THE BLOG
06/21/2006 06:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shushing Big Money

In the old monarchies of Europe, the resident populace were known as subjects. Here in the New World, where mankind started over, we're citizens, a word that pulses with self-governing power.

This is pretty scary, and there's plenty of pressure on us not to take this role literally. Democracy is dangerous, after all. It's always a threat to those in power. This is why its expansion over the last 230 years -- through abolitionism, trade unionism, women's suffrage, the civil rights movement -- has never come without struggle and controversy. But where democracy is healthy, this is what citizens do: expand the terrain.

Welcome to Humboldt County, Calif., a largely rural county 250 miles north of San Francisco where democracy is healthy indeed, and where, thanks to a citizens' initiative called Measure T, which passed at the beginning of the month with 55 percent of the vote, local governance has asserted itself in the face of the threat of Big Money disguised as just another neighbor exercising his right to free speech.

Measure T took on the weird concept known as "corporate personhood," a legal fiction bequeathed to us from the robber-baron era of the late 19th century, in which corporations managed to gain legal standing as "persons," with inherent rights that can't be abridged by law, just as human beings have, rather than mere court-granted privileges.

This abomination is democracy's equivalent of "Attack of the Killer Robots." When business conglomerates (unlike any other organized group) have constitutionally guaranteed rights and protections, their interests will swamp ours. For instance, of the first 150 cases heard by the Supreme Court involving the 14th Amendment, a byproduct of the Civil War, which requires states to provide equal protection under the law to all persons within their jurisdiction, only 15 cases concerned former slaves; the other 135 were about the rights of business entities.

As Thom Hartmann has noted, "Unlike you and me, when large corporations 'speak' they can use a billion-dollar bullhorn."

This is the sort of deafening noise that began raining down on Humboldt County recently. Twice in the last seven years, large, out-of-state corporations attempted to trample local rule by throwing money around and posing as "players" in local politics.

In 1999, Wal-Mart poured $250,000 into an effort to change the city of Eureka's zoning laws so it could plunk down one of its giant retail boxes on 30 acres of waterfront. Then in 2004, MAXXAM Inc., a Texas-based forest products company, launched a recall campaign against local District Attorney Paul Gallegos, who had the temerity to try to enforce environmental regulations on the company's operations in the county. MAXXAM spent $300,000 to get him out of office.

Both assaults on local rule were unsuccessful, but residents were appalled that the shenanigans were possible at all. And on June 6, following a heated campaign spearheaded by an organization appropriately called Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County, with the enthusiastic participation of the local Green and Democratic parties as well as area labor unions, voters across the political spectrum passed Measure T, which prohibits non-local corporations from spending so much as a penny to influence a local election.

The penalties on companies that play unwarranted politics range from fines (10 times the amount of money inappropriately contributed, to be paid to Humboldt County) to revocation of their charter to do business in California.

"This is bigger than a legal challenge -- it's broader and deeper," said David Cobb of Democracy Unlimited (who was also the Green Party presidential candidate in 2004). "We're talking about a culture shift. We're challenging people to ask who rules this country -- unaccountable corporations or we the people?"

Now that's patriotism -- of the proud, defiant, "don't tread on me" variety. And where citizen involvement is noisy and vibrant, elections will be about issues of substance and consequence, not about, as it so often seems, as little as possible.

Measure T reads in part (under "Findings and General Purpose"): "In a Democratic Republic all legitimate political power is held by the people, and government exercises just power only with the consent of the governed. The people create their government for their protection and benefit, and retain their right to alter their government whenever they deem the public good requires it.

"Only natural persons (human beings, in other words) possess civil and political rights."

Cobb told me he thinks Measure T is only the third U.S. law that has ever challenged corporate personhood, and the first to deal with campaign financing and to result from a citizens' initiative. So far, he said, organizers have heard from about a dozen communities since the election, wanting to know how they stood up to Big Money. He is hopeful there will be more. (The organization can be reached via www.duhc.org.)

The influence of corporate money is so pervasive, most of us are probably surprised it can be challenged at all. Well, it can be. And Measure T may be a beachhead in a long campaign to bring corporate power down to its appropriate political size.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

© 2006 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.