Vermont is fast becoming the epicenter of the national grassroots movement to repeal Citizens United. That’s the 2010 Supreme Court decision that obliterated federal campaign-finance laws and opened the floodgates for the sleazy, Super-PAC-funded attack ads clogging airwaves in primary states.
Vermont’s own U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed a constitutional amendment heroically called the “Saving American Democracy Amendment” that would overturn the Supremes’ ruling by declaring that corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to actual people. As of January 24, his online petition had gathered 195,000 supportive signatures.
In Montpelier, state Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) is leading the fight to make the Vermont Legislature the first in the country to call for a repeal of Citizens United. Twenty-five towns will vote on opposing corporate personhood on Town Meeting Day. Another 35 towns are still gathering signatures to put the question on the ballot.
At a jam-packed Statehouse rally last week, Lyons paraded before an audience of mostly gray-haired supporters, waving a wad of money. Finally, a guy in the front row broke the slightly awkward silence.
“It ain’t talking,” he observed.
“Oh, I forgot,” Lyons replied on cue. “Money’s not speech!”
All around her, cheering supporters held white signs declaring in red letters, “Corporations Are Not People.”
It’s a catchy slogan, and Lyons’ money-waving shtick makes for amusing political theater.
But while the campaign to fix federal election law gathers steam, Vermont’s efforts at state-level campaign-finance reform are going nowhere fast. (Vermont still allows corporations to donate directly to candidates. With or without Citizens United, federal law doesn’t permit that.)
A bill introduced last year by state Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) would lower the contribution limits for legislative candidates from $2000 to $1000 for Senate candidates, and $500 for House races. The legislation passed out of the Senate Committee on Government Operations last year but has since stalled.
Why? Well, for one thing, White admits that she neglected to physically carry the bill to the Secretary of the Senate’s office for reporting. “It’s completely my fault,” White told me last week, blaming it on the “chaos at the end of the session.”
But there’s another reason — and it has everything to do with “corporate personhood.”
State Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) wants to ban all corporate contributions in Vermont campaigns. Galbraith tried and failed to amend White’s reform bill to that end in committee last year. If it were to come up for a full Senate debate, Galbraith could — and would — reintroduce that amendment and call for a roll-call vote, putting every senator on record about the contentious issue.
In this climate, who would want to stand up in defense of corporate personhood?
“My proposal is not exactly radical,” Galbraith said, noting that Texas has enacted such a ban. “What I am proposing to do is conform Vermont law to federal law that has been in place since 1907.”
Secretary of State Jim Condos argues that corporate donations aren’t a problem in Vermont. As evidence, he notes that of the $1.4 million raised by Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2010, roughly $60,000 — or about 4 percent — came from corporations. “Nobody’s shown me where it is a problem,” Condos says.
Common Cause Vermont, which supports Galbraith’s corporate ban, is preparing just such a show-and-tell. The watchdog group has compiled figures analyzing the sources of state senators’ campaign money from 2010 and executive director Wally Roberts shared a sneak peek of the data.
The findings? According to preliminary figures, at least nine of the Senate’s 30 members received more than 40 percent of their contributions from businesses, PACs, trade associations and nonprofits. Overall, 27 percent of contributions to winning Senate candidates came from nonperson donors. Final figures will be released next week.
While the total dollars raised can be smallish — often $5000 to $10,000 — Roberts says the breakdown is significant.
“That’s just interesting to see that a third of the senate is pretty dependent on corporate donations,” he says.
Interesting is one word for it. Galbraith has another: hypocritical.
“The very same people who would like to amend the U.S. Constitution to take constitutional rights away from corporations don’t wish to give up their own corporate contributions,” Galbraith said. “Keep them out of politics but don’t keep them out of my political campaign.”
Galbraith did not accept corporate contributions in 2010, but he did pour $15,000 of his own money into his campaign. Noting that self-financing may be as controversial as corporate funding, he says he supports a constitutional amendment that would limit total campaign spending, including a candidate’s own funds.
Does Galbraith feel guilty for holding campaign-finance reform hostage? Nope. He claims it’s bad legislation to begin with.
“I will not drop my amendment,” Galbraith insists.
The Candidate You “No”
In the basement of Fletcher Free Library, Terry Bouricius made a last-ditch appeal to his fellow Burlington Progressives to back a candidate for mayor.
“I know Wanda Hines is running as an Independent,” Bouricius told the two dozen Progs assembled for the party’s nominating caucus on Sunday. And while Hines is not a Progressive and doesn’t have “access to big wads of money,” Bouricius said, “she is very competent and her heart is in the right place.”
But Hines didn’t want the Progressive nomination. And in the end, Progressives didn’t give it to her. By a unanimous vote, the party faithful nominated “no candidate” for mayor — the first time in 30 years the Progressives haven’t backed a candidate in a Queen City mayor’s race.
Hines was an unknown quantity, and many Progs weren’t willing to gamble the party’s already weakened reputation on someone who might go rogue — as turned out to be the case with incumbent Mayor Bob Kiss.
“I’m afraid Wanda would be similar to the last six years: a candidate with Progressive values but who is not interested in building our party,” said party vice chairman Elijah Bergman.
The official party line is that Progressives are sitting out this mayor’s race to rebuild the Prog brand through city council races. But the party only nominated two candidates for seven open council seats, both from their Old North End stronghold: University of Vermont union organizer Max Tracy in Ward 2 and Vermont Works for Women staffer Rachel Siegel in Ward 3. Siegel will fight to retain a seat that’s being vacated by Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, who is moving to Winooski.
Progressives had a viable candidate for mayor: state Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat-Progressive fusion candidate who narrowly lost the Democratic nomination to Miro Weinberger and opted against running as a Prog. The four-way Democratic mayoral caucus was open to any Burlington voter, though residents can only vote in one party’s caucus. Many Progressives voted in the Dem race.
But at least 17 people who voted in Sunday’s Progressive Party caucus did not. At one point, Ashe and Weinberger were tied, 540-540. You do the math.
So did Progs blow it by not giving it all to Ashe?
State Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) explained that some Progressives — official party officers, such as Bergman and himself — were disqualified from voting in another party’s caucus. Bergman said he and some other faithful Progs would never have crashed the Dems’ party regardless.
“I’m not a Democrat,” Bergman said. “I would never think of voting in a Democratic caucus.” Hard core.
(Tim Ashe is domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and co-editor Paula Routly.)
The Candidate’s Speech
No one would ever describe Miro Weinberger as “silver tongued.” But in recent public debates, the Burlington mayoral candidate has been coming up with some sound bites.
That may be because Weinberger enlisted a Washington, D.C., political consultant who specializes in, among other things, debate coaching. Christopher Klose, who created ads for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and those UPS-style whiteboard ads for Gov. Peter Shumlin, recently flew to Burlington to spend a morning with Miro, instructing him on the fine points of public oratory.
Weinberger is well versed in public policy, but even his supporters admit privately that public speaking is not his strong suit.
Klose’s first tip for Weinberger? Keep it simple.
“He’s a guy with a lot of ideas” who sometimes get stuck “in the weeds,” Klose tells Fair Game. “He doesn’t look for simple answers on things.”
With debate coaching, Klose shows clients videos demonstrating the right way and wrong way to do things. Newt Gingrich’s recent deflection of his extramarital affairs to CNN moderator John King would be an example of the right way, Klose says, because he “took the avenue that was open to him, which was to attack the messenger.”
By contrast, Rick Perry’s “oops” moment is an example of how not to debate.
Klose describes Weinberger as an “intense” guy. “I don’t think speaking fast or sort of getting down into details is a sign of nervousness. That’s just a sign of who he is. He’s a details, hands-on guy.”
The Wright Stuff
City Councilor Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) nabbed a banner endorsement for his Burlington mayoral campaign on Tuesday. After sitting out the last two elections, the 69-member Burlington Police Officers Association threw its weight behind Wright’s third bid for mayor.
Union president John Federico says the union interviewed all three candidates, and endorsed Wright for his past experience as city council president and because he “presents well, like a leader.” Sounds kinda like Wright’s campaign literature.