Friday, March 30, 2018

Books: How Three Women Won Battle Against Onassis

Small Town, Big Oil: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the Richest Man in the World - And Won

By David W. Moore

Diversion Books

In the fall of 1973, Aristotle Onassis, the Greek oil shipping tycoon and husband of President John F. Kennedy's widow Jackie, arrived on the New Hampshire Coast to scout out plots of land. 

Onassis was on the of the world's richest and famous men who was convinced his plan would go off without a hitch. He lined up support for the project from New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson and by William Loeb, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader.

Small Town, Big Oil tells the story of how three women, Nancy Sundberg, Dudley Wesbter Dudley, and Phyllis Bennett, fought Onassis' bid to build an oil refinery in the town of Durham, New Hampshire, and won. 

Sundberg, who founded the group Save Our Shores, or SOS; Dudley, the freshman state rep who took the fight to the legislature; and Bennett, the publisher of the local newspaper that alerted the public to Onassis' secret acquisition of the land; successfully out-witted the governor, the media, and the Onassis cartel to hand the Greek billionaire the most embarrassing defeat of his business career.

Moore writes of how Dudley got involved in the fight, "When State Representative Dudley Webster Dudley saw the article in Publick Occurrences suggesting that someone might be thinking of building an oil refinery on Durham Point, she felt a jolt of anxiety. She had heard rumors of some possible development, related to her by several people in the town. They had been keeping her informed because she was one of Durham's four representatives to the four-hundred-member New Hampshire House of Representatives, and they thought she might be able to find more information about what was going on. But the idea of an oil refinery in the area was so outlandish, she had never seriously considered the possibility. Even now, she wasn't sure she should take it seriously, though seeing the rumor in print gave it a force that made her pause. She was even more disturbed when , a couple of days later, Barbara Underwood called her and expressed concern about the story. Barbara was one of the few 'good' Republicans in the legislature, a representative from Concord who seemed genuinely worried that someone might indeed be planning to site a refinery on the New Hampshire seacoast.

"'Let me know if there is anything I can do to help,' she told Dudley. 'An oil refinery would be a disaster for New Hampshire.'
"Well, if Barbara Underwood, a rep who didn't even live in the Seacoast area, was taking the rumor seriously, Dudley thought, maybe she should, too. Dudley thought of herself as 'a real bozo' when it came to state politics, 'so unsophisticated, so unknowledgeable,' she would later admit. By contrast, maybe Barbara had some sources of information that Dudley did not. Maybe the Concord rep knew specifically what plans were being made, but was obligated not to reveal them. Or maybe she recognized that this was the type of development that would immediately appeal to the business mentality of the GOP leaders in the state. Dudley had no clue as to why Barbara had taken the rumor so seriously, but the fact that she had was more than a little disquieting...

"Dudley's political experience began early. At the age of four, in 1940, she accompanied her parents to the town's Grange Hall to stuff envelopes for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's re-election effort. Her parents, of course, were Republicans. Who in the town wasn't? But for some odd reason, Bob and Polly were great fans of FDR.

"As an adult, Dudley's first major foray into campaign politics came in 1968, when she supported anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was running against President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. McCarthy did not win, but his showing led to Johnson's refusal to run for re-election, reaffirming Dudley's belief that positive goals could be achieved through politics."
Dudley began to investigate what was really going on, and how anybody could even conceive putting an oil refinery on that point of the New Hampshire shore.

Moore writes of Dudley coming into touch with Sandberg and Bennett, "During her phone conversations, she learned that a local movement, called SOS, had been formed to rally the town against the possibility of an oil refinery. That was certainly an important step, but she feared that even if the town opposed such a facility, the state could force the town to accept it anyway. The other three GOP state reps from Durham were hardly likely to actively oppose a project so dearly desired by their party's governor, so it would be up to her to find the political support at the state level to prevent state intervention. She and (her husband) Tom discussed what she could do. An environmental argument, they agreed, would surely not work with the GOP legislative leaders, nor with many Democrats, and especially not with (Governor) Thomson and his close advisers, who seemed oblivious to any such concerns.

"And then she remembered. Earlier in the year, during the legislative session, Chris Spirou, a young and dynamic state representative from Manchester, had met with her in her Durham home, along with attorney Marty Gross. Although Gross had served as legal counsel to Walter Peterson, a three-term progressive GOP governor who lost to Thomson in the 1972 state primary, the attorney was a Democrat and was advising Spirou on legal matters. The three of them sat around the breakfast table in her kitchen drinking coffee and talking strategy, when Gross said, 'You know, if you ever really want to get something done in Concord, you have to claim Home Rule. It's sacrosanct. No one doesn't support Home Rule.'
"And he was right. No income tax, no statewide sales tax. Why? Home Rule. The property tax lets communities collect their own taxes and use them as they see fit.

"Little or no money from the state for education. The explanation: Home Rule. That it was unfair to poorer communities, which meant that their quality of education would suffer, had little persuasive value.

"Few or no state environmental regulations. Let each town deal with its own problems. Home Rule.

"'Live Free or Die,' the state motto adopted in 1945, reflected the same sentiment as Home Rule - individual independence for people, local independence for cities and towns.

"Of course, there were exceptions, such as drivers' licenses, traffic regulations, and selective taxes and fees, which were all necessarily regulated at the state level. More importantly, there were exceptions when the ideology didn't give conservatives the outcome they wanted. They had no qualms about violating the principle of Home Rule when they voted to prevent towns and cities from levying their own income or sales taxes (only property taxes were allowed), and Dudley feared that Thomson and his supporters would be equally willing to violate Home Rule to force a refinery on a town. Still, the Home Rule ideology was strong, and it represented the best chance to thwart a state-imposed refinery.

"So, that was the argument: no town should be forced to accept an oil refinery unless the people wanted it."

That was the argument that won the day, and the refinery was 
stopped in the New Hampshire legislature in March 1974.

Small Town, Big Oil is a riveting read bringing to light a compelling story of what grassroots activists can do against establishment powers. It is a story with special resonance today.

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