Late in January, a small army of right-wing oligarchs and political operatives gathered in Southern California for the Koch Network’s annual winter seminar. They were there to learn about the network’s plans for the 2018 midterm elections. They learned, for instance, that the sprawling political organization will spend at least $400 million next fall to help the Republican Party maintain its majority in Congress. They learned that the network will target Senate Democrats in states where Trump was victorious in 2016, including Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri. They learned that the billionaire brothers and their backers will launch a massive direct-mail and get-out-the-vote effort beginning this summer. Relying on their vast financial resources, Charles and David Koch and their friends hope to fix the outcome of the democratic process.
Meanwhile, elections haven’t been the only targets of the titan elite. In courts around the country, wealthy conservative donors have also been busy trying to fix the judicial process. Consider the Janus v. AFSCME case, which is currently before the Supreme Court and which could devastate public employee unions by gutting their ability to collects fees from workers they represent. On its face, the case is being brought by a discontented public-sector worker from Illinois named Mark Janus. In reality, the case is all about furthering the political agenda of the reactionary rich, and especially the agenda of Richard Uihlein. Uihlein is a powerful industrialist who bankrolls right-wing groups and candidates in the Midwest, and his money is behind the conservative legal group that represents Janus in the case.
And then, there’s Amazon and its extortionist efforts to find a new home for its second headquarters. The nearly $700 billion company is using its vast financial clout as a weapon with which to extract tax breaks and other incentives from cities that covet its new headquarters. This has led a series of major American municipalities to offer secret bids to the company, offering to shower public money on the private corporation without disclosing the precise details of their plans. Jeff Bezos, all the while, watches and waits while his net worth—more than $120 billion—grows ever larger.
All three of these cases illustrate the alarming power of organized money—the way that the ultra-wealthy use their resources to hijack the political and electoral machinery that is meant to represent all Americans. But even as they’ve been busy doing their best to rig the system, a cast of local activists, organizers and elected officials have been pushing back with the full force of their grassroots savvy. These urban progressives don’t have the clout, the means, or the money of their foes, but they have determination, and they’ve been deploying it in cities across the country—in Arizona and New York, Ohio, Texas, and well beyond—to try to thwart the dominion of billionaires.
Here’s what they’ve been up to recently.
TEMPE VOTES OUT DARK MONEY
Since taking office in 2015, City Council member Lauren Kuby has been on a nonstop mission to make Tempe, Arizona’s elections squeaky-clean. In 2015, during her first year on the council, she founded a campaign-finance working group with her colleagues and created an online searchable database that displays every expenditure and contribution in city elections. In 2016, she and her fellow officials established a lobbyist registry for the city and spearheaded a local ballot initiative that strictly capped political contributions by individuals and political-action committees. In 2017, they passed an ordinance that requires city council candidates to explicitly disclose donations they receive from registered lobbyists. And in 2018, Kuby and her allies went further still.
Over the last six months, Kuby and a small cohort of fellow election reformers launched and led a campaign to ban dark money in Tempe’s elections and thereby become a model for other cities across the state. They wanted to protect their city from the kind of anonymous outside meddling that is a specialty of the Koch brothers and their ilk.
Kuby worked with her council colleagues, along with former Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard and a grassroots group called the Arizona Advocacy Network, to put an initiative on the March 2018 local ballot that would amend the city’s charter and effectively prohibit dark money in elections there. They organized council meetings and public forums. They ran online ads and produced literature to hand out during door-to-door canvassing. But a major get-out-the-vote effort wasn’t really necessary. The dark money ban was immensely popular, and on March 13 Tempe voters passed it by an astounding 91 percent.
Indeed, support for the ban was so overwhelming in Tempe that local officials in Phoenix soon followed suit and started working on a dark-money ban of their own. Terry Goddard, meanwhile, launched a drive to put a similar ban on the statewide ballot in November 2018.
“The 91 percent vote in Tempe was amazing. Putin doesn’t get that kind of a vote,” says Goddard, who is a long-time clean-elections advocate in the state. “What it shows beyond any question is that this is very popular. People in Arizona think that to have a fair fight in a political context you need to know who is paying for the ads.”
Still, the dark-money forces aren’t giving up that easily. On March 28, the Republican-led Arizona legislature passed a bill that explicitly prohibits cities like Tempe from requiring dark money groups to disclose their donors. The bill is meant to prevent Tempe’s good example from spreading across the state. Kuby says that she and her allies are ready to defend their achievement in court if need be.
“We are ready to ramp this up,” says Kuby. “We are ready to defend democracy, because democracy ain’t cheap.”
CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM COMES TO THE CAPITOL
Finally, let’s talk campaign finance. In a post–Citizens United world, where the billionaire Koch brothers plan to spend upward of $400 million to influence the 2018 federal elections, this topic rarely produces happy news. But progressive politicians in the District of Columbia offered up a bit of hope in January when the City Council unanimously passed a bill to establish a public campaign-finance system for municipal elections. The bill will soon head to the mayor’s desk for approval.
Under the city’s Fair Elections Act, DC will offer qualified candidates base grants that will run as high as $160,000 in mayoral races. The city will also provide a 5-to-1 financial match on small-dollar donations from DC residents. Those participating in the program will be barred from taking corporate money and will have to accept a cap on the size of the donations they accept. The purpose of the voluntary system, says council member Charles Allen, who introduced the bill, is to amplify the impact of small-dollar donors, limit the influence of corporate money, and encourage candidates to connect with their constituents.
“Candidates have to spend way too much time sitting in a room on a phone dialing for dollars from people with a lot of money who can write big checks. That is not the way our campaigns or our elections should work,” he says. “This bill will add power to the voices of residents. It will make candidates behave differently. It is a big progressive win.”
Why It Matters That Phoenix Is Suing the Trump Administration Dispatches from the Urban Resistance, May 2018: From Phoenix to Detroit and beyond. By Sophie Kasakove MAY 31, 2018
Last week, the city of Phoenix became the latest to jump into the legal fray when City Council members voted to pursue a lawsuit against the federal government, a move that ran in direct opposition to their state’s decision in April to steer clear of the lawsuits. The councilmembers’ primary argument was a financial one: If the Census includes a question about citizenship, Phoenix’s many noncitizen residents will likely skip the questionnaire, depressing the count and leading, ultimately, to a huge reduction in federal funds for the city.
How huge? Phoenix Deputy City Manager Karen Peters estimated that the city could lose as much as $350 for each person not counted by the Census, leading to losses of more than $107 million per year. (Others, meanwhile, suggested the figures could run even higher if some citizens also opt out). “Phoenix and its residents have too much to lose in the 2020 Census count if it’s not done right,” Mayor Greg Stanton said in a statement.
But Phoenix isn’t the only place where activists got busy this past month, and the Census wasn’t the only battleground. A tax that demands accountability from large corporations. A program to restore drivers licenses to tens of thousands of residents. An effort to curb mass incarceration by banning private jails. These are just some of the efforts proposed and passed in May by cities seeking a more progressive path forward.
Here are the details.
SEATTLE VS. AMAZON
It’s not every day that a city takes on one of the 21st century’s most powerful monopolies. But earlier this month, Seattle’s City Council voted unanimously to divert money from the coffers of the city’s mega-corporations—among them Amazon—to help pay for the needs of struggling renters and the homeless. The new tax, which targets companies making at least $20 million in gross revenues a year, is expected to generate $47 million, which amounts to about $275 per employee of the taxed corporations. With this money, the city plans to build or preserve nearly 900 units of affordable housing and to provide services for the homeless.
“The city’s homelessness crisis has been in a state of emergency for three years now,” says Lisa Herbold, a Seattle councilmember who sponsored the bill along with councilmembers M. Lorena Gonzálex, Mike O’Brien, and Teresa Mosqueda. “But we are also said to have the single most regressive tax structure in the nation. We have a really difficult lack of options to address our growing revenue needs.”
The new tax is a vital step forward, an intervention with both practical and symbolic resonance. But its reach is also significantly more modest than its drafters had hoped. As originally proposed, the tax was set to generate $75 million each year (amounting to $540 per full-time employee). But when Amazon threw the corporate equivalent of a conniption, abruptly halting construction on an addition to its downtown campus earlier this month, the mayor threatened a veto, and the City Council was forced to scale back the tax.
In the weeks since, Amazon has agreed to resume construction. Yet the fight isn’t over—either in Seattle or beyond. On May 23, news broke that the tech giant has pledged $25,000 to join Starbucks, Kroger, and several other Seattle stalwarts in an effort to put a referendum on the November ballot repealing the tax. At the same time, West Coast cities like San Francisco and Cupertino, inspired by Seattle’s bold move, have also begun mulling a tax on large local employers.
“Google has billions of dollars in cash floating around,” Lenny Siegel, the mayor of Mountain View, home to Google’s headquarters, told Bloomberg. “They made billions off the tax bill. They can afford to spend a little more here.”
DETROIT DRIVES OFF INJUSTICE
When Detroit resident Alexia Dunson was 20 years old, she was given a “Driver Responsibility Fee” for driving a friend’s vehicle without proof of insurance. That was 11 years ago, but until just this month, she continued to suffer the consequences.
In 2003, in an attempt to generate revenue amid a state budget crisis, Detroit began charging drivers like Dunson a hefty fine for minor driving infractions and suspending their licenses when they couldn’t pay it. Fifteen years later, some 67,000 Detroit residents had suspended licenses—a serious challenge in a city where 62 percent of employed residents commute to work in the suburbs. One of these was Dunson.o
“I’m a medical assistant and a lot of those jobs require you to have reliable transportation,” explains Dunson, a single mother of three. “I was offered so many opportunities where I could have started paying off the fees, but once they saw that I didn’t have a license, all my other qualifications went out the door.… I was unemployed for three years.”
Still, the fines kept accruing, building and building as Dunson fell further behind. “It was either keep the lights on or pay them,” she says.
But this past March, recognizing the struggles of residents like Dunson—as well as a local labor shortage—Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and a bipartisan state coalition pressured the Michigan legislature to forgive the fees of 350,000 Michigan residents by October 1. (The fees totaled $637 million.) And this month, the City of Detroit decided to suspend fees months ahead of schedule.
Dunson jumped at the news. After taking a 10-hour online job-readiness training—the requirement for participating in the forgiveness program—she saw $4,500 in accrued fees wiped away. “I never thought I would see the day when they got rid of it,” Dunson says. “It’s been a long time, but I have my freedom back.”
The forgiveness program comes after years of steady backlash against the fees. Last May, a national civil-rights organization, Equal Justice Under Law, filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of two Detroit women who were unable to afford their driving fees. The lawsuit accused Michigan of running a “wealth-based…scheme that traps some of the state’s poorest residents in a cycle of poverty.” The most common cause of driver responsibility fees is lack of auto insurance, which is more expensive in Detroit than anywhere else in the country. An estimated half of all Detroit motorists lack insurance.
A similar issue gained traction a couple of years ago in the city of Jennings, Missouri. Not long after police murdered Michael Brown in neighboring Ferguson, investigators found that Jennings had been unconstitutionally jailing people—many poor and black—for unpaid fines and fees. The city agreed in 2016 to pay $4.7 million to compensate nearly 2,000 people who spent time in the city’s jail for traffic and other petty violations.
TUCSON TURNS DOWN THE PRIVATE-PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
This month, lawmakers in Tucson delivered a resounding rebuke to the private-prison industry when they passed a resolution banning for-profit jails and detention centers in the city.
This would have been worthy news in any town, but Tucson is in Arizona, a reliably red state with the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the country. As of 2016, the state held more than 8,000 people—or 15 percent of its prison population—in private prisons, a figure nearly double the US-wide rate. The state is also home to the Eloy Detention Center, a private detention center owned and operated by CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the nation’s third-largest immigrant detention center. Some 15 detainees have died there since 2003, making it the nation’s deadliest detention center. Meanwhile, a total of 38,504 people were held at Tucson’s Pima County Adult Detention Complex in 2017.
“We wanted to proactively encourage city and county leaders to take a principled stance which is not just about the bottom line—which isn’t even lowered by private prisons anyway,” says Caroline Isaacs, program director at the American Friends Service Committee chapter in Tucson, which helped craft the bill. “It’s about essential functions of government and whether or not it’s appropriate to grant these functions to the lowest bidder.”
Across the country, private prisons have facilitated the explosion of mass incarceration through securing government contracts that often stipulate “lockup quotas,” some of which promise to keep at least 90 percent of beds full at all times. In 2013, when Arizona failed to meet the 97 percent quota at one private prison, it handed over $3 million in taxpayer dollars to the private contractor to make up the difference. “The state spends more on private prisons than on public education,” notes Councilmember Regina Romero, who helped craft the bill.
Nationwide, studies have shown that private prisons tend to keep inmates locked up for longer and in worse conditions. A class-action lawsuit filed in Georgia last month accused CoreCivic, one of the largest private-prison companies, of using solitary confinement to force detainees into doing facility maintenance work for as low as 50 cents an hour. CoreCivic operates four of Arizona’s facilities.
In its decision, Tucson joins its parent county, Pima County, as well as King County, Washington (home to Seattle), and Indianapolis, which all passed legislation in the past year curtailing prison privatization within their jurisdictions.
Direct Democracy in Durham: Durham’s City Council voted to allow residents to choose how to spend $2.4 million of the city’s $429.4 million budget this year, joining a recent wave of cities investing in participatory budgeting. “It’s a vote of confidence in democracy,” Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton gushed to ABC11. “Bus shelters, neighborhood gardens, clean ups, mentoring programs. You just don’t know what they’re going to come up with and that’s part of the excitement.”
San Diego Goes Transparent: The city is requiring more transparency in campaign ads, following the example set by cities like Tempe, which approved a ballot initiative to curb dark money in campaign spending in March.
Communities Benefit in Houston: Houston just passed a bill setting a higher bar for companies seeking tax breaks from the city. Companies will be required to, among other stipulations, give construction workers safety training, advertise jobs to ex-offenders in the city’s reentry program, provide affordable housing in residential developments, and try to hire workers from poor neighborhoods and the area around a project.
Up to date in Kansas City: A City Council member is leading an effort to better define affordable housing in the city, where there’s currently no standard definition for it.