Challenges to Corporate Power Are on the Ballot­

Steve Yeater/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation

Supporters of Proposition 10, in favor of rent control and building more affordable housing, listen to labor and civic leaders speak during a press conference in Sacramento, California. 

Ballot measures don’t often earn much attention nationally, but such statewide initiatives are arduous to launch. They require an incredible investment in advertising and boots-on-the-ground organizing. And almost always, progressive measures face deep-pocketed corporate opposition. In spite of these incredible odds, several states are moving forward with ballot questions on a diverse range of issues from housing and the environment to sexual violence.

Next week Californians will weigh in on Proposition 10 which would repeal a real-estate developer-funded state pre-emption law on housing that dates back to the 1990s and the administration of Republican Governor Pete Wilson. State pre-emption is a perfect example of a complicated concept—one that often carries the taint of racism—that has enormous local ramifications. In an effort to prevent further regulation of the housing and the environment sectors, many corporations have relied on largely white state legislatures to “preempt” and block cities that often have majority-minority populations from passing certain kinds of protections. All voters, but especiallyvoters of color, are denied their right to govern the municipalities where they live.

A yes vote on Proposition 10 would repeal a California state law, the Costa-Hawkins Housing Act, that limits cities’ decisionmaking on rent control. Turning rent control decision-making over to municipalities would benefit low-and middle-income working people and would help communities remain intact. 

But who is dumping millions into deceptive ads to defeat the repeal? Blackstone, the world’s largest private equity firm and the country’s biggest landlord. Corporate billionaires have spent nearly $75 million opposing the measure—a staggering amount for a referendum campaign. Despite widespread enthusiasm for rent control among voters, support for the proposition has been lagging in the polls, as more and more corporate-funded messages saturate the airwaves.

On the environmental front, Washington state is poised to take a historic step to combat climate change. If voters approve Initiative 1631, Washington would be the first state to levy a fee on its biggest carbon polluters; those funds would be used fight pollution. The monies would also help finance the transition to a clean energy economy for the people most affected by pollution—low-income workers of color.

Like Proposition 10, Initiative 1631 is up against powerful corporate forces like Big Oilled by BP and Phillips, and backed by out-of-state billionaires like the Koch brothers: I-1631 opponents have poured more than $30 million into the state to defeat the measure. 

Across the country in Baltimore, voters have the chance to ban water privatization. There’s no good that can come of situation where a city has to rely on a company dedicated to cutting corners and raising rates to turn a profit for shareholders for supplying a vital resource. If Question E succeeds, momentum will build for new moves in cities like Pittsburgh where residents are demanding that their city council pass a similar privatization ban to protect their water supplies from corporate incursions.

Meanwhile in Oakland, the #MeToo era has helped put Measure Z, a sexual violence prevention effort on the ballot. Immigrant hotel housekeepers have been in the vanguard of this fight to end workplace attacks and to put an end to the fear, harassment, and sexual assault that has become all too commonplace in the sector. 

This measure would require hotels to provide panic buttons to their staff so that they can alert security in case of an attack or harassment. It also includes limits to mandatory overtime and increases the minimum hourly wage for hotel workers to $15 with benefits ($20 without benefits). Measure Z is a popular, common sense measure when voters are aware of it. A similar measure, WW, is on the ballot in Long Beach, California. 

Voters use the ballot initiative process as a way to reclaim democracy from corporate chieftains determined to curb the power of everyday people. It also provides an opportunity for greater engagement of citizens in state and local government. While individual candidates and high profile races dominate the headlines, ballot initiative results deserve close attention Election Day. They are an important tool for advancing local concerns and beating back the excesses of plutocrats who have little concern for human welfare.

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