A set of municipal elections in Richmond, California, a town of just 107,000 people, attracted widespread attention in the lead-up to Election Day thanks to one very high-profile donor: Chevron. The oil giant spent upwards of $3 million on the mayoral and select city council races, but Richmond voters wholly rejected that effort.
Chevron’s preferred mayoral candidate was defeated by fellow City Council member Tom Butt, 51 percent to 35 percent, the San Jose Mercury News reported. Chevron also spent a significant amount of money to defeat three City Council candidates, known collectively as “Team Richmond,” all of whom won on Tuesday night.
“I think people see it as a silver lining in an otherwise dark election day nationwide,” said Justin Guay, a Richmond resident and friend of the author. Guay, an Associate Director at the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress via email that they had been inundated with pro-Chevron advertising in the weeks before the election. “It’s a great example of people power overcoming dirty money,” he added.
Others expressed a similar sentiment. “I didn’t expect a full slate victory, but it’s a clear statement,” Butt’s campaign manager Alex Knox told Richmond Confidential. “I hope it means that this kind of money won’t be spent the same way again, that maybe it will change how corporations buy elections.”
Why would a company that reported $21.4 billion in revenue in 2013 be interested in a small city’s municipal elections? Because Richmond is also home to a Chevron refinery — one that exploded in 1999 and again in 2012.
Last year, hundreds of protesters were arrested shortly after the city formally filed a lawsuit against Chevron for it’s lack of oversight and inadequate inspections leading up to the 2012 explosion, which sent at least 15,000 people to area hospitals for respiratory complications and other illnesses. As for why action wasn’t taken sooner, then-Mayor Gayle McLaughlin “said past members of the City Council have been unwilling to challenge the oil giant after receiving generous campaign contributions from the company,” KTVU reported at the time.
In addition to the barrage of electoral spending this year, the company went as far as setting up “an objective-looking website, known as the Richmond Standard, purporting to be a news portal for residents of Richmond,” the LA Times reported in October.
A post on the electoral outcome in Richmond contained no mention of Chevron’s involvement in the races, which seems to be consistent with the Times’ description of the Richmond Standard’s pre-election “news” coverage.
“If you’re looking for a story that’s critical of Chevron, you’re not going to find it in the Richmond Standard,” Mike Aldax, the site’s sole employee and member of Chevron’s PR firm, told the paper in September.
Students at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism have sought to counteract Chevron’s PR efforts disguised as news by operating the Richmond Confidential news site on a very modest budget.
While Tuesday’s results are encouraging for both Richmond residents and those concerned by the increasingly oversized role of corporations in American elections, Chevron’s involvement could be a sign of things to come. “While California allowed corporate spending before Citizens United, ever since this Supreme Court case, good government advocates have warned that corporations could have a distorting impact especially in small local elections that used to be sleepy low dollar affairs,” wrote Ciara Torres-Spelliscy with the Brennan Center for Justice. “Richmond seems to be that nightmare come true.”