The Nation  [Printer-friendly version]
June 7, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: On June 6, 2006 the voters in Humboldt
County, California approved a new law prohibiting corporations
headquartered outside the county from making contributions to
electoral campaigns within the county.]

By John Nichols**

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, 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

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

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.

** John Nichols is the Washington Correspondent for The Nation.