By Cynthia Wolken
City Councilwoman, Missoula, Montana & Member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network
Across the nation, Americans are mobilizing against the damage done to our democracy by Citizens United. The only way to fully correct the decision is through a constitutional amendment, and activists all over the country are debating exactly what an amendment would look like. But there is one important point of agreement: We must reclaim our democracy from powerful corporate interests. As the blog post below by Missoula city councilwoman Cynthia Wolken demonstrates, members of PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials are part of this continuing dialogue.
I am proud to live in a community where this November, 75% of voters agreed that corporations are not people and should not have the same rights as you and I. This common sense opposition to corporate ‘personhood’ spanned party affiliation, age, gender, and yes, even class. The resolution that I referred to the ballot was so common sense that it overwhelmingly passed with only a bare-bones, grass roots, word-of-mouth campaign that raised and spent less than $5,000.00. Five thousand dollars! And now, like a good old fashion Montana prairie fire, communities across the state are hoping to run similar campaigns to raise awareness of the issue among their friends and neighbors and push our state and federal elected officials to fix this mess we’ve found ourselves in.
As a newly elected official serving on the City Council in Missoula, Montana, the last thing on my policy agenda was thinking about ways to tinker with the United States Constitution. I was elected to do the people’s work, and at the time, I thought that meant fixing potholes and making sure their leaves were picked up on time (which I can assure you, I did and still do spend plenty of time on). But what I heard knocking doors in my community was an overwhelming and disheartening sense of despair about people’s relationship to their own government. Many did not vote because they didn’t think their votes mattered – they believe that those with the most money wield the most influence.
Before Citizens United, I would have tried to convince them otherwise. Now, it’s hard not to agree, even as we fight for change. In Citizens United v. the FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court majority declared that corporations are people and that they have a first amendment right to spend as much money as they like defeating or supporting their favored candidates or ballot issues. Because of this ruling, Montana’s own campaign finance laws are on the chopping block, challenged by a group that doesn’t believe in complying with our contribution limits or disclosure laws.
This ruling violates our fundamental sense of fairness and rules of logic. Even the most educated of voters can be fooled by dishonest ad campaigns funding by corporate front groups with misleading names. Astroturf groups use names with words like ‘freedom, justice, prosperity, and liberty,’ when their aims are often the complete opposite. I could never have predicted that our little ballot referendum campaign in Western Montana would coincide with Occupy Wall Street and its subsequent demand to abolish corporate personhood, but I think this speaks to the depth and breadth of the appeal of getting our representative democracy back on track.
The only way to right this wrong is to amend the Constitution to explicitly state that corporations are not people. As a lawyer myself, I know the City of Missoula can’t amend the United States Constitution. So why a referendum on the Missoula City ballot? Local government is the forum left where citizens’ voices are heard the loudest, that is why I referred this to the City Council – I felt the voters of Missoula deserved to have a say on this issue. This is what grass-roots government looks like – I am honored to represent intelligent, informed voters who supported this effort to demand transparency and accountability. After all, as my constituents remind me, on-time leaf pick-up doesn’t mean much if we were living in a full-fledged corporatocracy.