILL MOYERS: Guess what? When the votes were counted this week, Chevron lost. One of its targets is with me now: Gayle McLaughlin, mayor of Richmond since 2007. Because of term limits, this year she ran for and won a seat on the city council, despite the efforts of Chevron to beat her. Also with me is Harriet Rowan, a graduate student in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where she’s also a reporter for “Richmond Confidential.” That’s a real news site run by the school whose reporters cover Richmond the way the mainstream media should, but doesn’t. Harriet Rowan uncovered the vast amounts of campaign cash Chevron spent trying to turn Richmond back into a company town. Welcome to you both.
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Thank you.
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Bill. Pleasure to be here.
BILL MOYERS: What’s it like to have a giant like Chevron throwing all that money around, trying to defeat you?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Well, you know, clearly it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge but we have a community that is clear that we cannot be bought and that is what the voters said this past Tuesday. They gave a resounding, resounding vote of saying, no, Chevron, we’re not supporting your candidates. We’re supporting the direction that the city has been going in with good, progressive candidates.
So it’s been a real, real success for grassroots democracy. But you’re right, it is a challenge. And we have had to organize big time. Canvassing during the election season. We started back in March. So months of hundreds of volunteers, wonderful volunteers, going door to door. Doing, going to community events, spreading the word. We not only won with all of our candidates, every single one of the candidates we supported won. And we defeated all of the Chevron candidates.
BILL MOYERS: Chevron spent more than $350,000, I understand from Harriet’s reporting in negative spending just against you.
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: How much did you raise and spend in your race for the city council?
Right. Well, I’ve raised about $48,000 to $50,000. And I spent, I got a little matching funds from the city, so I spent about $60,000. So while Chevron puts out, I think it’s $250-plus per voter to get their message across, we put out less than a dollar per voters.
BILL MOYERS: Has Richmond ever experienced such a massive expenditure as Chevron brought to bear on this race ever before?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Well, this is the largest they have done. Every election, they have spent more and more. In 2010, they spent $900,000. 2012, they spent $1.2 million. This year, they spent $3 million plus. So we knew it was going to be more. The more gains the progressive community makes, the more gains the city makes in a good direction, the more Chevron feels threatened by those of us that can’t be bought. And so they throw more money to try and defeat us.
BILL MOYERS: Chevron has money to burn. It’s a smart investment for them, isn’t it, if they win.
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Yeah, if they win. That was it. They certainly figured spending $3 million would be would be nothing. You know, they make $26 billion in profit a year. And 10 percent of their global sales come from the refinery in Richmond. So we’re a very high-productive refinery for their pocketbook. But yes, they thought it would be a small chump change. But we beat them.
And, now they will have to understand that we’re holding them accountable, as we have in the past to reduce their pollution further. We want it to be the cleanest, safest refinery possible. We also have a lawsuit against Chevron for the fire of 2012 which sent 15,000 people to local hospitals for medical treatment.
We believe our community deserves, you know, really substantial damages from that. It had a big impact on the health, and also on our economy because property values plummeted. So we plan to hold Chevron accountable. And it took a long, strong battle to get to this point. But we’re ready for the challenge going forward.
BILL MOYERS: Harriet, how did you break this story?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: So, in September, when we started with our schoolwork, and we were assigned to “Richmond Confidential,” I was assigned to the politics beat. And I had a little bit of experience, so my first thought when I was looking for stories to pitch was to go look at the campaign finance reports.
BILL MOYERS: Follow the money?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yeah, exactly. So that’s what I did.
BILL MOYERS: First rule of journalism.
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yes. So that’s what I did. And I went and I started looking through the reports, and there was some things that were, obviously, there was a lot of money being spent. But there was also some things that I couldn’t quite figure out. One of those being that Chevron was giving $3 million to this campaign committee called Moving Forward, and then there was two other campaign committees with very similar names that both started with, also started with Moving Forward that were spending the money.
And I, it took a while, but I finally figured out that what was happening was Chevron was giving $3 million to this central campaign committee. That campaign committee was giving money to two other campaign committees. And those campaign committees were making the expenditures.
BILL MOYERS: Did I just hear you say there were three separate campaign committees?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yes, there were. And I can’t think of any reason and haven’t been able to find anyone who’s given any reason why they would have three campaign committees except to obfuscate where the money was coming from.
BILL MOYERS: Were you surprised by the amount of money that Chevron was pouring into Richmond?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yeah, I was shocked by how much money was being spent in a very small, local election. To be pouring half a million dollars into supporting a candidate for mayor in a city of about of 100,000 people, it was shocking to me. And then the next question is obviously, why are they spending that money?
BILL MOYERS: Did you ask them that question?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: My colleagues at “Richmond Confidential” wrote a lot about the intentions that, why Chevron was spending this much money. And the question kept coming back, although Chevron has denied this, that it’s most likely because they are concerned about how much money they might have to pay out in a settlement.
BILL MOYERS: What did you see when you went there for the first time?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: As soon as I got to Richmond, there was a giant billboard with Gayle on it. It was an attack billboard against her. And that was the first thing I saw when I entered Richmond.
And beyond that, you know, every single part of Richmond. It was amazing. One day I went to take pictures of the billboards. I would drive down a street, stop five or six times to take pictures of the billboards. And when I would turn around to go back, there were five or six more billboards that I hadn’t seen facing the other direction.
BILL MOYERS: I was struck by the number of brochures, bulletins, cards, other things that were showing up in everybody’s homes in Richmond, including this one for one of the Chevron-backed candidates.
CHARLES RAMSEY audio recording from mailing card: Hi. I’m Charles Ramsey and I’m running for City Council because I love Richmond.
BILL MOYERS: That’s expensive to do—
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Yeah. Well, this was the first talky mailer that was, that we got. But that whole pile is what comes into every registered voter’s mailbox, and came into our mailboxes this season in a remarkable way, more than ever before. We always got inundated from Chevron’s mailers. They have taken to our streets with buying up every billboard.
They have taken over air waves with all kinds of ads and the internet. So Chevron pulled out all the stops this election.
BILL MOYERS: And did you ask the candidates who were running with backing from Chevron about the money coming from Chevron?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: I did. And they spoke about it often in debates. And, you know, they had a very solid, you know, their answer was, I’m not coordinating with Chevron. They didn’t ask me if they could spend this money. They’re spending it on me because I will, you know, because I’m going to have a friendly relationship with them and I’ll work with them.
BILL MOYERS: I understand that Chevron used to have a desk in the offices at the city council?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Right. Yes, the, in the ’90s, there, a Chevron executive had a desk in the city manager’s office. And that’s outrageous. That’s, you know, corporations taking over city government. How outrageous.
BILL MOYERS: But you need Chevron to keep Richmond thriving.
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Well, the fact of the matter is that Chevron, you know, pays, if you look at our whole budget, they only pay 12 percent of the whole entire budget. Some people say 30 percent of our general fund. But, we think they should be paying more in taxes. We did get that $114 million settlement in 2010 based on a multiyear public pressure campaign that, you know, called for fair taxation. And we passed a ballot measure. The voters passed a ballot measure which would’ve taxed Chevron more. Chevron brought it to court and the court overturned it.
But that’s why, they knew we were going to put it forward again. And so Chevron sat down with the city and said, hey, you know, we’ll come up with a tax settlement. And they did. And, you know, we considered that a public victory. And that’s what it’s all about.
BILL MOYERS: After that massive fire at the refinery in what, 2012 was it?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: 2012.
BILL MOYERS: 2012—
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And as you said earlier, more than 15,000 people had to seek medical treatment for respiratory and other health problems, Chevron plead no contest to six criminal charges. And you, as the acting mayor and the city council, voted then to sue Chevron. Tell us what happened after that.
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Right, they were clear. I was, you know, been mayor for eight years, finishing up my eighth year. They’re clear that I hold them accountable and that I work with the community. And so when it became clear that they had done this terrible damage to us and traumatized our community I wanted to make sure they were held accountable and so did the community.
And we want to make sure the kind of settlement or the kind of ruling comes forward that helps our community. Not just getting peanuts. Not just, you know, having a council on board that would, you know, drop the lawsuit. So that was motivating us.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think this money being spent by Chevron in the election this fall was retaliation?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: You know, Chevron has always, like, I would say bashing us, you know. A hundred years of Chevron rule. When the progressives came on board, we stood up to them. So it isn’t a question of, you know, bashing them. We want to work with them for the betterment of our community.
But that means they have to adhere to our regulations, because we represent the people. So are they retaliating against us, you know, this particular election? They’re trying to stop us. You know, you could call it retaliation. Certainly they don’t like what we’ve done. You know, corporate America just can’t have this, can’t have a low-to-middle income community standing up for itself. That’s unheard of, you know?
BILL MOYERS: You mean everyday people?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Everyday people. That’s what we are. We’re everyday people too. And that’s the unique quality of what we’ve been able to accomplish. We’re not, you know, opportunists. We’re people that really just want to define our own destiny with our community and without this onslaught of corporate influence.
BILL MOYERS: Talk about some of the other tactics you saw being used in town.
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yeah, I think in retrospect, looking at the results of the election, I think Chevron knew that they were, you know, were going to have some trouble buying the city council this time around, because they really went all out. They did everything they could to try to confuse voters, to try to discourage voters.
I think a lot of the negative campaigning, the end result is that voters see all of this information that’s negative, and they think that, you know, all the candidates are horrible. And then they don’t want to vote. And that was unfortunately the turnout in Richmond was very low this election. And that is very unfortunate and I think definitely has to do with all of the negative campaigning. Some of the things—
BILL MOYERS: True across the country, by the way. Low—
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Yes.
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: —one of the lowest turnouts in midterm history.
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Right. And that’s, you know, I think that that’s not what our democracy needs. We need people to be informed, to be engaged, and to really care about what’s happening in their local city elections, because it matters to them. The policies that are implemented on a city level really do affect people on a daily basis. And to have people discouraged from voting in their local city elections is really unfortunate.
BILL MOYERS: Do either of you think that Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision in 2010 has had a downstream impact in Richmond?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Absolutely. That’s what has allowed Chevron to give unlimited amounts of money to this campaign committee that is then allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence voters. I think that that’s, you know, a clear result of Citizens United. And it’s
BILL MOYERS: You grimaced when I said the words, “Citizens United.”
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Well, it’s clear that Citizens United is, you know, an evil for our democracy. And if it’s left standing, it will destroy our democracy. So I think Richmond is a perfect example of how Citizens United plays out on, you know, real life experiences. This $3 million plus of Chevron money has just, you know, over, pervasively dominated the experience of the average Richmond resident, walking through our streets and our, coming from our telephones and our airwaves, all over.
And this is a big problem. And we’ll have to keep fighting it. We’ve managed thus far to keep our progressive movement going, and now we’re in a better situation than ever with the election. But we recognize that this is an ongoing threat to our democracy.
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: I think some people might look at this and say, well, here’s an example of how big money didn’t, wasn’t able to influence the results of the election. But if you look at it, the candidates that were supported by Chevron were not, Donna Powers, one of them, was not even a resident of Richmond until right before. And also, Charles Ramsey.
And I went to, tried to find their campaign headquarters. Donna Powers’ campaign headquarters were in a UPS store. It was a mailbox in a UPS store. And Charles Ramsey’s headquarters was an unidentified house next to a vacant lot that didn’t even have any signs in front of it. It was very odd and it was, kind of made it clear that these were essentially shadow candidates that were supported by Chevron, who didn’t have any, very much community support.
But they didn’t win, but they did get thousands of votes. And the fact that Chevron supported them with that much money is the reason they got that many votes. So they didn’t win, but they wouldn’t have been candidates if it weren’t for Chevron’s money.
BILL MOYERS: And didn’t Chevron start its own online newspaper?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yes, it is run by a former reporter who works for the PR, one of the PR companies that works for Chevron. They have quite a few PR companies and a lot of staff that work for them in the area.
And this reporter writes, you know, the, Richmond is somewhat of a news desert. There’s not very many people covering what’s going on in Richmond. And that’s where “Richmond Confidential” comes in, that we have 20 reporters, and it’s essentially our job as students to report on what’s going on in Richmond. And we have the time and resources and support from the school to really dig into what’s going on in that city.
BILL MOYERS: This is not the first time you’ve been involved in a big controversy and been fought by a big industry. Let’s listen to this.
Voicemail from KELLY: Hi, this Kelly on behalf of the National Association of Realtors. I’m calling because the stakes are too high and your vote for Corky Boozé for City Council is crucial. So if you haven’t already, please consider requesting a vote by ballot for this year’s election. It’s a great way to beat the lines on election day and show your support for Corky Boozé. Thank you. This call was paid for by the National Association of Realtors Fund, (202) 383-1020. Not authorized by any candidate or committee controlled by a candidate.
BILL MOYERS: National Association of Realtors. Now what was that about?
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: That was a phone call from the National Association of Realtors in Washington DC with their Washington DC phone number at the end of it. And I think that people who got that phone call were a little bit confused and surprised because not only was this national association getting involved in this very small race, specifically Corky Boozé’s race, which was for a two-year seat, but they pronounced his name wrong.
GAYLE MCLAUGHLIN He walks in lockstep with Wall Street and the big banks and the realtors and so they support him. The National Association of Realtors started sending out mailers to support candidates that would oppose the eminent domain program that we have advanced and are continuing to move in the right direction in Richmond. This is—
BILL MOYERS: You used eminent domain, which is the power of the city, or any governmental authority to declare a public purpose for certain private lands.
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: That’s right, that’s right. We have stated that this is our intent to utilize eminent domain for acquiring underwater mortgages. And then resetting, refinancing the mortgages into new loans that are in line with current home values. All in, you know, it keeps the homeowners in their home, it prevents foreclosures, it, you know, really, takes away the victimization of homeowners that have been victim to predatory lending practices.
Our home values plummeted throughout the housing crisis. And of course, the Chevron fire made them plummet even further. But what we do, so they now have these massive mortgages and their value of their houses is, you know, much smaller.
We take those larger mortgages, we have a private firm that has social investors involved with it. And they put up the money, no cost to the city. And then we refinance them with into a new loan. Whereby the homeowner can afford to make the payments, because the new principal has been reduced to match the home’s current value.
BILL MOYERS: So why was the Association of Realtors opposed to this?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Well you know, ultimately, I think this is a win/win, even for realtors. But apparently, they don’t see it. Because when you have vacant homes because of foreclosure problems and neighborhoods are unsustainable, you have more crime, the home values in the neighborhoods go down, and realtors can’t sell the homes.
But when you have people staying in their homes with affordable mortgage payments sustainable neighborhoods, you have the opportunity for home values to rise. And that is better for the realtors. But they think short term, they don’t want, you know, they line up with Wall Street, they line up with the big banks.
They don’t want us to utilize our local authority as a city government. That’s a threat to them. But, you know, those of us that support this program think it’s our responsibility to stand for our community that’s been harmed so greatly.
BILL MOYERS: What have you learned about local politics that others around the country might want to know?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: What I’ve learned, that, you know, yes, corporations can have a lot of money and influence. But that’s nothing compared to the power of people when united.
BILL MOYERS: You still believe that old cliché, that organized people are the best antidote to organized money?
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Oh, absolutely. That’s what has made change, you know, throughout the history of the world. You know, it’s the power of people united. And we’ve done it before in this country. We’re doing it again in Richmond. And we think that our nation as a whole could start forming this grassroots movement for real change in our nation that can really bring about the kind of healthy quality of life that we all deserve.
BILL MOYERS: Mayor McLaughlin, thank you for being with me. Harriet Rowan, thank you for joining us.
HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Thank you so much.
GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.
BILL MOYERS: At our website BillMoyers.com, you’ll find further analysis of the election and the money behind it. That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there, and I’ll see you here, next time.
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