It is normal in the US for self-seeking corporate interests to determine the disposition of public resources without much public attention. This situation is changing.
Oil money to support the extraction and transit of more fossil fuel
At the Port of Vancouver oil giant Tesoro-Savage has proposed what would be the largest oil terminal in the US . The terminal is opposed by a broad collection of officials, groups and individuals ranging from the Attorney General of Washington state to “101 Vancouver” a group of local businesses, the Longshore Union, the SW Washington Sierra Club, and many individuals.
Tesoro-Savage has poured over a quarter million dollars into the 2017 race for Vancouver Port Commission, intending to defeat Don Orange, who has said he will not support the terminal. The cost of the race is closing in on $1 million.
Tesoro-Savage started small by giving $5000 to candidate Kris Greene who had expressed support for the terminal. As the race heated up, the corporations gave Greene $75,000 in early October. Another infusion from backers of the project brought their total contribution to Greene’s coffers to $370,000 as of October 19.
The $370,000 from the oil developers accounts for 87% of the money Greene has raised. Greene is also benefitting from about $160,000 spent on ads by a PAC funded mainly by Tesoro, BNSF railway and Chevron.
Opponent Don Orange has received $100,000 in cash contributions – 95% of it from individual donors. His success in raising local money is viewed as a reflection of community opposition to the terminal as contributing to the expansion of fossil fuel development. Orange recently began to get in-kind support from Washington Conservation Votersh totaling about $260,000.
Money to maintain Port of Olympia subsidies for timber companies
In Thurston County timber interests have for some time commanded a large share of Port expenditures: In 2017, payments for leases and services by Weyerhaeuser, Port Blakely Tree Farms and some smaller timber interests covered only 68% of the Port’s Marine Terminal operating costs (see Port of Olympia 2017 budget)
Weyerhaeuser and Port Blakely have upped the ante in the 2017 races for Port Commissioner: cash contributions in one race approach $100,000 and in the other $60,000 – both record-breakers for this small port. Weyerhaeuser and Port Blakely put $10,000 each into a PAC opposing two grassroots candidates, Bill Fishburn and E.J. Zita. These two promise to diversify the Port in ways that reflect its public mission. An irony in the Port race is that the original impetus for the creation of Port districts was to counter corporate power (of the railroads) by subjecting decisions about public resources to the vote.
But money need not overcome the move to reassert public purposes
The upstart candidates in each instance are far outmatched in terms of money. Yet the ability of corporations to override revived interest in having resource decisions reflect the needs of a broader public may be drawing to a close.
Richmond California is the poster-child for a new consciousness of what a healthy community needs. Richmond’s politics, air, economy and social life were long dominated by the Chevron Corporation whose refinery was the city’s largest employer. In the 2008 election, a slate of progressives presented voters with a new vision of Richmond – and despite massive expenditures by Chevron, they were voted into City Hall.
Determined to reassert its control over city politics, Chevron spent $3 million promoting new candidates in the 2014 Council elections, buying every billboard in town. Underfunded progressive candidates spent a tiny fraction of that amount – and swept the election with a massive door-to-door campaign involving hundreds of volunteers.
In the 2016 municipal elections, the same progressive activists consolidated their position in city government. Over the course of a decade, these new leaders have improved the life of Richmond’s residents and forced Chevron to become a better citizen.
Steve Early’s book Refinery Town tells the story of Richmond’s progress.