Bar Harbor is the latest Maine community to join a modest but growing movement to overthrow the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that opened the way to almost unlimited corporate political spending.
The Bar Harbor Town Council’s 7-0 vote for a resolution calling for curbing the flood of corporate money into government elections came after similar votes by the city councils in Bangor and Portland. Nationally, New York City and Los Angeles have adopted such resolutions. So have the legislatures of Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii, along with perhaps 100 towns across the country.
Not all these votes were unanimous. The proposal lost in the town of Mount Desert, when selectmen divided 2-2, with one absentee. Some featured spirited debate, with some officials questioning whether local governments should involve themselves in national affairs.
We think it’s a good thing for towns, at the behest of their residents, to inject their views into wider discussions. Whether or not the resolutions against corporate personhood will ultimately result in a change to the U.S. Constitution, it’s encouraging to see people at the local level showing interest in the larger political process. That holds true regardless of the issue.
Former state Rep. Jim Schatz of Blue Hill, an outspoken advocate of the Bar Harbor resolution, has a personal answer to whether town governments should get involved in national issues. He says his 2010 campaign for the state Senate was derailed by a $70,000 political action committee attack in the last 10 days of the campaign — too late for him to offset it with state matching funds.
Schatz predicts that the mounting flood of corporate spending, already dominating national elections, will soon work its way down to local elections. He contends that local governments have a perfect right to fight back against a new political spending system that directly affects local individuals.
At issue is the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in 2010 in favor of Citizens United, a nonprofit, conservative organization, in its fight against limits on election-campaign spending. The decision defined corporations as people and opened the way for unlimited, anonymous and largely negative political spending by political action committees, known as super PACs.
The grass-roots campaign to overthrow the decision involves an amorphous coalition of organizations that recruit members and contributions. If that sounds anything like the early minority that organized for independence from Britain, one of its Paul Revere’s seems to be David Cobb, the Green Party nominee for U.S. President in 2004, who is now active in the campaign against the Citizens United decision.
His meeting last year with a small gathering in Ellsworth escaped public notice. But in that group were Bonnie Preston of Blue Hill and Gary Friedmann of Bar Harbor, who helped organize the votes in their respective towns.
The campaigners take their cue from the dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens, who has since retired. He wrote that “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”
While the campaign adds town and legislative votes to pressure Congress to overthrow Citizens United, Montana, with the support of 22 state attorneys general (including those from Vermont and Massachusetts but not Maine) defends its 100-year-old state law that bans corporate spending in state and local political campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court has blocked its enforcement but may yet grant Montana a hearing.
Though people opposed to corporate spending in campaigns have a long way to go toward substantive change, their generation of political discussion and engagement is a welcome outcome.