A push by Greensboro residents for a city council resolution opposing the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court decision has gained traction. After Occupy Greensboro members reached out to council members and spoke at the July 17 meeting, City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan wrote a memo saying council could consider a resolution on the topic written by staff, a council member or a third party.
At-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter has been working with Occupy Greensboro members, specifically Barbara and Paul Carrano, behind the scenes on the issue, and said District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy- Small asked Shah-Khan to look into the issue.
The Supreme Court decision, critics say, allows for increased corporate influence in elections that often doesn’t serve the interest of the people. Following the lead of nine other cities in the state, including Raleigh, Asheville, Durham and Chapel Hill, that already passed resolutions, people in Winston-Salem and Greensboro are organizing for resolutions as well.
Melissa Price Kromm, director of NC Voters for Clean Elections, said a loose statewide coalition of groups has been working to pass the resolutions, and said people in Charlotte, New Bern and Wilmington are planning similar efforts. The resolutions reject the notion of corporate personhood and proponents hope it will create a groundswell for a constitutional amendment.
“Corporate money may be spent limitlessly to influence elections… thereby diluting the power of the people,” the Asheville resolution reads. “[T]he city council… calls on our elected representatives in the United States Congress to initiate the process to amend the Constitution of the United States to abolish corporate personhood.”
Abuzuaiter said she hopes to sit down with other council members to discuss the initiative in the next several weeks and bring it up for a vote in September.
“What caught my attention is how many cities have already passed it,” said Abuzuaiter, who said she didn’t have a feel for how a vote would break down. “Anything that constituents bring before council should certainly be considered and talked about and researched. This is what I was elected for. I believe this makes a strong statement that we would like as best we can to keep our elections clear and free of corporate influence.”
Occupy Winston-Salem members have collected 800 signatures in support of a resolution, and with a goal of 1,000 they hope it will be on council’s agenda by the end of August. Tony Ndege said a resolution would be a good way to get the word out to the public, especially because the ultimate goal is a Constitutional amendment.
“The wording of the Constitution has been manipulated to give corporations personhood rights and it’s pretty egregious because they have unlimited resources… they can’t die, they can’t be jailed,” Ndege said. “There are these entities that are almost invincible that are given the same rights as everyday people.”
A number of Greensboro council members said they didn’t feel like a resolution was a good use of council’s time.
“This is a distraction,” Mayor Robbie Perkins said. “I don’t care if we have a resolution. To me it’s just another item to distract us from what should be our focus. This is not a widespread movement to do this.”
Perkins said he wasn’t sure how he would vote if the resolution came up, adding that he would need to read more about the issue but that it was not on his to-do list.
“I don’t see any benefit to it,” District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny said. “We’ve got a lot of our own issues and this doesn’t seem to be a very council-related issue.”
Winston-Salem Southwest Ward Councilman Dan Besse said he felt similarly.
“I don’t think you can expect to see the Winston-Salem council pass a resolution on that matter,” said Besse, who added that council avoids public commentary resolutions. “It’s not a city business-related issue. I think they’re right on the issue. It’s just a matter of trying to be consistent.”
Besse agreed with Occupy Winston-Salem members that Citizens United has been detrimental to democracy, but that it wasn’t the best or appropriate use of council’s time to take up the issue.
“[Citizens United] represents a terrible and mistaken decision that I hope will be overturned in the future by a subsequent and more balanced court,” said Besse, who is a lawyer. “It effectively eliminates our society’s ability to reduce the corrupting effects of unlimited, hidden financing for political campaigns.”
Kim Porter said Occupy Winston-Salem held a teachin on Citizens United and corporate personhood earlier in the month that drew 45 people.
“What’s good for corporations is not necessarily good for we the people, and a lot of the things corporations are pushing for have very negative consequences for us,” Porter said. “For example, look at fracking. I believe the lawmakers should be representing the interests of the 99 percent and not the 1 percent.”
Carrano expressed similar sentiments. “Big money is gobbling up everything.” she said.
“It’s a no-brainer; corporations aren’t people and they shouldn’t have amendment rights like people. It’s a scary big thing, but if we don’t start somewhere we won’t get anywhere.”
Some Greensboro council members saw the issue more favorably, pointing out that other major cities in the state and hundreds in the nation have passed similar resolutions.
“If it’s something that is a concern to people in our city I don’t see why we can’t take a stand,” at-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan said, likening it to council’s stance against the marriage amendment. “I would have a tendency to support the resolution but I would have to look into it a little more. I think people across party lines don’t think it’s been a good thing.”
District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann wouldn’t say how she would vote on a resolution.
“Our political system is awash in money and it comes from all sides,” Hoffmann said. “I just don’t see this as an issue that needs to come before council. I think typically corporations are being pretty careful of their backing of political issues because we’ve seen it backfire. I think many corporations are certainly attuned to that.”
The Institute for Southern Studies recently launched followncmoney.org
, a website aimed at tracking independent elections expenditures in the state. A search of the database reveals significant out-of-state and corporate money that has already been spent in the governor’s race, as well as on candidates like Marcus Brandon, a Democrat in Guilford County who is running unopposed in NC House District 60.
Outside campaign expenditures supporting Brandon came from Americans for Prosperity ($4,700), NC Citizens for Freedom in Education IE ($8,300) and the NC Homeowners Alliance ($12,000). Republican candidate Glenn Cobb, the president of the Forsyth County Realtors Association who lost the primary for House District 74, drew far more support from the NC Homeowners Alliance, netting $48,000 in supportive expenditures.
Expenditures show far more money pouring into the governor’s race, much of it from outside of the state and from corporations.
North Carolina Citizens for Progress spent around $133,000 against Republican Pat McCrory. Despite the group’s name, all of its money came from outside of the state. The NEA Advocacy Fund, Democratic Governors’ Association and Philadelphia-based Shorr Johnson Magnus were the listed backers, though the Governors’ Association did not list where its money came from.
The Republican Governors’ Association pumped 10 times as much money —$1.3 million — into the state to combat Democratic candidate Walter Dalton. The majority came from Target Enterprises, an LA-based “strategic media placement company.” Other companies, including Weyerhaeuser, General Electric and Blue Cross Blue Shield gave the association at least $100,000 each, with AT&T Services contributing $250,000.
Carrano was part of a group of citizens that visited Raleigh to encourage state legislators to take up the issue, which the Senate refused to hear and the House sent to a subcommittee. She said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) and Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) have been very supportive of their efforts, adding that Robinson even came to one of their educational movie screenings.
Greensboro MoveOn organizer Barbara Council, who wrote letters to council members and petitioned the Guilford County delegation on the issue, said corporations have too much power to influence elections.
“Corporate interests pretty much get what they want and that’s probably one of the reasons Wall Street hasn’t been reined in more than it has,” Council said. “Before Citizens United I was involved with Democracy NC and working to get public funding laws passed. We made modest progress, which is pretty much in jeopardy now.”
Kromm hopes more races will become like the state’s judicial public financing program, a national flagship begun in 2002 in which the government pays a portion of the candidate’s expenses after a threshold to allow greater access to office and less dependence on big money.
While things are going well in the statewide campaign for resolutions against Citizens United, clean elections proponents are battling a worsening climate in some ways, Price Kromm said, because the NC General Assembly didn’t appropriate money in this year’s budget for public financing of other races such as state auditor, school superintendent and commissioner of insurance, which previously had public financing options.