Z Magazine interviews Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap about Measure T

December 2, 2006

Last June voters in Northern California’s Humboldt County approved a ballot initiative that banned non-local corporate money in elections. The referendum, dubbed Measure T, also rejected corporate personhood, the legal doctrine that grants corporations the same rights and protections as persons. Measure T’s passage represents the most explicit challenge to corporate “rights” and political power in the country at this time.

The discontent fueling this victory stemmed from two major controversies in Humboldt’s politics. In 1999 Wal-Mart spent $250,000 in an effort to overturn the area’s zoning laws and permit construction of a big-box store in Eureka. In 2004 Texas-based Maxxam Inc. poured $300,000 into recalling Humboldt’s district attorney after he filed fraud charges against the corporation. Both campaigns proved enormously taxing for the community to thwart and highlighted the threat corporate spending poses to local democracy.

It was against this backdrop that Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC), a non-profit dedicated to ending corporate rule through education and grassroots action, drafted the first version of Measure T. The small group they convened to support the initiative ultimately grew to include the Green and Democratic parties, local unions, environmental groups, elected officials, 29 local businesses, and hundreds of citizens. Known as the Humboldt Coalition for Community Rights, they sought to revive local democracy using a model that can inspire other communities across the nation.

A key organizer from Measure T’s inception to its passage was Democracy Unlimited’s director and HCCR’s campaign manager, Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap. SopociBelknap has served as a member of the national Leadership Team of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s campaign to Challenge Corporate Power, Assert the People’s Rights. She is a co-founder and secretary to the Board of the California Center for Community Democracy, is a principal with the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, and a fellow for Liberty Tree: Foundation for the Democratic Revolution. She also serves on the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District Board and has built a reputation as a strong speaker and workshop facilitator.

MCLEOD: How do the doctrines of corporate personhood and corporate constitutional rights undermine local democracy?
SOPOCI-BELKNAP: Our constitution is about restrictions on government; government cannot pass laws that violate people’s rights. If corporations have personhood rights, that means government down to the local level can’t meaningfully restrict them. Any laws that restrict corporate harm—be it involvement in elections, an environmental or general community health issue—are subject to a lawsuit and corporate claims that their rights are being violated. Tools that we could be using to protect ourselves, such as democracy and law, are instead out of our hands and there’s no real precedent for that except corporate personhood. It’s a doctrine to get around law.

Can you speak to the First Amendment protections that corporations enjoy and do you think this ordinance can survive legal challenges?
The idea that corporations have First Amendment rights is something that has been upheld by the Supreme Court. The courts have said that money equals speech and when corporations contribute money that is the way that they exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech. Measure T challenges the idea that money equals speech and that those with money have more access to the First Amendment. We’re doing two things: we’re trying to protect our community against corporate harm and we’re also trying to build a larger movement to challenge these doctrines we feel are unjust, unconstitutional, and immoral.
The courts have said there is justification for restrictions on corporate contributions and in order for us to uphold that, the community has to prove corporate involvement in campaigns is causing corruption or undermining voter confidence. We wrote the findings from those cases into our law, but we’re also not okay with limiting our ability to protect ourselves to what the courts have said is possible. The courts have a history of only doing the right thing when there’s a citizen’s movement forcing them to do so. The courts didn’t overturn segregation on their own, the civil rights movement overturned segregation through the courts. The courts upheld slavery time and again until a people’s struggle made it possible for slavery to be overturned. The courts upheld that women didn’t have the right to vote until pressure forced a constitutional amendment to be passed that overturned the Supreme Court. The courts only bowed to the pressure of the people, they didn’t just suddenly wake up and become moral.

According to Measure T, a union only needs one local member to support candidates or issues, but a corporation is disqualified if one employee or stockholder is non-local. A major criticism was that the definitions of “local” favored unions over corporations.
That argument was made repeatedly and what I ended up doing as a spokesperson was defending the difference between a union and a corporation. We defined the entities differently because a union exists to advocate for people’s rights in the workplace and a corporation is legally obligated to make a profit. When you have two different entities like that, one that has the purpose of looking out for itself and another one that has the purpose of looking out for workers, then of course you’d think of them as different and one is more likely to cause harm to a community than another. Especially in terms of elections—a corporation is looking to elect somebody that’s going to maximize profit.

Where did the notion come about to permit local corporations to participate in elections?
It’s not a right; it’s a privilege. We’re granting local corporations the privilege to use their money in local elections. That came from a couple of things. One, we didn’t believe that our community was of the opinion that all corporations are the same. We did a poll that found that people think it’s important to draw a distinction between non-local corporations and local corporations. It wasn’t so much about big vs. little corporations either. Originally we had a full ban on all corporate contributions and we backtracked a little because we wanted to build alliances with local businesses. We knew an outright ban would be impossible. Also, the overwhelming majority of local businesses in our community do not participate in elections anyway. They don’t have extra money to do that kind of thing.

Can you offer an overview of DUHC’s program and how that influenced this debate?
Our program areas represent our theory for how systemic social change would come about if we had movements that were both resisting current harms and building a bridge to more systemic solutions. Something that needs to happen is to build alternatives to the current system so there’s a new place to go and people see that another world is possible. Another thing we need is a movement that’s about shifting culture. What we see as the largest roadblock to democracy is that some people either believe that we already have a democracy or that we don’t have a right to it. To us, that’s about shifting people’s minds fundamentally to where they’re willing to act instead of being paralyzed by cynicism or hopelessness.
Measure T was a campaign that fit into all of our program areas. We were resisting harm—corporate involvement in past elections—and instead of just stopping at fighting them off, we created a tool so the harm can’t happen again. Measure T also offers an alternative to the current system—we don’t need to accept corporate money in our elections. The whole campaign was about shifting culture to convince people that we can stand up for democracy.

Can you speak about alternative systems in Humboldt County?
The alternative systems program area is probably the one that has the most excitement and support from our community. People are feeling that parts of our current society are starting to crumble with peak oil and global warming. They are concerned about what this is going to mean for meeting their everyday needs. People are hungry for alternatives because the current system is failing on so many levels. It’s an important way for communities to come together because you’re putting forward your own agenda.
One of the amazing things about Measure T was that, as an activist, you’re normally on the defensive and we were putting forward our vision. We had a totally different way we could operate and were ahead of the game every step of the way. The chamber of commerce instead had to offer a law they probably don’t even want as an alternative. It was amazing to have that shift and it felt so good and powerful. People were happy to be involved with our campaign and it was really exciting. A lot of it was that shift where we’re not on the defensive; we’re actually putting forward our vision. There’s more meaningful work and creative energy that comes out of that.

One goal of this effort was to provide a model for other communities to follow. What is your advice to those hoping to run similar challenges to corporate power in their communities?
The first thing we did was to take a poll to find out if this was something that resonated with people. We had a graduate student at our university conduct the poll for his master’s thesis. That helped us frame the way we were going to talk about Measure T and how to write it. The second thing we did was bring together leaders in our community, elected officials, directors of organizations, and people who have earned leadership and influence because of their cultural connections. We asked if they would help us. So from the beginning we had tons of endorsements. That helped make it so our opposition was scrambling from the beginning. I think that Measure T was successful because it was clear how relevant it was to the community.
The other important thing was to frame issues of corporate power in terms of corporate constitutional rights and community rights because that sets the stage for being able to wage a campaign that says “not any more.” Otherwise it’s coming out of left field.

Have you heard from others around the country? Are you hopeful?
I feel very hopeful. It seems more and more people are becoming active. We have had dozens of people in different communities contact us and express interest in running similar measures. The question is, what is the appropriate level that we should help other communities? If it would help people get started for us to do a workshop on the history of corporate power and what we did under Measure T then we’re prepared to do that. At the same time we have a fight that continues here at home. We’re a small group without a lot of resources so we can’t send people all over the country. We’re going to have to strike that balance. We are working with a lot of people in California who have contacted us, but there are others from all across the country who are pretty excited.

Daniel McLeod is a mental health counselor and Outreach Assistant for the National Priorities Project. He is cofounder of Shays 2: the Western Massachusetts Committee on Corporations and Democracy.