‘Democracy in action’
Council votes, 3-2, to support grassroots effort against Citizens United
That’s because the Chico City Council, by a vote of 3-2 Tuesday (April 17), passed a resolution calling on Congress to initiate a constitutional amendment or otherwise correct the Supreme Court ruling, known as Citizens United, that allows Rove’s American Crossroads super-PAC, among others, to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from billionaires and corporations and spend them to influence the electoral process.
Yes, the council’s action is “a small step,” as several people who spoke at the packed meeting (there was a large Occupy Chico presence) freely acknowledged. One of them, Ken Fleming, said, “I appreciate that voters at the local level are able to take up a matter that affects us all, but I don’t believe it will make any difference.”
But the idea of opposing the notion that corporations should have unlimited freedom of political speech while individuals remain bound by campaign-finance limits is a popular one, and city councils in numerous cities, from Los Angeles to New York, have passed similar resolutions.
The hope is that this up-from-below movement will pressure first Congress, then state legislatures to pass an amendment.
It was the grassroots nature of the issue that appealed to the small council majority (Vice Mayor Jim Walker and Councilwoman Mary Goloff were absent). After listening to more than two dozen people speak on the matter, with only one of them (Tea Party activist Stephanie Taber) opposed to it, Mayor Ann Schwab said, “If I can give voice to what the citizens of Chico want me to express to state and national leaders, I want to do it.”
Councilman Scott Gruendl agreed: “This is democracy in action,” he said. “It’s a collective voice to influence higher levels of government to take action.”
The resolution was initiated several months ago by former city Planning Commissioner Jon Luvaas, who in a letter to the council asked that it be considered in an upcoming meeting. The council referred it to its Internal Affairs Committee, which after a public hearing on March 13 recommended approval by a 2-1 vote, with Walker and Councilman Andy Holcombe in support and Councilman Bob Evans opposed. Holcombe’s motion also to put it on an upcoming ballot failed for lack of a second.
Luvaas’ resolution, after a series of explanatory “whereases,” asks “our state and federal representatives to adopt legislation and amend the U.S. Constitution, if necessary, to establish that:
“1. Corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of human beings to political free speech; and
“2. Spending money is not speech and political spending should be regulated, limited, and clearly disclosed.”
The five council members all agreed big money has far too much influence on American politics, but they fell into predictable liberal and conservative camps when it came to the resolution. Schwab, Holcombe and Gruendl, the liberal contingent, supported the resolution, while Evans and Councilman Mark Sorensen dissented.
Sorensen argued that the city had no direct control over the issue, and it was not the best way to spend city resources, while Evans contended that it would be better placed on a ballot. “It’s not very impactful to have just five people [the council members] representing the citizens of Chico,” he said. He even apologized for not going along with Holcombe’s IAC motion to put it on the ballot.
The one other person speaking against the resolution, Taber, argued passionately that Citizens United was a good decision because it “allows challengers to take on the incumbent protection plan”—that is, allows them to raise sufficient campaign funds to challenge a well-protected incumbent.
But her lone voice was far from enough to offset the strong pro-resolution contingent, for whom it amounted to a ray of hope in a dark and dreary political environment. Their sense was that the system was rigged, that the combination of unprecedented wealth inequality and corporations’ and billionaires’ ability to spend unlimited amounts without accountability or transparency threaten to undermine American democracy.
Sheldon Praiser, who said his family moved to the United States from Canada when he was in the eighth grade, affirmed he’s always believed in the value of American faith in “one person, one vote,” but now he doesn’t think his vote counts for much. And Dylan Heikens kept it short and blunt: “I am not a corporation,” he said, “and a corporation is not me.”