Something profoundly important is happening in the shadows of the redwoods of Northern California. On June 6, voters in Humboldt County will have the opportunity to vote on an historic initiative -- the Ordinance to Protect Our Right to Fair Elections and Local Democracy.
If passed, this ordinance (known locally as Measure T) will prohibit non-local corporations from making political contributions in Humboldt County elections. This alone would make the ordinance worthy of support amongst progressives. But this ordinance goes so much deeper.
The official ballot language includes a direct challenge to the ridiculous notion that a corporation is a "person" with vested constitutional rights. Specifically, the ordinance provides that "only natural human persons possess civil and political rights, and corporations are creations of state law and possess no legitimate civil or political rights."
There is the additional assertion that "courts have illegitimately defined corporations as 'persons' and this doctrine illegitimately denies the people of Humboldt County the ability to exercise our fundamental political rights." And to add teeth, the initiative provides that "no corporation shall be entitled to claim corporate constitutional rights or protections in an effort to overturn this law."
Talk about a community standing up for itself!
Just how did such a direct and unambiguous challenge to the wealthy elite and their control of elections ever make it to the ballot box? By use of one of the great success stories of the first populist uprising -- the citizen's initiative process.
Proponents of the effort contend that large corporations are exerting undue influence on their local political campaigns. Like virtually every community in the United States, they have solid evidence for their claim. In 1999, the Wal-Mart Corporation paid for a ballot initiative to overturn portions of the area's zoning laws and then spent $250,000 on the campaign. In 2003, Maxxam Corporation invested $300,000 to fund a campaign to recall newly-elected District Attorney Paul Gallegos after he filed fraud charges against the company. It is worth noting that these two examples of corporate election bullying used paid petitioners to try to hijack the citizen's initiative process.
In stark contrast, the Measure T effort has been an all-volunteer effort of ordinary people who are coming together to address a very real problem (outside corporate money trying to buy elections), while simultaneously building a citizen's movement to challenge the ability of corporations to claim constitutional rights.
Another exciting aspect of the campaign is just how broad and diverse it is. The local Democratic Party and the local Green Party have both formally endorsed the effort, and leaders of both parties are working arm-in-arm during the campaign. Every major organized labor union in the county has joined with the Sierra Club, the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom and others in supporting the campaign.
Stated simply, the entire spectrum of the peace, social justice, environmental movements are working together in Humboldt County. They are modeling the kind of respectful unity that progressives so often talk about, but so rarely manage to accomplish. And they are engaged in a concrete campaign that is strategically designed to change the rules of the game so that future progressive victories will be easier.
It is important to understand that this proactive effort did not spring up out of thin air. It is a direct result of years of old-fashioned community organizing and educating by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC). DUHC educates citizens regarding the role that corporations have played in an illegitimate seizure of our authority to govern ourselves, and they design and implement grassroots strategies that exercise democratic power over corporations and governments. They are seeking to create a truly democratic society by provoking a non-violent popular uprising against corporate rule in Humboldt County that can serve as a model for other communities across the United States.
Just like the populists of the agrarian movement of the late 19th century, these folks understand that genuine mass movements cannot be top-down driven. The formation of a mass movement that can achieve political viability must proceed from the ground up. And the battles must be waged in our local communities.
If you want to learn more about the effort, or want some help in replicating this in your area, give them a call at 707-444-0407 or check out online at www.votelocalcontrol.org.
David Cobb is a lawyer, activist and was 2004 Green Party candidate for president. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.