In age of super PACs, a grassroots revolt
Rutland, area towns back resolutions opposing ‘corporate personhood’
By TRACY FRISCH
On the shortest, darkest days of the year, local activists were out knocking on doors and collecting signatures in support of a constitutional amendment.
Outraged by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has unleashed unlimited election spending by corporations, members of the local “We, the People” campaign were trying to get a local ballot question presented to city voters for town meeting day on March 6.
Now the results of their efforts are in. Last month, voters in 64 Vermont municipalities, including the city and town of Rutland, passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to limit corporate spending on political campaigns. In most communities where the issue was taken up, voters passed the resolutions by overwhelming margins.
The resolutions call for amending the U.S. Constitution to specify that money doesn’t amount to speech and that corporations are not people. That language is aimed at undoing the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, a 2010 ruling that held corporations share the same free-speech rights as individuals to donate to political campaigns. The Citizens United ruling threw out a prohibition on corporations spending their general treasury funds in public elections.
“The town meeting is the purest form of democracy we have in this country,” said Kathleen Krevetski, one of those who carried petitions door to door in Rutland. “I was taught by my parents to make the world better for our children, and I'm sorry to see what we have done by not looking long-term, not only with debt but environmental degradation.”
As a nurse at the local hospital, Krevetski said she has been particularly troubled by what she views as a developing corporate attack on Vermont’s efforts to establish a single-payer health insurance system. Last month, a former Rutland mayor, Jeff Wennberg, took a job as director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, a new group critical of the single-payer approach. For Krevetski, the emergence of the new group, which is set up under a provision of the tax code that allows it to keep its donors secret, drives home the role of corporate money in shaping social policy.
Links to Occupy movement
Krevetski was part of a group that approached the Rutland Board of Aldermen last fall to request their resolution be put up for a vote on town meeting day. The board refused, but the citizens got their referendum on the ballot by turning in signatures from more than 5 percent of the city’s registered voters.
They found the public so receptive that they collected about 300 more signatures than the 550 they needed. The question appeared along with the town budget and other local questions. (Residents of some larger municipalities in Vermont cast most or all of their town meeting votes in a voting booth, using the so-called Australian ballot, rather than having a voice vote or a show of hands typical of traditional town meetings.)
In unison with protests in other cities, the Rutland group marked Jan. 20, the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision, with an “Occupy the Courts” rally. Afterward, they paraded to City Hall to turn in their petitions, which were due 40 days before town meeting.
The Rutland group first coalesced in October, when people began showing up downtown on Saturdays for a local Occupy Wall Street protest. Krevetski said the group didn’t miss a single Saturday until March 3, when a 12-person contingent traveled to Goddard College for a statewide conference on the Occupy movement.
“We stand with our signs to raise awareness that there is a huge movement going on across the world,” Krevetski said.
Because of the group’s efforts and visibility, Rutland County was well represented among the Vermont towns that took up the issue of “corporate personhood” at their town meetings, even though the county generally is considered one of the more conservative corners of Vermont.
“People would come up from other towns, and we’d give them instructions,” Krevetski explained.
In addition to the city and town of Rutland, the resolution won approval in the Rutland County towns of Brandon, Chittenden, Middletown Springs, Mount Holly, Shrewsbury, Sudbury and West Haven. Two other towns – Mendon and Pittsfield – had agreed to take up the resolutions but never put them to a vote; they were the only towns statewide where the resolutions failed.
By comparison, not a single town in Bennington County took up the issue.
Fueling a statewide effort
It’s a long way, of course, from grassroots votes in a few dozen Vermont towns to an actual constitutional amendment.
But state Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, D-Williston, pointed out that legislators in Vermont pay attention to what happens at town meetings. And the communities that passed resolutions last month represented more than 25 percent of the 246 municipalities in Vermont.
In January 2011, Lyons introduced a joint legislative resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Similar resolutions have been approved by the legislatures of Hawaii and New Mexico, and Lyons is hoping the town meeting votes will give new momentum to her proposal, which has garnered 13 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 40 in the House.
“We don’t want the fourth branch of government to be the corporatocracy,” Lyons said.
All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation have also taken positions squarely against Citizens United, and U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is championing his own constitutional amendment to overturn the court ruling, one of about a dozen similar proposals pending in Congress.
Efforts to demonstrate public opposition to “corporate personhood” are under way in other states as well. In Massachusetts, resolutions against the Citizens United ruling won approval in 11 towns last year -- including Great Barrington, Lanesborough and Williamstown -- and activists hope to put the issue to a vote in more towns this year.
In New York, where there are no town meetings and no provisions for citizen-initiated referendums, efforts to advance the issue are taking a different form. Some activists are trying to encourage local elected officials to support the call for a constitutional amendment. In December, the Albany Common Council passed such a resolution, making the city one of the first in the state to do so.
Lyons, the Vermont state senator, said she received a flood of supportive e-mails, some from far beyond Vermont, after introducing her legislative resolution. At first, when people asked what they could do, she urged them to contact their state senators. But then the resolution got bottled up in the Senate Government Operations Committee, where one senator was trying to kill it, so Lyons said she turned to another strategy.
By last fall, she was organizing a statewide campaign to pass local resolutions modeled after the one she introduced at the statehouse. She invited Vermonters on her e-mail list to a first organizing meeting. About two dozen showed up and agreed to seek resolutions at as many town meetings as possible.
Besides being a place to conduct town business, Lyons said town meetings serve as a place where citizens come together to express opinions and petition higher levels of government. When people started asking for a petition to take around in their communities, Lyons, who is also a college professor, ended up drafting it herself. After vetting it with the secretary of state and the attorney general’s office as well as other campaigners, she composed an e-mail and shared it with “a huge listserv.”
In December, the national group Public Citizen sent in an experienced organizer, Aquene Freechild, to help coordinate. The statewide coalition backing the town meeting resolutions, operating under the banner “Vermonters Say No to Free Speech for Corporations,” included the Working Families Party, Move to Amend, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Peace and Justice Center and Common Cause.
The campaign encountered one major obstacle: A 2007 Vermont Supreme Court decision gives municipalities the prerogative to keep items outside the scope of normal municipal business off their annual town meeting agendas, even if petitions are filed by 5 percent of voters and submitted 40 days in advance.
The court ruling arose from the South Burlington City Council’s decision not to allow a ballot initiative on parental notification for young girls seeking abortions, even though advocates had turned in the requisite signatures.
Freechild, the campaign coordinator from Public Citizen, has an answer for those who don’t recognize the relevance of corporate campaign spending at the municipal level. Just because Citizens United hasn’t yet affected local elections in Vermont doesn't mean it won't, she said.
Wal-Mart, for example, might put money into a town race to “take out” local officials who were blocking a new store, she suggested. And even if the company didn’t, the “credible threat” of corporate spending on campaigns could silence elected officials who would otherwise speak out, Freechild said.
Still, the Rutland Herald reported in late February that at least 13 communities had rejected requests to put the issue of corporate campaign spending on their town meeting agendas.
Voters have the option of making a motion on a new item during the "other business" section of the town meeting, and it appears this occurred in some towns where the resolution won approval. On the other hand, a town meeting moderator may block consideration of resolutions deemed “not germane” to town business; this is what kept the Citizens United resolution from coming to a vote in Mendon.
In Pittsfield, the resolution was dropped after one speaker suggested that passing a constitutional amendment might limit campaign spending by liberal interests such as labor unions and the billionaire George Soros.
The issue of limiting corporate campaign spending appears to have appeal across party lines, however. Freechild said several Republican-leaning towns were among those that approved resolutions on the matter.
And a February poll of 800 registered Vermont voters, conducted by the new polling institute at Castleton State College, found that 76 percent favor a constitutional amendment “that would allow government to put limits on the amounts that wealthy individuals and interest groups could spend on political campaigns.” Among Republicans voters, 57 percent supported such an amendment.
Bay State votes loom
In Massachusetts, a state resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to limit corporate election spending has been gaining ground. In late February, a hearing on the resolution, which was introduced last year by state Sen. James Eldridge, D-Worcester, attracted more than 125 grassroots activists from every corner of the state.
This spring, activists hope the issue will come up for a vote in at least a couple dozen towns and cities around the state, adding to the 11 town meeting resolutions approved last year.
In comparison with Vermont, a checkerboard of different forms of government complicates organizing in Massachusetts. Many of the larger towns – those with over 6,000 inhabitants – have opted for a representative town meeting system in which popularly elected town meeting “members” are the only ones to participate and vote. Cities operate with even less direct democracy: As in New York, residents must appeal to their elected officials to pass a resolution.
And while old-style town meetings do take place in all the smaller towns and some of the larger ones, they are not synchronized within a single week like Vermont’s.
But getting a town meeting resolution presented in Massachusetts isn’t necessarily complicated.
Russell Freedman, a seller of used books who sponsored last year’s vote in Lanesborough, said he went to the local post office and asked 10 friends to sign his petition. That’s all it took to get a resolution added to the town meeting warrant.
Then at the meeting, he stood up and read his resolution.
“Basically there was no opposition even among the most conservative residents,” Freedman said, estimating that the resolution passed with 95 percent of the vote.
This year, Freedman, who is active in the state chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America, is helping people in other towns to organize votes on the Citizens United issue.
“The idea of corporations as people is ridiculous,” Freedman said. “They’re artificial entities licensed by the state. They don’t ever die.”
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