In states across the country Tuesday, primary elections named candidates for Congress, governorships and other important offices. But the most interesting, and perhaps significant, election did not involve an individual. Rather, it was about an idea.
In Northern California’s Humboldt County, voters decided by a 55-45 margin that corporations do not have the same rights — based on the supposed “personhood” of the combines — as citizens when it comes to participating in local political campaigns.
Until Tuesday in Humboldt County, corporations were able to claim citizenship rights, as they do elsewhere in the United States. In the context of electoral politics, corporations that were not headquartered in the county took advantage of the same rules that allowed individuals who are not residents to make campaign contributions in order to influence local campaigns.
But, with the passage of Measure T, an initiative referendum that was placed on the ballot by Humboldt County residents, voters have signaled that they want out-of-town corporations barred from meddling in local elections.
Measure T was backed by the county’s Green and Democratic parties, as well as labor unions and many elected officials in a region where politics are so progressive that the Greens — whose 2004 presidential candidate, David Cobb, is a resident of the county and a active promotor of the challenges to corporate power mounted by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County and the national Liberty Tree Foundation — are a major force in local politics.
The “Yes on T” campaign was rooted in regard for the American experiment, from its slogan “Vote Yes for Local Control of Our Democracy,” to the references to Tuesday’s election as a modern-day “Boston Tea Party,” to the quote from Thomas Jefferson that was highlighted in election materials: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Just as Jefferson and his contemporaries were angered by dominance of the affairs of the American colonies by King George III and the British business combines that exploited the natural and human resources of what would become the United States — and wary of the machinations of those who would establish an American economic royalism — so Humboldt County residents were angered by the attempts of outside corporate interests to dominate local politics.
Wal-Mart spent $250,000 on a 1999 attempt to change the city of Eureka’s zoning laws in order to clear the way for one of the retail giant’s big-box stores. Five years later, MAXXAM Inc., a forest products company, got upset with the efforts of local District Attorney Paul Gallegos to enforce regulations on its operations in the county and spent $300,000 on a faked-up campaign to recall him from office. The same year saw outside corporations that were interested in exploiting the county’s abundant natural resources meddling in its local election campaigns.
That was the last straw for a lot of Humboldt County residents. They organized to put Measure T on the ballot, declaring, “Our Founding Fathers never intended corporations to have this kind of power.”
“Every person has the right to sign petition recalls and to contribute money to political campaigns. Measure T will not affect these individual rights,” explained Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a resident of Eureka who was one of the leaders of the Yes on T campaign. “But individuals hold these political rights by virtue of their status as humans in a democracy and, simply put, a corporation is not a person.”
Despite the logic of that assessment, the electoral battle in Humboldt County was a heated one, and Measure T’s passage will not end it. Now, the corporate campaign will move to the courts. So this is only a start. But what a monumental start it is!
Sopoci-Belknap was absolutely right when she portrayed Tuesday’s vote as nothing less than the beginning of “the process of reclaiming our county” from the “tyranny” of concentrated economic and political power.
Surely Tom Paine would have agreed. It was Paine who suggested to the revolutionaries of 1776, as they dared challenge the most powerful empire on the planet, that: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of the new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.”
It is time to renew the American experiment, to rebuild its battered institutions on the solid foundation of empowered citizens and regulated corporations. Let us hope that the spirit of ’76 prevailed Tuesday in Humboldt County will spread until that day when American democracy is guided by the will of the people rather than the campaign contribution checks of the corporations that are the rampaging “empires” of our age.