PORTLAND, Maine — By a 6-2 vote Wednesday night, the Portland City Council joined Los Angeles and New York City councils in a thus far symbolic effort to strip corporations of First Amendment free speech rights controversially cemented by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A local resolution supporting a constitutional amendment abolishing “corporate personhood” initially was proposed by Councilor David Marshall and co-sponsored by John Anton, Kevin Donoghue and Mayor Michael Brennan. The move was hailed by some councilors and several members of the public as an early step in a grass-roots push to overturn a ruling they argued opens the door to unchecked political spending by wealthy corporations.
The council’s vote was received with an eruption of applause and celebration by the packed council chambers after audience members spent nearly two hours testifying almost entirely in favor of the measure.
“We’re seeing a vast outpouring of money that is taking over our democracy,” Malory Shaughnessy, a Portland resident and former Cumberland County commissioner, told the council. “This will be the defining issue of our time, in my opinion.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 ruled by a 5-4 vote that limiting corporate or union political contributions equates to an infringement of the groups’ First Amendment right to free speech. The divisive decision, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, helped usher in a new era of super PACS — political action groups that can raise and expend unlimited funds in support of candidates or issues often without disclosing donors until after elections take place.
Because the issue already has been appealed to the highest court in the country, the only way to throw out corporate personhood now would be a constitutional amendment. That prospective step has received votes of support from several municipal council and boards across the country.
During the Portland council’s turn to weigh in Wednesday, several members of the public, many from the nearby OccupyMaine encampment and the Maine League of Young Voters, told councilors the local resolution would be a small but important victory in the movement against the court ruling.
The Portland meeting was a preview of sorts to a Friday demonstration planned by OccupyMaine to take place at the U.S. District Court in the city, where protesters plan to show solidarity with other occupations around the nation marking the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision with a ceremonial “funeral for democracy.”
“Corporations do not have the same interests as you and I, as the average Mainer or the average Portland resident,” said Adam Marletta, chairman of the Portland Green Independent party. “All of this corporate money tends to drown out the voices of the average citizens.”
Not everybody on the council approved of the resolution, however. Councilor John Coyne joined Cheryl Leeman in voting against the measure, the latter of whom argued that U.S. constitutional interpretation is not a job for the City Council.
Leeman suggested discussing the issue during a council meeting detracts from the panel’s ability to deal with more appropriate city business.
“I do on one hand feel that what you’ve said and what you’ve brought forward is an important issue,” Leeman said to the audience Wednesday. “Where I part ways with all of you is I just quite simply don’t believe this is the forum to do this.”
Voting in favor of the resolution were Councilors Nicholas Mavodones and Jill Duson, in addition to sponsors Marshall, Anton, Donoghue and Brennan. Councilor Ed Suslovic left the meeting before the vote because of an ailing back, but before leaving, he called for his fellow councilors to consider placing the issue before the council’s Legislative Committee to develop an amendment establishing a municipal-level Clean Elections program.
Brennan said that as a former state lawmaker and Democratic candidate for the Congress, he has seen firsthand the influence of money on campaigning and that Maine’s Clean Elections law has been a trendsetter for minimizing that influence.