We do not live in a Democracy because America is all about serving the haves and the have mores: a Capitalocracy, where money talks and broke nobodies like you and me walk. Many people vaguely understand this, but I get to see it everyday up close and personal in my adopted home of Victorville, California.
This place might be a low-rent desert exurb of 100,000 people—with only a third of them registered to vote—but the amount of money candidates have been spending to run for local town office is already creeping towards the $300,000 mark. And that's just official money declared to the authorities. On a per-capita basis, vote-for-vote, that kind of spending approaches LA and San Francisco levels.
So where does that campaign donation money come from? The same places it always comes from: corporations, developers, speculators, and industry lobby groups. Yes, even here in the Third World section of America, it's the same as in Washington DC.
Allow me to explain. I've been getting heavy into the sleazy world of water politics and recently found myself at a session of the local wastewater reclamation agency. It was the type of thing that would bore any sane man into a coma: a bunch of cheap suits sitting in a room with fluorescent lighting, talking in jargon about sewer improvements and who'll finance them. The only people truly interested in its doings are the ones who are trying to make money off it, like convincing it to pay for sewage lines that will open up new vistas for future real estate developments and various other nebulous expansions, which is what was happening that day.
But boring as it was, this session had a bit of spice. A youngish woman was sitting up front, all dolled up like she was taking part in a businesswoman pageant: crisp pantsuit, serious cleavage, heels, styled hair with huge fluffed up curls, layers of makeup. She stood out against the old, overweight beauractratic suasagefest background of the meeting, and the dudes there couldn't help but steal glances in her direction. It looked like she was on display, and it turned out she was.
Her name is Angela Valles, an ambitious upstart running for a spot on the Victorville city council in the upcoming November 2010 elections. She is the perfect beginner's guide to this city's politics, a sleazy circle-jerk raging in the local halls of McPower, lubed with campaign contributions, lucrative contracts, industry jobs, government posts, and, when it can be proven, direct kickback schemes.
There's still a year to go till election time, but Valles has already mobilized her campaign through the internet and a swanky fundraiser. Going by the life story and political platform laid out on her site, you'd think Valles was the Obama-like "change" politician Victorville desperately needs. She's a young, Hispanic single mother of two who dropped out of school when she got pregnant at age 16, only to pull herself together and go back to school for a Masters from Pepperdine University.
She lays out her guiding political principles: Fiscal Responsibility, Trust, Organizational Development and Sensible Growth. "My passion is to make a positive difference, and Victorville needs to start moving in a positive direction," she writes on her website. "I'm ready to put the interests and needs of Victorville residents above all else, so when Election Day nears, remember: VOTE VALLES!!!"
For about as long as anyone can remember, Victorville's been under the thumbs of a revolving crew of mostly pasty white men who've run it like a banana republic on behalf of out-of-town business interests, complete with sham elections, backroom deals, and flat-out plundering of city coffers by a handful of private interests. Angela Valles seems as far away from that world as could possibly be. About a third of Victorville is Hispanic and have experienced exactly the kind of hardships she had overcome. Finally, someone would be looking out for the good of the people.
Yet instead of mounting a campaign against her, the High Desert network of insiders is promoting her all the way. Looking at her contribution records reveals a whole different side to her story and gives you a whiff of the black rot built into city politics, the bedrock of American Democracy.
"She's a plant," one political insider here in the High Desert told me. "The good ol' boys got her a job doing human resources at the reclamation agency and elected her to the board of the local college to build her political resume and parade her—and her cleavage—in front of as many people as possible."
Her campaign contribution records seem to bear his sentiments out.
The vote is a year away, but Valles has already raked in a good chunk of change, collecting $12,969 during a single fundraiser dinner. Most of the contributions are fairly small—anywhere from $100 to $425—but the list reads like a Who's Who of the High Desert ruling elite: developers, speculators, local and county politicians and their wives, Chamber of Commerce types, sheriffs, and mayors. (Valles is already connected to local business interests through her seat on the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.) And then there's a the contribution $10,000 from Dan Tate, a notorious local dirt merchant and speculator, a generous gift that ties her to some of the High Desert's most corrupt political players.
Tate (who sometimes goes by Daniel Tate or W. Daniel Tate when he's being classy) used to work for one of California's largest real estate brokerages. During the peak of the boom, it took part in something like a $1 billion in land deals, much of involved scooping up worthless raw land and flipping it to homebuilders and other big-time speculators such as KB Homes and SunCal. (An aside: SunCal, California's largest privately owned land speculator, laid the groundwork of the neighborhood where I live. Its astronomical profit margins and wild gambles are what helped bring down Lehman Brothers.) Word on the street has it that Tate moonlights as a frontman, spoiler, and operative for a variety of local homebuilders and developers, a sort of Howard Hunt of the real estate industry.
During the previous election, Tate funded a smear campaign against an incumbent council member after the poor sod pissed off the local developers by requiring that new projects have pipes that would deliver reclaimed water for irrigation and industrial uses. He was looking out for the future of Victorville by trying to conserve water, a precious commodity out here in the desert. But his green leanings cost the real estate goons a whole lotta money, and one notoriously corrupt homebuilder supposedly pledged 100,000 large to unseat him. Tate successfully carried out that mission at half-price, bringing down his target with a $50,000 all-out mailer smear attack. $50,000 on a single mailer for Victorville's city council?! Independent candidates running for city council have barely managed to collect a tenth of what he spent on a single mailer.
The address he listed next to his contribution to Valles resolves to a cozy real estate lovers nest: a two-storey office building right off the highway with a huge yellow sign reading KB HOMES. This houses a real estate agency, two tracthome-building companies, the offices of Dan Tate, and the regional office of San Bernardino County Supervisor, Brad Mitzelfelt. Yep, all of these in succession, on the second floor. An elected country official shares office space with real estate developers--that's how openly corrupt people are around these parts.
County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt is a classic example of the type of sleaze you see around these parts. Before he went into politics under the wing of his hardcore, closeted case, methhead mentor Bill Postmus, Mitzelfelt used to work as the PR guy for the local chapter of the Building Industry Association. That's a homebuilder/developer lobby group pushing for the usual: less regulation, less taxes, more sprawl. When Postmus crashed and burned in a way that only sexually-repressed conservatives can after investigations of corrupt dealings and kickbacks and arrest for drug posession, Mitzelfelt took over.
His freemarket Republican base hasn't been losing sleep over their boy's departure. Over the years, the local government has been thoroughly stacked with friendlies—water boards, school boards, planning commissions, redevelopment agencies, and just about every city and county-level office—that the powers that be rich and scamming have hardly skipped a beat. But they are always planning for the future, looking for the next big star who won't mind repaying them for their generosity.
So, yeah, go ahead, VOTE VALLES FOR VICTORVILLE CITY COUNCIL 2010!!!! But I'm not so sure I will. Who knows, I just might run against her.