While there’s been no shortage of media coverage and hand wringing over foreign influence in U.S. elections, Tuesday, Jan. 21, marked the 10 year anniversary of a landmark, and controversial, Supreme Court case that’s loomed large over the integrity of American elections from within.
More than 30 volunteers, activists and candidates stopped by Sage on Laurel in downtown Brainerd to promote opposition to Citizens United. Organized by the lakes area chapter of nonprofit organization Move to Amend, proceedings toed the line between political advocacy and informational seminar — all in all, a “lamentation and a celebration,” as attendees put it, to commemorate a decade of damages in the wake of the decision, as well as positive steps toward overturning it.
“It’s a matter of patriotism — just whom does this nation belong to?” said Roger Grussing, co-chair of the lakes area Move to Amend chapter. “We will reclaim it.”
All three federal elected officials of the region were invited — Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Duluth — as well DFL 8th Congressional District candidate Quinn Nystrom. Nystrom attended and spoke at length on her support for reversing the effects of Citizens United and signed a pledge to promote a constitutional amendment which would override the Supreme Court ruling.
American democracy, Nystrom said, is often a “corporate-run” institution and a “corrupt” system.
“I don’t think our founding fathers intended our elections to be this way,” said Nystrom, who noted she’s been advised not to publicly support the movement. “Regardless of advice that was given me, if I was going to run for Congress, I was going to sign this pledge, because it’s important to stay true to myself and my values.”
Robin Monahan, a Vietnam War veteran and retired nurse from Shoreview, undertook a trek across the continental U.S. with his brother in 2010 to protest the decision. He said he plans to do a similar, if smaller journey, across the state of Minnesota in May, to further voice his opposition to a malignant aspect of American campaign finance.
“It’s a very inefficient way to talk to people,” Monahan said with a chuckle. “I could have spent my time more productive on the telephone talking to individuals, but it does describe a kind of passion my brother and I have for this issue. I don’t know how many people’s lives that we affected with that walk … but, what was more profound, was the effect it had on me, rousing me from my retirement and making me a political activist.”
The 5-4 Supreme Court case, Citizens United vs. FEC, established that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits government authorities from restricting financial contributions or independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions and other associations.
Critics — including the likes of Grussing, Monahan, Nystrom and members of Move to Amend — have characterized the decision as a mistake that granted corporations personhood and rights on par, or exceeding those of U.S. citizens, while also furthering campaign finance corruption and the rise of corporate super political action committees, or Super PACs, which have benefited moneyed interests at the expense of the people.
Move to Amend counts roughly 470,000 volunteer members across the country, with 13,000 of those residing in the state of Minnesota.
Grussing, a retired minister with a penchant for launching into impassioned declarations at varying turns, said the juxtaposition of Citizen United’s anniversary with Martin Luther King Jr. Day illustrated a grotesque irony. While the latter serves as a reminder of the horrors of classifying people as property, Grussing said, the former is the anniversary of classifying property as people.
As long as corporations are able to funnel millions of dollars into the political process, Grussing said, American politics will not come down to which politician has a better platform to benefit its citizenry, but whoever has a larger pile of money. Nystrom noted this is rarely more apparent than the health care industry, which has lobbied heavily to promote its own profits at the detriment of Americans, notably diabetics.
“We’re not looking to do anything new, just chugging away,” said Grussing, who noted just under 70 congresspeople have pledged to oppose the ruling. “It’s simply to say: the Supreme Court decision was not a wise one, corporations are not human beings, and we want to reverse it. It’s been a slow slog and it’s a long slog effort. Our activists are aware of that.”