Locals United Against Citizens United

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Panelists Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, Smitty Smith, Caroline Homer, and Christina Puentes

Pay 2 Play documentary, panel discussion focus on reducing influence of big money in elections


Updated Friday January 23, 2015 12:24pm

Panelists Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, Smitty Smith, Caroline Homer, and Christina Puentes
Panelists Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, Smitty Smith, Caroline Homer, and Christina Puentes

On the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 21, 2010, decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, a sold-out showing of a documentary, followed by an hour-long panel discussion, indicates there is considerable local interest in overturning corporate personhood and money as free speech.

The film by John Ennis, Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes, released in September 2014, was shown to a full house of about a hundred people at the Alamo Drafthouse Village Wednesday evening. The 90-minute documentary focuses on multiple congressional elections in Ohio, the corrosive effects of unlimited spending from such figures as the Koch Brothers, and features numerous nationally known experts, among them Professor Noam Chomsky, Professor Lawrence Lessig, economist Robert Reich, and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The film asserts that for corporations, politics is a game akin to Monopoly that is rigged in their favor. The film also focuses on numerous ways that people are engaging in political struggles across the country to fight back, from the Occupy movement to street artists, from candidates running for office to public protests.

Notable quotes from the movie include:

• “The return on investment in politics is astonishing.” Jack Abramoff.

• “If you’re going to challenge the money power, you better build people power.” John Nichols.

• “The parties are two factions of one party—the business party.” Noam Chomsky

Among the solutions advocated is a seemingly impossible plan to amend the U.S. Constitution as provided for in Article V, something done only 27 times since the Constitution took effect in 1789.

The hope among amendment advocates is that it won’t take 202 years to accomplish, as did the 27th Amendment, which delays laws affecting Congressional salary from taking effect until after the next election of representatives. That measure was submitted to the states for ratification in 1789 and did not become part of the Constitution until 1992.

On the speedier side of the ledger, however, in 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified in just slightly more than three months to give 18-year-olds the right to vote.

A lively discussion

Panel members leading the discussion included:

• Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice

• Sara Smith, program director for Texas Public Interest Research Group

• Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas

• Caroline Homer of Texans United to Amend

• Christina Puente of Wolf-PAC,

Joanne Richards
Joanne Richards

The discussion was moderated by Joanne Richards of Common Ground for Texans.

McDonald quipped that, “Had the movie dwelled on money in Texas, it would’ve needed an IMAX screen.” In a state of 27 million people, he said, there are eight million voters but elections were largely decided by 150 donors who collectively contributed 58 percent of the $180 million raised by legislative and statewide candidates in the 2012 elections.

Sara Smith said TexPIRG’s focus is on grassroots organizing, mobilizing, and getting word to the media. Her own article, “Citizens United gutted our democracy, but we can fix it,” was published (under a different title online) Wednesday in the Austin American-Statesman (paywall alert). She said the main focus now is passage of the Government By the People Act of 2014 (H.R. 20), which was reintroduced in Congress. If enacted the bill would match small campaign contributions with limited public funds.

Tom Smith said, “Public Citizen has been working on cleaning up money in politics for about 40 years and has had good times and is now having real bad times.” He noted the success of campaign contribution limits in Austin. He said he was at first admittedly pessimistic about the chance of amending the Constitution, but noted that more than 5 million people have signed a petition to do so, 16 states have passed measures calling for it, as have more than 600 cities and towns.

“We are working to come up with strategies to change the way things happen because our children and grandchildren expect us to get democracy back,” he said.

Homer of Texans United to Amend said her group has organizers in 25 states, all working since late 2009 “to unequivocally say that money is not protected speech.”

Puentes of Wolf-PAC said, “The only solution is revolution. We want to pass a resolution in every state house to call for an amendment per Article V of the Constitution.”

Audience Q & A

Asked if the move to amend was partisan, the panelists answered the measure was backed by all parties. Public Citizen’s Smith quipped, “We are ‘cross-partisan.’ We like your party, and we are cross.” TexPIRG’s Smith said, “We have no forever friends, no forever enemies.”

McDonald was asked about the success of a referendum in Tallahassee, Florida, that amended the City Charter to establish an anti-corruption policy, limit campaign contributions, and establish a citizen campaign finance program. He said there is a “lot of interest in Texas in putting together an Anti-Corruption Act Coalition,” and figuring out which communities in Texas would be good candidates.

This strategy stems in part from the fact that Texas citizens have no right to make laws through Initiative and Referendum, as do many municipalities, including Austin, where in 1997 a citizens petition drive and campaign resulted in 72 percent voter approval of a City Charter change to limit campaign contributions to mayor and city council candidates per City Charter Article III, Section 8.

Responding to a question about a Supreme Court review underway to decide whether a restriction bars a judicial candidate from directly soliciting contributions, McDonald said, “We have no such rules in Texas and approximately 60 percent of the money comes from lawyers, law firms and defendants with cases before the court.”

In answering another question, McDonald observed that the history of political changes brought about through organizing is not taught in Texas schools. “People don’t understand what they can do,” he said. “People don’t understand how organizing got us where we are today.”

Tom Smith said, “The power of the people is catching on in small ways and in Texas with the anti-fracking ban.” He noted the irony of newly elected Governor Greg Abbott, who has long criticized Washington’s interference in Texas government, but recently stated that “local people won’t dictate policies in the state.” Smith said local people have the right to control corruption in their communities and set standards to protect themselves from policies that harm them, and predicted there will be a “tremendous fight this session” over this principle.

McDonald closed the panel discussion by reminding attendees that it took “60 years” to overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Plessy upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal” laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities. That decision handed down in 1896 was not overturned until 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education. “We’ll be here celebrating marking the 10th anniversary of Citizens United,” McDonald said.

Constitution amendment, really?

Since the Constitution went into effect in 1789, 33 amendments have been adopted by Congress and sent to states for ratification and 27 were ratified to become part of the Constitution, according to Wikipedia. Only a half-dozen of those 27 Amendments have been passed since prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, according to this list of amendments.

But a Constitutional amendment is not the only tool that organizations may use. Other proposed solutions as listed by Common Ground for Texans include:

• passage of the Anti-Corruption Act to make it illegal to buy political influence,

• passage of the Disclose Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act),

• regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission to require disclosure of spending by publicly traded companies,

• support of the Mayday PAC through crowdfunding,

• IRS regulation to investigate 501(c)(4) organizations that claim to be social welfare organizations to keep their donors secret, and

• providing candidates with an option for public financing if they raise a large number of small contributions in their local communities.

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.