It was after 11 p.m. on Monday night when the Hinesburg town meeting finally got around to the issue of amending the U.S. Constitution.
From the back of the auditorium at Champlain Valley Union High School, an elderly man in a blue fleece turtleneck and Coke-bottle glasses stood up and implored his neighbors to support a resolution declaring that corporations are not people, and calling on Congress to amend the constitution to undo Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That’s the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that birthed super PACs and gave corporations the same First Amendment rights as flesh-and-blood individuals.
The speaker was Karl Novak, a retired Navy veteran whose career included stints as a banker and organic farmer. He said corporations are using that ruling to do “whatever they damn well please,” and that a constitutional amendment to repeal the ruling is the only acceptable fix. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has introduced just such an amendment in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) is backing a companion version in the House.
“Legislation ends up in the Supreme Court, and they blot it out,” Novak told the packed auditorium. “I don’t see that we can continue in that kind of mode in the future.”
From the front row, however, local attorney Ellen Fallon offered a warning.
“This constitutional amendment would not solve the problem this resolution purports to solve. It would not solve the problem of big money in politics,” she said, noting that it’s not just corporations but billionaire-backed super PACs that are flooding campaigns with cash.
Fallon proposed substitute language supporting restrictions on any source, and not just corporations, that pours “substantial amounts of money” into campaigns. But her neighbors shot Fallon down. Minutes later, the town meeting overwhelmingly approved the original anti-corporate-personhood resolution by voice vote.
As citizens filed out into the chilly night air, state Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg) was packing up a cardboard box and shaking his head about what he called an “ill-formed” attempt to halt the “obscene amounts of money distorting the political process.”
“It’s far more complicated than it appears on the surface,” Lippert said of the issue, noting the amendment would restrain nonprofit corporations, not just for-profit ones. “You start sorting it out, it’s not as neat and clean as people would like it to be.”
Hinesburg was one of 52 Vermont towns debating corporate personhood alongside dump-truck purchases and sewer-system upgrades on Town Meeting Day this year. A recent Castleton State College poll found broad support for action that would “allow the government to put limits on the amounts that wealthy individuals and interest groups could spend on political campaigns.” A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents surveyed told Castleton pollsters they favored the idea “somewhat” or “strongly.”
As of press time, 20 towns had gone on record in support of a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens. Jericho voted in favor 113 to 28. Of the 150 people at Thetford’s town meeting, only three opposed it. Woodstock’s vote was closer: 51 to 21 in favor.
Undoing Citizens United, it would seem, unites Vermonters of many stripes. In fact, the state is at the center of a growing national grassroots movement to roll back the decision. High-profile backers include Ben & Jerry’s cofounders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.
But as the Hinesburg vote shows, there’s a lingering disagreement about how best to do it.
Fallon and others believe a constitutional amendment is a long shot and not necessary to overcome the decision. “That can be addressed through legislation,” Fallon told the Hinesburg assembly. Bill Schubart, a Hinesburg resident and Vermont Public Radio commentator, agreed that while “the problem is very real,” broadening the resolution to cover all big money “would be making a much stronger statement.”
Critics have pointed out that, as written, Sanders’ constitutional amendment would only cover corporations and not labor unions or other trade groups that dump millions into campaigns — a loophole the senator has pledged to rectify.
In the state legislature, Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) and 10 cosponsors have proposed a joint resolution urging Congress to amend the constitution to say that corporations are not people. The Senate Committee on Government Operations is set to take up the resolution next week, and at least one witness has warned that, as written, the resolution could have “catastrophic” unintended consequences.
Benson Scotch, a Vermont lawyer who served as chief staff attorney to the Vermont Supreme Court and was executive director of the Vermont ACLU, told the committee last month that “money is not speech” makes a fine motto but could cause trouble if it’s enshrined in a resolution.
To illustrate, Scotch offered a hypothetical: Imagine that a town, tired of Occupy protests and mounting police costs, passes an ordinance against rowdy meetings or promoting rowdy meetings. A political organization solicits donations to buy television airtime opposing the ordinance. When the town goes to court to stop the fundraising, the organization raises its First Amendment right to free speech and assembly.
“The court under this amendment might dismiss the complaint because money is not speech,” Scotch testified, “and therefore no speech rights have been violated.”
Lyons says she’s suggested modifications to her resolution and is hopeful the Gov Ops committee will incorporate them.
“We are not writing the amendment,” she notes. “We are writing a resolution urging Congress to please send an amendment for ratification. There are greater constitutional minds than Vermont’s senators at work.”
And the Winner Is...
Tuesday’s press deadline prevents the print version of Seven Days from publishing results from the Burlington mayor’s race — or any election around the state, for that matter. But for full online coverage, visit our Town Meeting Day page and our staff blog, Blurt. By the time the paper hits the streets, Republican Kurt Wright, Democrat Miro Weinberger and independent Wanda Hines will be celebrating victory or licking their wounds. (Update, Wednesday morning: Weinberger is the winner.) In lieu of actual results, we offer this look back at Seven Lessons Learned From the 2012 Mayor’s Race — the most expensive, most debated, most epic in Queen City history.
1. It ain’t over ’til it’s over. Many people went home after voting in the third round of the four-way Democratic caucus in November. When Tim Ashe and Weinberger finished tied at 540 votes apiece, voters rushed back to Memorial Auditorium — only to learn the tiebreaker would take place in a month. Next time, don’t leave until a winner is crowned. Sure, you might miss “Desperate Housewives,” but that’s what TiVo is for.
2. Twenty debates are too many. When candidates spend every night at sparsely attended forums, it takes time away from the important work they should be doing: dialing for dollars! In 2015, the candidates have to insist on limiting the number of debates to 10 or 15 — if only for the sake of the reporters covering and moderating them.
3. When a candidate repeatedly misstates the name of her opponent, it’s a red flag. Hines twice referred to Weinberger as “Mario” at her campaign kickoff. It turned out to be one of many details that slipped her attention. Personally, I’m more concerned with a mayor’s ability to manage a city than to pronounce a name correctly. But if you’re gonna botch a name, at least get the ethnicity right!
4. A candidate shouldn’t offer his opponent a job in his administration before he wins — and the opponent shouldn’t accept one. Wright raised eyebrows when he said he would offer Hines a key role in his administration. And Hines made it worse when she said she’d probably take it. For the sake of appearances, at least pretend that no deals have been cut and you’re running to win.
5. Candidates shouldn’t go after their opponents for taking out-of-state money if they’ve cashed checks from Pfizer, Entergy and Anheuser-Busch in past campaigns. The Wright camp criticized Weinberger for jetting to Washington, DC, for a Sen. Patrick Leahy-hosted fundraiser, then had to awkwardly explain why Wright took out-of-state dough in his 2010 race for the Vermont Legislature. In regular life, they call that hypocrisy. In politics, they have another name for it: business as usual.
6. If a candidate is going to have a float in the Mardi Gras parade, he or she should put some energy into it. Wright and Weinberger both rode atop floats in last weekend’s big bash, but there was little “creative economy” on display. Most observers were probably left wondering, Who dat? When the bald mayor Peter Clavelle was in office, his float handed out plastic combs. Now, that’s funny. And memorable.
7. If a candidate is going to set the record for campaign expenditures in a Burlington mayor’s race — as Weinberger did with his $100,000-plus cash outlay — he’d better win. If he doesn’t, he ends up looking like the Rich Tarrant of Queen City politics. And we know how successful his political career turned out to be.
Zinger of the Week
Green Mountain Daily blogger jvwalt has coined a clever new title for ubiquitous political commentator Eric Davis — aside from the stuffy-sounding “professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.”
Explains jvwalt, “We’ve got Poets Laureate. They provide a highbrow sheen to the mundane events of public life, a little academic fairy-dust to the gray landscape. Pundits do much the same. From Walter Lippmann to David Broder to the [National Public Radio] tag team of E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, they turn the messy business of politics into a Platonian dialogue, and festoon conventional wisdom with the baubles of putative knowledge.”
So that’s what it is. Of course, Davis will have to duke it out with arch-rival Garrison Nelson of the University of Vermont for the honor. Keep it clean, boys!