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Chevron Tries to Buy Local City Election

jennifer boynton headshotWords by Jen Boynton
Leadership & Transparency
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Chevron is spending big bucks -- $3 million to date -- on the outcome of mayoral and city council elections in the town of Richmond, California, a city with just over 100,000 residents. You've got that right -- the company has spent about $30 per resident.

Why all the muss and fuss over a local election? Well, Richmond is the home of a major refinery for the oil and gas producer. The refinery was the site of a 2012 explosion and fire that sent over 15,000 area residents to the hospital with respiratory distress, rashes and other ailments. In 2013, the city of Richmond sued the corporate giant, alleging that the blaze was the result of  "a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs." (as quoted in SF Gate).

At the time, Chevron promised to vigorously fight the lawsuit, claiming that it is "a waste of the city's resources and yet another example of its failed leadership," claiming that the lawsuit was designed to shift focus away from a "dysfunctional" city council.

Well, it seems that vigorous fighting includes trying to buy a Chevron-friendly city council that will be more magnanimous to the local employer. According to KQED, "A new council majority sympathetic to Chevron could squelch the suit or pave the way for a settlement more favorable to the oil giant."

We reached out to Chevron for a statement on its investment in this particular election, and this is what they had to say:

"Chevron supports city leaders who share our commitment to policies that foster an economic environment where businesses can thrive and create jobs. The amount of money we spend to inform voters must be viewed in the context of the more than $500 million in local taxes, social investment and spending on local vendors from Chevron over the past five years, and our $90 million social and environmental commitment to the city that will follow once our $1 billion refinery modernization is allowed to proceed. We are proud to be in Richmond – the city and refinery have grown up together over the past century."

There is no doubt that Chevron is heavily invested in the community -- it employs more than 1,200 residents and is the largest employer in the town. But this level of spending, compared to that of the other candidates, smacks of a balls-to-the-walls effort to make positively sure their man (and men and women) lead the city. Chevron's choice candidate for mayor, Nat Bates, has had $1.4 million in advertising spent on his behalf, according to the Los Angeles Times. His main opponent, Tom Butt, has around $40,000 to play with.

Much of this funding doesn't come directly from Chevron. Rather it winds its way through a PAC Chevron supports called Moving Forward. That PAC, in turn, funds an organization called Richmond Working Families for Jobs 2014, which buys many of the ads. If that name sounds like a mouthful, you best believe it was chosen deliberately. Shortly after an area group began organizing itself under the name Richmond Working Families, the Moving Forward PAC created Richmond Working Families for Jobs 2014 -- and bought rights to the URL richmondworkingfamilies.com. These efforts are surely aimed at confusing voters.

Richmond Working Families for Jobs 2014 is also funding negative campaign ads for the city council candidates who are members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.

While community activists are working to get out the vote and build opposition to the Chevron-funded slate of candidates, leaders were concerned about an overall level of voter fatigue over the issue.

“I have personally received between 20 and 30 mailers from Chevron candidates,” Richmond resident Leon Zhou said during a press conference, held by Richmond Working Families political action committee, as quoted in the Richmond Confidential.

It's stories like these that make campaign finance reform sound like the best idea in the world, but unfortunately, the more money there is in politics the greater a pipe dream it seems.

Image credit: Michael LoRusso, Flickr cc

Jen Boynton headshotJen Boynton

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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