Issue Advocacy or Election Year Stunt?
A group of state lawmakers and a good-government advocacy group called upon Connecticut’s congressional delegation Wednesday to back a constitutional amendment to overturn a controversial Supreme Court decision increasing corporate influence in elections.
At issue is the 2010 Citizens United decision that allowed corporations, unions, and special interest groups to funnel unlimited funds into political campaigns. Eighty-eight state representatives and 22 senators from Connecticut signed a letter to the congressional delegation advocating its repeal.
At a Capitol press conference hosted by Common Cause, Sen. Gayle Slossberg, co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the decision threatens the country’s democracy.
“You’ve all heard the statement ‘Money talks.’ Well guess what? Money screams in an election. It screams so loudly that the regular day-persons’ voice is drowned out and can’t be heard,” she said.
Slossberg said the interests of a corporation are fundamentally different from those of the average person. Corporations are designed to be in business and make profits, which is a good thing, she said. But government must balance the interests of companies and its citizens, which is hard to do when corporations can spend unlimited funds on elections, she said.
“What we’re asking for Congress to do in overturning this decision, is restoring that balance back to us, the people,” Slossberg said.
Rep. Russ Morin, Slossberg’s committee co-chairman, said Connecticut has been a leader in clean election efforts. He pointed to the state’s public financing system, which requires candidates to collect a series of small donations to qualify for a state grant.
“When people give small donations to their representatives and senators, they know they have a voice, they know that corporations aren’t trying to influence us. They know that when they talk to us we hear them,” Morin said.
Morin said the effort to repeal Citizens United should not be viewed as an anti-corporation effort, rather it should be viewed as pro-voter.
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said the letter sends a message that the Supreme Court ruling was a mistake.
“We want to make it clear that money is not speech and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights,” Quickmire said.
Connecticut is not alone in its efforts. Seven state legislatures have now called for the amendment, Jonah Minkoff-Zern, an organizer for Public Citizen, said. All of them have been controlled by Democrats, but he maintained that when polled, Democrats and Republicans alike say Citizens United has a negative impact on the country.
All the lawmakers at the press conference were Democrats and all the signatures on the Connecticut letter were those of Democrats as well.
Outside the state Capitol Wednesday, House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said the press conference seemed like an election year stunt. He said Democrats aren’t the only ones with concerns over Citizens United and it would have been nice if the ranking Republicans on the committee were asked to participate.
“I have my own concerns about Citizens United but if we’re going to do something as a state, we should do it in a bipartisan way,” he said.
Cafero said he thought Democrats were just trying to make a big splash by calling the press conference.
But during the press conference, Morin said the letter was forwarded to every member of the legislature.
“The supporters and signers are all Democrats, but I want to be clear we ensured — the goal of Sen. Slossberg and myself was that every member of the General Assembly, regardless of their party affiliation, had the opportunity to jump on board with us,” Morin said.
An email containing the letter did go out to all of the state’s lawmakers, but the email was sent more than six months ago on March 9 and asked legislators to sign on by March 13.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, the Government Administration and Elections Committee’s ranking Republican, said he wasn’t informed of the press conference and did not remember seeing the letter. He said he agreed with the Democrats in believing Citizens United has raised disclosure issues. But he said he would have a difficult time supporting an amendment to strike it down entirely.
“Citizens United affirmed First Amendment rights. I think we must go to the end of the earth to affirm our First Amendment rights,” he said.
McLachlan said he wanted to be part of a bipartisan solution to addressing disclosure concerns presented by the ruling. But he said legislation passed by state Democrats this year went too far and would likely have been unconstitutional. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed the bill over similar concerns.
JR Romano, the director for the Connecticut chapter of Americans For Prosperity, also brought a bit of controversy to Wednesday’s press conference when he began asking questions of Quickmire once the event was opened for media questions.
Romano accused Common Cause of trying to conflate two separate issues when calling for an end to secret donations to advocacy groups. Both Common Cause and AFP have 501c4 organizations, meaning they can accept donations without needing to disclose contributors. According to the law, 501c4 groups are permitted to engage in issue advocacy.
Romano said that protection from disclosure requirements predates the Citizens United ruling and stems from a 1958 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP was not required to turn over its membership roster to the state of Alabama.
Romano said Common Cause was just trying to go after organizations with which they don’t agree.
“They’re specifically targeting organizations that don’t share their positions on issues,” he said.
Quickmire said Common Cause also is a 501c3 organization, meaning some of its contributions are subject to disclosure. They do not engage in lobbying as a 501c3, she said. Either way, she said the group wouldn’t mind disclosing its contributors.
“We are going after big money in whatever form it is,” she said. “. . . We think that C4s should have to disclose, yes.”