MISSOULA — A small crowd gathered in the shadows of the Russell Smith Federal Courthouse in Missoula on Monday to continue what supporters are calling a grassroots push to restore the nation’s democracy and eliminate corporate influence from politics.
Supporters came bolstered by November’s passage of Initiative 166, which saw a majority of Montana voters agree that corporations were not entitled to the same constitutional rights as human beings.
Yet while nearly 75 percent of state voters passed I-166, giving Montana’s elected officials a new mandate to follow, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling at which the ballot measure took aim — Citizens United — remains unchanged.
“We wanted to reinvigorate the discussion and debate about this very important issue,” said Leah Gibbs of Missoula Moves to Amend. “This issue infiltrates every aspect of our society. Without our voice, it’s going to get a lot worse for all of us who aren’t in the 1 percent."
Supporters believe unlimited corporate spending, permitted by Citizens United, has corrupted the political process and silenced the voice of the average American citizen.
Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier said the ruling has placed the nation’s democracy in jeopardy.
“We need to make sure the voices heard here today and across the country on the issue of money, politics and corporate influence in the political system remain strong,” Strohmaier said. “The corporate and money fat cats on Wall Street — or on Main Street here in Missoula — aren’t the ones calling the shots.“
American Tradition Partnership remains a vocal supporter of Citizens United. While the group couldn’t be reached Monday by phone, it believes the 2010 Supreme Court ruling gave corporations a needed political voice.
In doing so, it adds on its website, it offered the public another source of information on which to base decisions.
“If private individuals and employers are prevented from speaking about the policies that will affect them — anonymously or otherwise — there will only remain a few dominant sources of information about those efforts: Government itself and the dominant press,” the group says.
Opponents of Citizens United disagree. They arrived in Missoula with picket signs and buttons saying “Silly Roberts: Rights are for people,” referring to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who often is credited with masterminding the passage of Citizens United.
While debate continues in Washington over the consequences of Citizens United, those at the rally see a glimmer of hope for their cause. They’re seeking to maintain momentum garnered in November’s general election, when I-166 passed in every county across Montana.
By passing, the statewide ballot measure reaffirmed long-standing Montana policy, saying corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights since they are not human beings.
The measure also directs Montana’s congressional delegation to offer to Congress a joint resolution that would amend the U.S. Constitution, ultimately stripping First Amendment rights from corporations.
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“We’re here to say the third anniversary of Citizens United is three anniversaries too many,” Sue Kirchmeyer told the crowd. “The vote in November showed there is broad support for this issue in Montana.“
In giving First Amendment rights to corporations and unions, those at the rally argued, the Supreme Court essentially ruled that corporations were people and that money was paramount to speech.
An analysis of federal election data released by the Center for Public Integrity found that Citizens United led to nearly $1 billion in new political spending in the 2012 election.
“Until such a time that we have a constitutional amendment saying that corporations are not persons and money is not the same thing as speech, we’ll be saddled with the same ineffectual representation as we have in Congress today,” Strohmaier said.
Mayor John Engen said November’s passage of I-166 sent a strong message from across Montana to state leaders in Helena, along with those representing the state in Washington.
If the nation’s democracy is to survive, Engen said, money cannot be permitted to influence elections, whether they’re held locally or nationally. Access to elected officials, he added, is a principle of the Constitution, not of who can spend the most money.
“The Supreme Court can, with a simple pass of an opinion, change the way we do business in our country,” Engen said. “By talking about this every day in a meaningful way, we can help make a change.“
Supporters at the rally included representatives from the Small Business Alliance and the National Coalition Building Institute of Missoula.
Mick Harsell, secretary-treasurer of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council, also addressed the rally on Citizens United, suggesting that corporate influence in politics was eroding the nation’s democracy.
“We’re in a nonviolent war for our democracy,” said Harsell. “In this struggle, we’ll find ourselves again as a nation. We’ll find ourselves continuing the American democratic experiment.“
Montana had a ban on corporate spending in political campaigns until Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court. The state law had remained intact for 100 years.
While the Supreme Court essentially overturned Montana law and refused to revisit the issue last year, the state measure guides the hand of local policymakers on issues in future matters.
Still, Gibbs said, work remains unfinished.
“Great things have been done by concerned citizens without a lot of power and without a lot of money by raising their voices and standing up for what’s right,” she said. “Pushing forward and getting actual action is our job as citizens against Citizens United."