Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.
In the 1990s conservative strategists began to reshape the politicallandscape with an onslaught of ballot initiatives. State by state,Republicans employed this tactic to slash social programs and roll backrights--most notoriously, with the anti-gay marriage initiatives of2004--while progressives remained largely on the defensive.
Now, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Ballot InitiativeStrategy Center, progressive organizations are learning how to useballot propositions to promote bold, innovative policy around thecountry. Launched five years ago, BISC provides state and nationaladvocacy groups with key research and training in effective referendumstrategies.
Although ballot initiatives may not be as sexy as high-profile candidateraces, they are an important part of this year's mid-term elections. Inaddition to paving the way for progressive policy strides, referendumscan galvanize voters and increase turnout. According to University ofFlorida professor Daniel Smith, in the past twenty years of midtermelections, each ballot initiative increased turnout, on average, by 2percentage points.
Here are our top four progressive ballot initiatives for 2006.
**Minimum-wage increases in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri,Montana, Nevada and Ohio. Using progressives' first-evermulti-state ballot-initiative strategy, the drive for an increasedminimum wage has the potential to win, even in so-called red states.Raising the minimum wage is a highly popular idea; in an April Pewsurvey, 83 percent of the public said they favored raising the federalminimum wage to $7.15 (only ten states have enacted a minimum wage atthis rate or higher). If there's an issue that unites Americans acrossideological and demographic lines, it's this one.
**Renewable energy in Washington and California. In 2004progressives in Colorado voted for a precedent-setting renewable energypolicy (Ken Salazar credited the ballot initiative with turning outthe young voters who helped him secure his Senate victory). NowWashington and California are following suit. These initiatives wouldrequire the states' largest electric companies to increase their use ofrenewable resources like wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and smallhydro from less than 2 percent today to 15 to 25 percent in the comingyears.
**Fusion voting in Massachusetts. In New York fusionvoting--which allows voters to choose the same candidate on any ofseveral party lines--helped candidates from the progressive WorkingFamilies Party secure key posts in the state. Its passage could helpbring about broader progressive leadership in the Bay State.
**Stem cell research in Missouri. Both Republican biotechbosses and progressive grassroots activists are pushing hard to allowstem cell research to be conducted in Missouri. If successful, thislife-saving proposition could set the precedent for the next progressivemulti-state ballot initiative campaign.
Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation's new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.
Solidarity, if it is to mean much, must exist not merely in a white-hot moment. It must extend across the arc of history, at least until damage wrought in a particularly dark time is undone.
Certainly, it matters when Americans express their momentary concern for victims of particularly egregious U.S. policies in foreign lands, as millions of U.S. citizens did when the Reagan administration was funding Contra armies, death squads and dictatorships across Central America. But when the focus of policymakers in Washington shifts from one troubled location to the next, it is often the case that the attention of American activists moves with them to the next "hot spot."
One group that has refused to ignore the wreckage left behind by the Reagan administration's misdeeds of the 1980s, and the corporate misdeeds that have followed in their wake, is the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network. The group provides a model of solidarity across the decades. Its 25 chapters in the United States have continued to work with the Salvadoran communities with which they partnered 20 years or more ago, promoting sustainable development, opposing free trade agreements and raising the alarm when corporations take advantage of those agreements to exploit workers and the environment in a country that has suffered far too much exploitation.
An example of how the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network's solidarity model works will be seen Friday at the annual shareholders meeting of Au Martinique Silver Inc., a Canadian-registered mining exploration firm that is promoting development of a gold mine in the Salvadoran department roughly equivalent to a state of Chalatenango. The mining scheme has stirred broad opposition in Chalatenango, where farmers fear that waste from the mining operation will pollute local rivers and water supplies with arsenic and cyanide.
Fifteen mayors in the department and the overwhelming majority of parish priests in the heavily Catholic region have expressed opposition to the project, arguing that it would devastate local agriculture and fisheries. So strong is the opposition that, last year, 300 residents of remote communities in the region formed a human chain to block Au Martinique teams from entering their towns.
Unfortunately, there is little media coverage of development disputes in rural El Salvador. So Au Martinique continues to tell its shareholders and potential investors in the mining project that the company is working "hand-in-hand with the local communities to assure a partnership in economic development and good environmental stewardship." At the same time, the company is signaling that even if the locals don't want to walk "hand-in-hand" with the multinational corporation, the project will advance because, in the words of an Au Martinique prospectus, "the Republic of El Salvador has one of the lowest risk profiles for investment in all of Latin America" a reference to the fact that El Salvador's conservative government is more willing than most to do the bidding of foreign corporations.
In Chalatenango, sentiment toward Au Martinique's exploration project has been anything but welcoming.
"The people in the communities aren't in favor of the mining project," explains Esperanza Ortega, a nominee for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize who lives in the community of Arcatao in Chalatenango. Ortega argues that it is exceptionally "important to talk to the investors, talk to the people funding this project and tell them if they come into this zone they are going to have a lot of problems. ..." But, of course, it is not easy for residents of a mountainous region that is far even from the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador to get that message across to the investors and funders.
That's where the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities solidarity commitment comes in. Some of the group's strongest partnerships are located in Chalatenango. For instance, the based Madison-Arcatao Sister City Project has formalized the relationship between Madison, Wisconsin, and the municipality of Arcatao in Chalatenango to such an extent that mayors, city council members and legislators regularly travel back and forth between the communities. Working with the University of Wisconsin and local hospitals in Madison, activists here have helped their partners in Arcatao develop clinics and a host of local services. They have also successfully lobbied their members of Congress to oppose trade agreements that would harm workers and the environment in El Salvador and other Latin American countries.
"Our relationship with Arcatao was rooted in mutual opposition to U.S. military policies in the '80s, but we have recognized for a long time that exploitation of the region by corporations that do not respect the needs of the people can be just as devastating," says Marc Rosenthal, a Madison nurse and union activist who has regularly visited the region over the past two decades. "The people in Chalatenango have real fears about what this mining project will do to the region, and everything I've seen tells me that those fears are well grounded. So we're going to make sure that they are heard."
When Denver-based Au Martinique convenes its shareholders meeting on Friday, organizers and activists with the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network will be there. "Since the company has not informed its shareholders about the local opposition, we have decided to bring the Chalatenango anti-mining campaign directly to the directors and shareholders of this company," said Dennis Chinoy, a U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network activist from Bangor, Maine. "Investors need to be aware that this is a very risky project and that we will continue our campaign until the company has respected the wishes of the local communities and withdrawn its investment."
For those who recognize "solidarity" as something more than a slogan, the determination of the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network to make sure that the voices of protest from El Salvador continue to be heard in the corridors of corporate and political power provides an inspiring reminder that there are activists who still understand both the meaning and the duty of the phrase la lucha continua.
To learn more about the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network, visit http://jeffbogdan.net/usessc/index.php
It's good news that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead. Any member of the civilized world ought to cheer the demise of a terrorist who killed civilians with bombings and beheadings.
But his death--brought about by a US air strike that was apparently ordered after a captured Zarqawi lieutenant disclosed Zarqawi's favorite hiding places--may not mean much in terms of bringing peace, democracy and stability to Iraq. His al Qaeda in Iraq--which was estimated to number no more than several hundred fighters--made up the smallest slice of the insurgency. His departure will not have much impact on the forces fueling the fighting and chaos in Iraq. The Sunni-based insurgency draws on the 300,000 or so former members of the Iraq army that was disbanded in May 2003. And the Shiite militias have thousands of armed loyalists. Though Zarqawi was an evil leader responsible for the most dramatic acts of terrorism, he was something of a sideshow. Recently, an Iraqi intelligence officer told me that the most pressing problem in Iraq was not Zarqawi and his jihadists but the infiltration of the military and security forces by the various militias. These groups are responsible for the death squad-like activities (kidnappings, murders) that have terrorized Iraqis. They will not be given much pause by the successful attack on Zarqawi. (And Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Rand, notes that after George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the two people most satisfied by Zarqawi's death are Osama bin Laden and his number-two Ayman al-Zawahiri, for now they have been spared a competitor for attention and handed a martyr.)
Given that Saddam Hussein's capture did not become the turning point that some commentators claimed it would be--"the beginning of the end," former CIA director James Woolsey said at the time--the White House did not insist that Zarqawi's death would lead to progress in Iraq. Bush was reasonably realistic when he spoke about the successful strike: "Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues. We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue."
He did add, "Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al Qaeda. It's a victory in the global war on terror." But Bush did not mention that it was his invasion of Iraq that fully allied Zarqawi with al Qaeda. Prior to the war, terrorism experts considered Zarqawi more of a rival than a partner. And he did not mention that four years ago--before Zarqawi had become a major terrorist figure and before he had become responsible for the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands)--the Bush White House chose not to take him out when it could.
In March 2004, NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski reported that the White House had three times in 2002 turned down a Pentagon request to attack Zarqawi, who then was believed to be running a weapons lab in northern Iraq--in territory not controlled by Saddam Hussein's government. Miklaszewski wrote that "the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam." That is, the Bush White House let Zarqawi alone so it would have an easier time selling the war in Iraq.
Here are some excerpts from the Miklaszewski article:
NBC News has learned that long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself--but never pulled the trigger.
In June 2002...[t]he Pentagon...drafted plans to attack the camp with cruise missiles and airstrikes and sent it to the White House, where, according to U.S. government sources, the plan was debated to death in the National Security Council....
Four months later, intelligence showed Zarqawi was planning to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe.
The Pentagon drew up a second strike plan, and the White House again killed it. By then the administration had set its course for war with Iraq.
"People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president's policy of preemption against terrorists," according to terrorism expert and former National Security Council member Roger Cressey....
The Pentagon drew up still another attack plan, and for the third time, the National Security Council killed it.
Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi's operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.
The United States did attack the camp at Kirma at the beginning of the war, but it was too late--Zarqawi and many of his followers were gone.
The administration put off attacking Zarqawi because it wanted to invade Iraq. That invasion made Zarqawi a more important target--and a more powerful killer. His death is welcomed--but it remains part of a larger and tragic story of miscalculation.
I dutifully sat through 85 minutes of C-SPAN's live coverage of the Senate's debate on same-sex marriage before my TV mysteriously clicked over to the French Open on ESPN. They were rebroadcasting the Martina Hingis-Kim Clijsters match from the day before, and I already knew the result -- but it was a whole lot more thrilling than the cooked bullshit coming from our nation's capital.
As far as I can tell, Senators Brownback and Inhofe are upset that more than half of Swedish and Norwegian children are born out of wedlock. Senator Brownback attributes this to same-sex marriage, and Senator Inhofe worries that "millions of them are going to end up on welfare." As the U.S. recklessly pursues its unilateralist foreign policy, it's nice to know that some Repbulicans care about those poor bastards trapped in the Swedish welfare state. Unless this means we have to add Sweden to the axis of evil. Freedom meatballs anyone?
Senator Santorum is still vexed about the Lawrence v. Texas decision and spent a lot of time quoting Scalia's dissenting opinion which defends state laws against masturbation. Perhaps he's taking cues from a certain Ms. Sandra Rodrigues of Utah who, according to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, sat outside the Senate all week with a sign that read "Stop Same Sex Marriage: It Endorses Masturbation." Even though Santorum faces a tough reelection battle in Pennsylvania, I'm glad he listens to people outside his home state who think that kids have entirely too much time on their hands.
I could go on and on with more highlights, but frankly, I'm a narcissistic gay man and not much of this debate was about me. As Michael Scherer points out, "if you listen closely, the leaders who oppose single-sex unions refuse to talk about gay people. They talk about activist judges, welfare rolls, the rights of voters and the birthrate of single mothers in Scandinavia. But there is not a gay man, a lesbian woman or a bisexual teenager in the mix."
The locations: in formerly red districts, in many red states, that went overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004. Of the 40 most competitive projected House races in 2006, 23 will occur in states Bush carried.
Of the seven Senate Republicans Democrats hope to knock off, five represent red states: Arizona, Montana, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Whether Democrats have the institutional capacity to compete and win in some of these states remains a very real question as we get closer to November.
But the climate Francine Busby faced in San Diego may not be so atypical. For Democrats to retake one or both houses of Congress, they'll need to win more than 45 percent in these districts or states, no matter how red they are--or once were.
President Bush threw what was left of his influence on Capitol Hill behind the move by social conservatives to amend the Constitution to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But when the votes were counted Wednesday, the president was not even able to muster a majority in the Senate.
When the critical test came on the election-year proposal to amend the Constitution to essentially ban same-sex marriage -- along with a number of other basic protections for gay and lesbian families -- only 49 senators voted to move the amendment forward.
That was far short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, close off debate and force a vote on the actual amendment. And it was a full 18 votes short of the 67 needed for the Senate to approve a Constitutional amendment.
On a more politically pragmatic level, Wedesday's tally put the ban one short of a majority in a Senate that is supposedly on the side of the president who has gone out of his way to make same-sex marriage an issue. So significant was the failure that White House press secretary Tony Snow felt compelled to report that Bush was not "despondent" over the result.
Perhaps he should be, as Bush's inability to keep even his own partisans in line on an issue he has chosen to make something of a focal point of his second-term agenda was striking.
Seven Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Sununu of New Hampshire -- voted with 41 Democrats to block cloture. [Two of the Republicans who opposed cloture, Gregg and Specter, had previously been amendment supporters but switched to the opposition Wednesday.] Only two Democrats who happen to be up for reelection this year in socially-conservative states, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted with 47 Republicans to end debate.
Notably, the three senators who did not vote Wednesday -- Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- have all expressed opposition to amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Hagel has been particularly blunt, telling a Nebraska newspaper in 2005, "I'm a conservative. I believe the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States is very important, I don't think you need a constitutional amendment defining marriage. That's a state issue."
The amendment, which Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, correctly identified as "an instrument of bigotry and prejudice" will continue to rattle around the Capitol -- look for a meaningless House vote on the issue next month -- as Republicans try to use it as a tool to energize the party's increasingly listless base. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, explained during the cloture debate, "This is not about the preservation of marriage. This is about the preservation of a [Republican] majority. I think, sadly, most people realize there's political motivation here."
Wednesday's vote cannot provide much inspiration for the GOP, however. With so many of its own senators voting to block the amendment's progress -- including incumbents such as Chafee and Snowe who are up for election this year -- the Republicans are going to have a hard time suggesting that expanding their party's majority in the Senate will move the country any closer to a federal ban on same-sex marriages, civil unions and other protections for gay and lesbian families.
Indeed, there has been a good deal of grumbling within the Republican Senate caucus -- as evidenced by the seven dissenting votes that were cast Wednesday -- about the wisdom of trying to gin up a debate on social issues when the attention of the American public seems to be so firmly fixed on the war in Iraq and concerns about the strength of the economy and health care costs.
That won't stop social conservatives from pushing their discrimination amendments. They'll win in some states, as they did Tuesday in Alabama, where voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday to ban same-sex marriage. But a similar amendment is on the ballot in Wisconsin this fall, and polls and pattersn suggest that it could be the first such state-based proposal to lose. More significantly, the high-profile, high-spending amendment fight in Wisconsin is expected to stir interest in the fall election on the part of young people and other traditionally low-turnout populations that Democratic strategists think will be drawn to the polls to oppose the amendment but stay around to vote for Democrats.
There's no question that playing the discrimination card has helped Republicans by drawing socially-conservative voters to the polls in recent years. But the low-road approach seems to be wearing thin, even for Republicans. McCain, who some had predicted would vote for cloture and the marriage ban in order to improve his prospects among the social-conservative voters who will be key players in the 2008 Republican presidential nomination process, cast a firm "no" vote and then took a swing at the core argument for the amendment, telling the Senate, "Most Americans are not yet convinced that their elected representatives or the judiciary are likely to expand decisively the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples."
That is true. It is also true that support for discrimination against gays and lesbians is waning in America, especially among younger voters. Time and experience are moving citizens toward what the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, referred to as "the better angels of our nature" -- and away from the notion that sowing devisions and encouraging discrimination will somehow make either families or the Republic stronger.
Nancy Pelosi, put away that tape measure! That seems to be the conventional wisdom the day after a key congressional election in San Diego. And it may even be correct--that is, Pelosi should not assume she will be picking out new curtains for the House Speaker's office following this fall's elections. In felonious Duke Cunningham's district, another Republican, former Representative Brian Bilbray, was able to hold the seat for the GOP, beating back the Democrat 49 to 45 percent. If the Ds cannot pick up a seat when an R is nabbed on bribery charges and tossed into prison, that's a sign that the "culture of corruption" charge (see Jack Abramoff) they are campaigning upon may not do the trick in November. (Representative William Jefferson, a Democrat accused of taking $100,000 bribe, is sure not helping on this front.) Cunningham's district was a Republican area. But to regain the House, the Dems need to do well in heretofore GOP districts.
Without reading too much into the results of one race, there is good reason for Democrats to worry: illegal immigration. Bilbray hyped his support for tough border enforcement, siding with the House Republicans' keep-'em-out/toss-'em-out approach and attacking the Bush-favored Senate compromise position that blends a (convoluted) path-to-citizenship with steps to beef up the border. And that might have won him the race. During the campaign, Bilbray called for building a fence "from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico." Celebrating his victory, Bilbray said, "The president proposing amnesty was absolutely a big problem. In fact, it wasn't until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that you really saw the polls start supporting me strongly."
Now nervous-Nelly Republicans have a test-case to apply to their own races. If it's a good fit for the district, Republican candidates will surely sound the illegal immigrant alarm to drive base-voters to the voting booth. Many were probably planning to do this already. Bilbray is proof it works.
When Latinos were out in the streets weeks ago to protest the House Republicans' harsh immigration bill, there was talk among commentators about the rising political clout of Hispanic-American voters. But rallies do not make voting patterns. And that clout may not arrive quick enough to help Democrats in five months. Historically, it takes a long time for new voting blocs to vote. Over the years, the greatest predictor of whether someone will vote in an election has been whether they voted in the previous one. Even if Americans of Latin American origin are enraged by conservative Republicans, that anger may not register at the polls (particularly in an off-year election) for some time.
On the other mano, conservative voters pissed off about the trumped-up crisis of illegal immigration are already accustomed to expressing their outrage on election day. It may well be that it is not to the GOP's advantage to make illegal immigration a national issue in the election. (The Wall-only approach divides the party, puts off business supporters, and might alienate moderate voters.) But in many a district, bashing illegal immigrants will serve the party well. In these spots, if the choice of targets for voter are either a corrupt party controlling Congress or illegal immigrants sneaking into America to steal jobs, commit crimes, alter the culture, and perhaps engage in terrorist acts, guess who wins.
This week, Senate Republicans tried to play the gay-marriage card--and they failed to defeat a Democrat-led filibuster. But they did throw a chewed-up bone to their social conservative supporters. Congressional Republicans also intend to wave the flag-burning issue soon. It's possible these hot-button wedge issues don't juice up Republican-leaning voters as much as they used to. But illegal immigrants may trump gays and flag-burners as Enemy No. 1 for the GOPers this year. In some districts--maybe critical districts--Jack Abramoff will be no match for that.
The best thing to ever happen to gay rights in the country is Bill Frist's decision to introduce a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Everyone knows this is a lame attempt to pander to the evangelical voters he needs to win the Republican presidential primary. And that's the point. Everyone knows this, even evangelicals.
Consider the record Frist has piled up as Senate Majority Leader.
His solution for higher gas prices--a $100 tax rebate--was so pathetic that even Rush Limbaugh asked if the Senator thought Americans were a bunch of whores. Frist was intent on using the nuclear option to stop Democratic filibustering of conservative judges but was undercut by seven members of his own caucus who joined seven Democrats to avoid mutually assured destruction.
When it comes to flip-flopping, Bill Frist makes John Kerry look like a monomaniacal ideologue. First Dr. Frist was against stem research before he was for them. First he was against the Dubai Ports deal before the White House pulled on his leash and explained the price of his promotion to majority leader and then he was for it.
And then there were the simply bizarre moments when the Harvard trained doctor sounded like Pat Robertson. He wasn't sure if kissing causes AIDS but he was quite sure that the video of Terri Schiavo proved that she was not in a permanent vegetative state.
With enemies like Bill Frist, the gay marriage debate should look forward to gaining more and more friends.
Democrats keep talking about moral victories this election cycle. But to take back the Congress in 2006, they'll need to convert symbolic wins into actual ones.
In a normal election cycle, Republicans would've handily defeated Paul Hackett in Ohio (who was narrowly defeated by Republican Jean Schmidt in a special election last August) and Francine Busby in California. Busby lost to Republican Brian Bilbray in a special election last night by 49 to 45 percent, in heavily Republican districts. But this is not a typical political year, and for Democrats to take back the House or the Senate, they must pick up seats in places like Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The results last night in San Diego's 50th district prove the GOP's resolve. Republicans are still better at winning elections than Democrats are. Democrats had two months to try and increase Busby's total above the 44 percent she took in the crowded April primary, the same number John Kerry garnered in the conservative district. Those numbers barely moved, and turnout remained especially low.
Perhaps more disconcerting for Democrats, illegal immigration seemed to matter more than the "culture of corruption" message Busby hammered in Duke Cunningham's former district.
In 2004, Democrats and progressives were convinced that they had a better turnout operation than Republicans did, and the country was as anti-Bush as they were. The country's appetite for Republicans has certainly soured since then, but it's way too early to begin calling Nancy Pelosi "Speaker," as some Democrats are already doing.
A note of caution, after a long political night.
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.