A Blow Against the Corporate Empire

California community blazes a trail that others should explore

By Jeff Milchen 
Published October 2, 2006

In 1999 Eureka, CA became one of the first communities to fight Wal-Mart at the ballot box and win — soundly defeating a ballot initiative that would have forced a change in zoning laws to allow a new “superstore” near the city’s waterfront.

Residents celebrated a hard-won victory, but some questioned why a corporation could force them to fight a purely defensive campaign in which “victory” meant merely maintaining the status quo.

Three years later, another global corporation, Maxxam, funded an attempt to recall the District Attorney in Eureka ‘s (Humboldt) County, who had the audacity to aggressively watchdog and even sue the corporation for alleged fraud. Voters thwarted the intimidation and kept the man they elected in office, but again at enormous cost of time and money.

More people began to question why they could be forced to defend against the political agenda of distant corporate executives. They wondered what could be accomplished if absentee-owned companies were barred from bankrolling candidates and ballot questions to advance the corporate agenda, enabling citizens to focus their energy on proactive work.

They now have the opportunity to find out.

In June, Humboldt County residents passed Measure T, a ballot initiative that forbids non-local corporations and other outside organizations from contributing money to political campaigns within the county. In a hotly-contested battle, citizens passed into law perhaps the most significant challenge to corporate political “speech” since Montana citizens voted to ban corporate expenditures on ballot questions in 1996.

Like Montanans, Humboldt citizens likely will face a second hurdle in their quest for self-governance: corporate lawyers (perhaps including some now serving on the U.S. Supreme Court).

Soon after the people of Montana decided elections should be a corporate-free activity, the state Chamber of Commerce and other groups successfully challenged the law as a violation of corporations’ “free speech” rights.

A federal appeals court sided with the Chamber and discarded Montanans’ efforts. The judges cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti ruling, which nullified a Massachusetts law that forbade corporate spending on ballot initiatives.

As with other key challenges to precedents that suppressed democracy and human rights, the outcome may depend more on social circumstances than legal points. Virtually every advance for human rights in the Supreme Court (e.g. Brown v Board of Education) has been preceded by shifts in public opinion and visible demonstrations of demand for change. At least in part due to fear of social upheaval and undermining the Court’s authority, the Court follows.

It’s time to instill that concern in the Justices again.

For judges, overturning the will of citizens in a single community — especially one that corporate interests marginalize as a hippie enclave — is no cause for concern. But to overturn an ordinance replicated in dozens of communities dispersed around the country is a different equation altogether. In other words, it’s up to us to build irresistible pressure for judges to do the right thing.

Citizens should realize that federal action to reduce corporate dominance is unlikely in the near future and consider such local actions as a necessary means toward building the movement necessary to subordinate corporations to democracy.

In those states and communities permitting ballot questions, revoking corporations’ ability to corrupt what should be the purest form of democracy may be the most vulnerable point of attack.

But such organizing must be approached as a long-term commitment, not a quick fix. Measure T was preceded not only by two instructive local lessons in corporate power, but also by years of local educating and organizing by locals through Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County. The organization built awareness of the destructive impacts of corporate political power on the lives of residents and helped people recognize that citizens themselves — not elected officials — had the ability and responsibility to change the status quo.

That’s not to say such ordinances can’t be accomplished more rapidly, especially in communities where people already have witnessed corporations overturning democratically-enacted decisions through running initiatives backed by overwhelming advertising. Wal-Mart alone has created fertile ground in communities nationwide, from Bennington, VT to Flagstaff, AZ . And with more educational work on these issues nationally, local campaigns will have a stronger foundation beneath them.

Through wildly creative interpretation of the Constitution, our courts have repeatedly subordinated the rights of citizens by elevating corporations to entities with political “rights.” Almost every national representative of the dominant political parties accepts this perversion of our Constitution (few have even considered the issue), so building a grassroots Democracy Movement is essential to overturn those precedents.

Citizens of Humboldt County have provided one concrete model to help advance this Movement. Let’s ensure their pro-democracy ordinance is joined by dozens more by the time judges decide whether to advance corporate rule further or help restore the long-unrealized ideal of rule by the people.

The writer directs ReclaimDemocracy.org. See our large library of resources on corporations and ballot initiatives and contact us to for help with related efforts.