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ELECTION 2002: Challenging "the corporate state" | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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ELECTION 2002: Challenging "the corporate state"

In a state that prides itself on letting corporations off easy – especially local firms such as the DuPont chemical conglomerate – candidates for the position of Delaware Attorney General do not typically talk about throwing corporate criminals in jail. But Vivian Houghton is not a typical candidate for the top law enforcement job in Delaware – or, for that matter, most states.

A politically savvy lawyer with a long track record of high-profile involvement in Delaware debates on issues of concern to organized labor, women and minorities, Houghton has shaken up the contest for Attorney General this year by mounting a sophisticated Green Party campaign that pulls no punches. "If a worker commits a felony, she or he is jailed. Yet the state routinely makes companies, whose environmental violations contribute to Delaware's high cancer rate, pay token fines," says Houghton, who is running against Republican incumbent Attorney General M. Jane Brady and former U.S. Attorney Carl Schnee, a Democrat, in the most hotly contested statewide race on Tuesday's Delaware ballot. "As Attorney General," Houghton promises, "I will possess the toughness to cancel a company's corporate charter if the company either commits a gross violation of its charter or repeatedly violates state regulations."

It is rare to hear talk of pulling corporate charters coming from politicians in Delaware, a state that maintains deliberately weak regulations and enforcement practices in order to encourage corporations and banking institutions to incorporate there. (For instance, Enron chartered 685 subsidiaries in Delaware.) It is rarer still to hear talk about corporations contributing to high cancer rates in a state where the DuPont chemical conglomerate retains immense business and political power.

But Houghton is not easily intimidated. After all, she knows her way around Delaware politics. A veteran of dozens of issue-based campaigns for equal rights for women, civil rights and labor causes, she has helped run dozens of Democratic campaigns over the years, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign in the state. She quit the Democrats in 2000 and joined the Greens in time for Ralph Nader's presidential campaign of that year. "The Green Party represents what I idealized the Democratic Party to be," says Houghton, citing the Green platform's commitment to economic and social justice. Houghton was also attracted by the party's anti-corporate stance. "Why should corporate criminals be left to wine and dine each other in the Hotel du Pont's Green Room when in the same city someone can be photographed and fingerprinted by the police for just standing on a street corner?" Houghton asks.

Houghton's promise to take on corporate crime in what is often referred to as "the corporate state" has drawn enthusiastic support from Nader, who campaigned with Houghton in Wilmington last month. Comparing Delaware's lax approach to regulating corporations with Nevada's approach to gambling, Nader said, "Delaware is known as the ‘corporate Reno' of America," he said, adding that, "The biggest corporations in the world charter in one of the smallest states." A Green Attorney General in Delaware, Nader said, could become one of the most important crusaders in the nation for corporate accountability.

Whether Delaware will get a Green Attorney General is another question. While Delaware daily newspapers refer to the race as a three-way contest, Houghton is being outspent 10-1 by her foes. Yet, according to Green Party national co-chair Ben Manski, "Vivian Houghton has clearly established herself as a credible and viable alternative to the candidates of the establishment parties in a state where a lot of voters are looking for an alternative."

Houghton is one of 540 Green Party candidates – almost double the number that ran in 2000 – seeking positions up and down the ballots of states across the country in Tuesday's election. Most of this year's Green candidates are focusing on the local races where the party has done best in past elections. (Of the 157 Greens now holding public office, the overwhelming majority have been elected to local positions on city councils, county boards, schools boards and commissions.) But a number of candidates seeking statewide and national positions this year are being taken seriously. On Friday, Rev. Jackson endorsed AnnDrea Benson, the Green Party candidate for the 5th Congressional district in northwest Pennsylvania. Benson, who is running against Republican U.S. Rep. Phil English in a contest that features no Democrat, has also collected endorsements from the United Electrical Workers, the United Steelworkers, the Boilermakers and other union groups.

It is still uncommon for unions to back Green candidates in contests featuring Democrats, but Delaware's Houghton has collected endorsements from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the United Auto Workers union, which represents 7,000 workers in the state. For union voters, Houghton has distinguished herself from the Democratic and Republican contenders with a pledge to aggressively go after companies that receive tax breaks, land grants and other incentives for job creation in the state and then fail to follow through on their commitments. "When a company downsizes or relocates, workers lose their jobs, period, but the companies, on the other hand, often find ways to circumvent their job-creation promises," argues Houghton, who has been telling union members: "Politics today is almost entirely corporate driven. Let's change this. Let's work in coalition to put more justice into the criminal justice system."

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