As Election Night came to a close Tuesday night I was prepared to write a very different message. I had researched a Princeton study released this spring that found that America was no longer a democracy but instead an oligarchy where the wealthy elite wield most of the power and rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene steer the direction of the country regardless of or even against the will of the majority. It is no secret that money and big money has influenced elections, but has it really replaced the democratic process? Even as special interest groups and wealthy individuals pour billions into independent expenditure political action committees to protect their interests, has the individual voter, the average citizen, lost the power to be counted?
My thoughts changed when I reviewed the election results Wednesday morning and began to see a very different narrative. It’s a local grassroots narrative. Some might even say hyper local. And to a literary romantic like me, it’s encouraging, and illustrates the power of our democratic process.
In San Bernardino, Mayor Carey Davis, spokesperson for charter reform Measures Q & R was on the record as saying “we got outspent” when asked why Measure Q was defeated. His chief of staff added, “A special interest has put a lot of money into a campaign to put fear into voters.” But Measure R passed, so what was the difference? Was it simply the money spent by the firefighters unions who waged an aggressive and sometimes misleading “No on Q” campaign? Or did the reformers fail to harness the power of an electorate clearly ready for change?
If it’s only “outspending” that sways an election, then Measure L in Riverside should have easily passed with the $1.5 million contributed by a Las Vegas-based developer. The well-funded and smartly branded campaign for the measure, which would have allowed for the development of the area known as La Sierra Lands, was defeated by a citizen-led grassroots effort that raised only $20,000 and relied on social media and handmade signs to educate voters. In Moreno Valley, only one of three of Highland Fairview-supported candidates benefitted from its developer’s generous campaign support. His political action committees spent over $367,000 to defeat the recall of Councilwoman Victoria Baca, and support the races of Yxstian Gutierrez and Jeffrey Giba. Only Gutierrez was successful in his bid but Victoria Baca was recalled and will be replaced by Dolores LaDonna Jempson, and Giba lost to Corey Jackson in the race for the District 2 seat. Highland Fairview supported political action committees spent three times the total amount of money raised individually by all the city council candidates combined.
This campaign season I was fascinated by the “big money vs. grassroots campaign” dynamic. In the city of Richmond, a northern California town of 107,500, the largest industry in the city is Chevron who decided that in order to have a more favorable relationship with the city council they would back their own slate after the city sued them in 2012 over a major refinery fire. But not only did the oil company support candidates, they funneled $3 million into their own “Moving Forward” political action committee and launched an aggressive campaign supporting their candidates and opposing the group that eventually named itself “Team Richmond,” candidates hostile to the big oil company. With only a five-figure budget “Team Richmond” was triumphant.
So even this election season across the state, and I’m sure the nation, the local little guys with conviction and the energy and strategy to execute grassroots campaigns were victorious. They kept the message clear, often focused on “quality of life” issues, and galvanized their fellow citizens. So unlike the Princeton study’s findings they not only believe in the power of our democracy they harnessed its power and defeated the elite. San Bernardino’s reformers should take note. Money alone doesn’t influence elections. It takes passion, persistence, and the engagement of the entire electorate.
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