The Hightower Lowdown

Hightower on clean elections, corporate genetic research, and living wage legislation

Elections Coming Clean?

In the midst of the muck and mire of November's presidential election, a beautiful electoral flower bloomed in Maine and Arizona -- the first two states to give public funds to any and all state candidates willing to refuse campaign money offered by special interests.

Not only can this Clean Election system get the corrupting power of big donors out of the process, but it also means that regular people can run for public office again. Indeed, thanks to public financing, there was a 40% increase in contested primaries in Maine, giving voters real choices for a change, including an upsurge in the number of women daring to challenge establishment candidates.

One of these was Deborrah Simpson, a waitress and single mom in Auburn, Maine, who had never run for office and wouldn't have had the money contacts to run this time either. But Simpson qualified for the new Clean Elections fund and took on an "old boy Democrat" in the primary for a state legislative seat. Putting her public campaign funds into an outsider, grassroots effort, she knocked on nearly every door in the district ... and knocked off that insider. Then, in the general election, she faced the brother of the fellow who had held the seat for six years, but despite his name recognition and his backing by moneyed interests, Simpson won the seat.

Another legislative winner in November was Marilyn Canavan. At 68 years of age, she used Maine's public financing option to defeat the special interests in her legislative race: "It's a good feeling knowing I don't owe anything to anybody but my constituents," she said. Marilyn and Deborrah will not be alone in the Maine legislature as Clean Election victors -- a third of Maine's house members taking office in 2001 will have no ties to special interest money, and a half of state Senate members will be free of such corrupting money ties. (To help bring such Clean Election results to your city or state, contact the advocacy and organizing group, Public Campaign: 202/293-0222.)

The Price of the Gene Pool

It seems that an Australian biotech corporation calling itself Autogen Limited has purchased the exclusive global rights to the entire gene pool of the people of Tonga. This Polynesian nation of some 110,000 people is one of several that Autogen Inc. wants to wrap up, genetically speaking, making it the only company allowed to perform genetic studies on the entire Polynesian race.

An Australian newspaper, the Adelaide Advertiser, reports that the DNA of Tongans and other people of Polynesia are especially valuable to biotech profiteers, for these indigenous people have long been genetically isolated from other populations of the world, creating a relatively "pure" ethnic pool. Using the unique DNA of Polynesians, Autogen Limited plans to link their genes to certain diseases and then engineer drugs that could put hundreds of millions of dollars into its own corporate coffers. To extract the DNA, Autogen reportedly is building a research lab on Tonga's main island, next to the country's only hospital. The blood of patients who come there would go to Autogen's lab technicians.

It's said that the Tongan government will get royalties from any drugs developed from the people's DNA, and that this is a deal that can produce both jobs for the people and money to finance better health care for them. Yet critics note that the people themselves have not been told of the deal. If they can seize the Tongans' DNA for profiteering purposes, what's to prevent another company from looting yours?

The Wages of Poverty

Here's a novel concept: If you work full time and do a good job, you shouldn't be paid so poorly that you live in poverty. Try to tell that to the federal government, though. An independent study released by ACORN, the grassroots advocate for the working poor, finds that corporations enjoying fat, tax-paid contracts from the feds are paying poverty wages to the people actually doing the contract work.

The study, conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, revealed that 11% of federal contract employees receive less than a "living wage," which is to say their paychecks are too low to lift them and their families above the poverty level.

While the companies profit on the backs of these workers, many of the workers themselves have to turn to food stamps, housing assistance, and other federal poverty programs just to make ends meet. This means that we taxpayers are hit with a double whammy: First, we're subsidizing low-wage companies, then we have to provide services to assuage the poverty of their workers.

The Living Wage Responsibility Act has been introduced in Congress, sponsored by Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. It requires big businesses that get federal contracts to pay their employees a wage no less than the federal poverty level.

Jim Hightower's latest book, If The Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, is available in stores everywhere.
For more information on Jim Hightower's work – and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown – visit You can hear his radio commentaries on KOOP Radio, 91.7FM, weekdays at 10:58am and 12:58pm.

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Clean Election, Deborrah Simpson, Marilyn CanavanPublic Campaign, Autogen Limited, Tonga, Adelaide Advertiser, Polynesia, DNA, ACORN, Economic Policy Institute, Living Wage Responsibility Act, Luis Gutierrez

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