MENTOR, OHIO | February 23, 2021
The biennial city-sponsored virtual public hearing for Mentor residents to speak on the impact of money in politics and its influence on our democracy and the role of corporations and other moneyed interests that play a part in the political process.
The hearing was mandated as part of a Mentor Move to Amend-led effort to pass a ballot initiative calling on the City to communicate to federal and state representatives that Mentor citizens want a Constitutional Amendment to end corporate personhood and money as free speech. The citizen-driven ballot initiative passed in 2014 by 70%.
There has been an ongoing tension in the history of the United States between legislative efforts to limit the influence of money and political power, and judicial rulings curbing Congress' power to do so. Particularly in the past 50 years, legislative efforts and Supreme Court rulings have made pivotal changes to the role that money plays in our democracy. Efforts to restrict the influence of money have been rolled back largely based on the misguided narrative that artificial entities are people and money is equivalent to speech protected by the First Amendment.
In addition to previous Court rulings, the Citizens United ruling effectively freed labor unions, corporations, and non-profit associations from restrictions on electioneering and allowed advocacy for the election or defeat of candidates. The Court ruled that political action groups (Super PACS) could receive unlimited donations and make unlimited election expenditures so long as they do not directly coordinate with candidates' campaigns. The Citizens United ruling rests on two assumptions that have since proven false. The majority reasoned that independent spending cannot be corrupting AND that such spending would be transparent.
The Court's narrow interpretation of corruption was limited to quid pro quo, which assumes a direct connection between donations and political favors. But the corruption influence of money on policy decisions and political priorities is much more nuanced. Over the past decade, these special interests have spent unlimited – and often undisclosed - amounts of money to advance their agendas. Impacts could be seen just five years after the ruling. In 2015, analysts found clear evidence that a very small group of Americans - “an elite club of wealthy, largely white mega-donors” - were wielding increasing influence in politics. By 2018, a Pew poll found that 75% of Americans believe government was “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves”.
The Supreme Court also reasoned that unlimited spending would not distort the political process because the public would be informed about funding for political activity. The reality is that voters often cannot know who is actually behind campaign spending. So while Super PACs are required to disclose their donors, those donors can include dark money groups that obscure the original source of their contributions. Since dark money nonprofits do not need to disclose their donors, they provide a back channel to inundate our politics with money from secret sources.
Now armed with 10 years of data, we have a compelling picture of this disturbing trend: a massive influx of big money in politics. Just 25 ultra-rich individuals account for close to half of the total individual donations to super PACs from 2010-2020. The top five largest individual super PAC contributors of the decade accounted for 28 percent of all donations. The issue of money in politics is also a bipartisan problem. In the 2017-2018 cycles of contributions 45 percent of donations went to outside spending groups aligned with the Republican Party and 52 percent went to spending groups benefiting Democrats.
Various legislative efforts have been derailed by the Courts claiming that artificial entities are people with First Amendment speech rights and, since money has been declared speech, curbing such speech is a violation of the Constitution. This leaves us with no other alternative but to have a 28th Constitutional amendment declaring that artificial entities are not people and money is not speech. Such an amendment would provide the opportunity for legislative efforts to correct this distortion of reality.
Dark Money Groups Involved in the Battle over HB6 and Cleveland Public Power
The Supreme Court said this wouldn't happen. Corruption, that is, in their Citizens United ruling. That's because the majority on the Court said corruption could only occur if there was QUID PRO QUO. Coupled with that they are argued that transparency would shine a light on transactions keeping the public informed who was supporting various candidates and issues. They must not have heard of 501(c)4 organizations, social welfare organizations, organizations that don't have to report their donors and amounts contributed. Dark money from these organizations are used to fund the coffers of candidates and various issues up for a vote by the people or by the legislature, like HB6. These dark money groups have the ability to spend millions of dollars, which is what they did in the campaign and subsequent referendum effort around HB6. Beside the massive effort on the part of First Energy to influence passage there was also a concerted effort on the part of Ohioans for Energy Security to squash the signature collecting efforts of Ohioans Against Corporate Bailout that aimed to put HB6 on the ballot in November 2020. Ohioans for Energy Security began to place ads designed to scare people from signing the petition by claiming the Chinese government would take over our energy grid. They even started a non-binding petition drive asking legislators to keep foreign interests out of Ohio's energy grid the aim of which was to confuse voters and make them think they had already signed the referendum petition. Ohioans for Energy Security is one of those 501(c)4 organizations not required to disclose their contributors.
Corruption thrives right in our own backyard. Back in 2018 a nonprofit, a 501(c)4 was formed with the help of First Energy Corp. The organization called Consumers Against Deceptive Fees began work to “educate” Cleveland residents about the high fees charged by Cleveland Public Power. This is but a local example of how corporations use nonprofits to shield the movement of political money in Ohio used to influence outcomes favoring corporations. Let's face it folks, we're a CORPTOCRACY, largely ruled and influenced by their interests. We know according to state records, tax filings and campaign finance reports Partners for Progress received $20 million from First Energy. We also know as a result of the FBI's investigation of the Householder scandal that the funds Partners for Progress was holding eventually went to Consumers Against Deceptive Fees in the amount of $200,000. Additional money flowed into the nonprofit totaling more than a half million dollars with many of the sources still unknown, but we can guess. Who would benefit selling electricity to the residents of Cleveland? The contentious past relationship between Cleveland Public Power and First Energy is well known and appears to be ongoing. If the FBI had not launched an investigation into the Householder situation we would still likely be in the dark.
Six years ago a study by Princeton University and Northwestern University found the United States government more closely resembles an Oligarchy than a Democratic Republic. Researchers examined nearly 2,000 policy changes in the US between 1981 and 2002 and compared those changes to the preferences of average Americans, wealthy citizens, special interest and lobbying groups. The researchers sought to find the answers to who governs in America, who really rules, and to what extent US citizens are sovereign or powerless. Their finding - “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impact on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no influence.” The findings also indicate “even when a majority of citizens disagree with the economic elite, and call for policy changes, they rarely get it.” They conclude, “We believe that if policy making is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claim of being a democratic society is seriously threatened.”
Six years later in an update of their original study they are saying, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy”. They go on to report that business groups are extremely effective at influencing policy and these business groups generally desire policies that hurt the majority of the American populace. The economic elite are the ones who determine which issues are brought to the table. The public is then left to choose between options that have already been handpicked by a tiny portion of society. They go on to conclude - “ In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule – at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagree with the economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose...Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we still believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened”. For American citizens frustrated by a notable lack of government progress on any of the major issues of the day, the message is clear: As long as powerful special interests cause their money to buy influence in Washington nothing is going to change. If we want to tackle the other issues, we have to stop legalized corruption first.
Today's Democracy Day and those occurring across Ohio and the nation are playing an important part in seeking a 28th amendment to the US Constitution declaring that artificial entities like corporations are not persons with constitutional rights and that money is not speech, that money is property. Such an amendment is a necessary step in eliminating legalized corruption and the disenfranchisement of the American public.
The role of dark money in our electoral process has created a fully integrated network of programs and groups bent on altering the direction of American politics.
Since the 1970's, dark money donors have successfully exerted influence on the political scene in an effort to reduce government regulation, reduces taxes and build political power. Their effort to maintain and expand these gains has intensified locally, statewide and throughout the nation. Financial interests and political power are at the top of the agenda for proponents of our current system. This agenda poses a serious threat to our democracy. Remember the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both”.
From the book Dark Money by Jane Mayer and I quote “When Congress created the legal framework for social welfare groups, 501(c)4's, they never envisioned that social welfare groups would become a means by which the rich would hide their political spending. Discovery of this available avenue for anonymous political donations resulted in a significant shift from donating to candidates to instead, donating to non-profits, think tanks and private foundations. The strategy has been clear. Minimize the role of government and maximize the role of a private economy.”
In 2010 when Citizens United was decided, corporations and wealthy individuals increasingly used 501(c)4 organizations to successfully hide themselves and the amounts they contributed. As a result, the American political scene was inundated with unlimited, untraceable cash.
The laws Congress created in the past to prevent corporations and the wealthy from undermining self-government have been swept aside by the Supreme Court allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to spend millions and billions to influence government policy.
Again, from Dark Money, “We can see that a new generation of hyper-political private non-profit organizations and foundations, funded by corporations and the wealthy, leveraging their fortunes for maximum strategic impact, largely invisible to the public, are in control of the political landscape.”
I want to share with you some information about work for just one candidate to illustrate how even local political campaigns can be overwhelmed by money. In late 1980s and early 1990s, I worked for a candidate for our Mentor Ward 2 Council seat. The candidate was Evelyn Kiffmeyer. And if you know her and her history, you will know that she was one of the best Councilpersons we have ever had in Mentor. She played a very important role in Mentor’s acquisition of and preservation of the Mentor Lagoons. She also defended the quality of life of our residential neighborhoods against commercial encroachment. And when you called her for any kind of help, she always answered and responded.
After three campaigns expending much shoe leather by Evelyn and her volunteers, Evelyn was first elected to Council in 1991. She served for four years, was re-elected in 1995 by a much larger margin. Four years later, in 1999, as one of the best-loved and most effective members of Council, she decided to run for a third four-year term.
Now here is an example of what money can do and actually does in politics—even on the local level. A certain businessman approached Candidate Kiffmeyer and offered her $5,000 for her campaign. This one donation by itself would have almost doubled the money we had raised for her campaign. But Evelyn politely declined this offer, knowing that otherwise she would then be beholden to this one man for his singularly large donation.
Evelyn’s opponent, roared into the 1999 campaign flush with money – more than $12,000 in cash and in-kind contributions as reported to the Board of Elections. This amount was several times the record amount that had ever been spent on any previous ward or at-large contest. Among the donors to this campaign were several prominent businessmen and developers in the city, the region, and beyond.
But Evelyn’s opponent obtained the largest amount of money, from one of the political parties in Lake County that injected itself into this officially non-partisan election.
I first knew we were up against BIG MONEY when a huge banner promoting Evelyn’s opponent was hung from the top of a building on Mentor Avenue. Shortly thereafter, lots of slick literature was mailed out for this opponent, several large ads were run for him in the newspapers, and there were even cable TV ads.
Finally, election day came. The unusually cold and wintry weather on election day, November 2, had drastically reduced voter turnout, especially of older voters. But most importantly, those voters who had not followed Council closely or paid much attention to city affairs were undoubtedly swayed by the much larger and louder voice that the money of Evelyn’s opponent was able to purchase.
And so Evelyn Kiffmeyer, a Councilwoman who had time and again proved her devotion and her effectiveness to her constituents, was defeated by a mere 44 votes. All of this may sound like sour grapes to some, and yes, the grapes WERE pretty sour. But I submit to you that this was an election process that was distorted by money power, illustrating that almost invariably the candidate with more money has the more powerful voice, and research supports this conclusion.
The electorate on every level of government has been frustrated by the corruption of money power. Are we a democracy or a plutocracy? Once we adopt the “We the People Amendment” as the 28th amendment to the U.S. constitution, the way will be clear for us to make sure the political playing field is far more level than it is now, so that candidates and office holders of quality will, more often than not, prevail in our electoral system. As Section 2 of the Amendment provides, and I quote:
Section 2. [Money is Not Free Speech]
Federal, State, and local government shall regulate, limit, or prohibit contributions and expenditures, including a candidate's own contributions and expenditures, to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their economic status, have access to the political process, and that no person gains, as a result of their money, substantially more access or ability to influence in any way the election of any candidate for public office or any ballot measure.
Nowhere is there more evidence of the power of corporations as persons and money is speech then in the area of climate change.
There is near unanimity that the primary cause of the acceleration of climate change is the email she into our atmosphere of greenhouse gases find the fossil fuel and commercial meet industries. Efforts by governments and all levels have had no success in mitigating those emissions.
Money, protected as First Amendment speech, flows to our candidates and legislators seeking reelection in unprecedented amounts with few limits. The lobbying and court decisions favoring the corporate interests of the fossil fuel and commercial meet industries have set us on the path leaving to the degradation of our democracy into many critical aspects our society and the planet. Our existence on this planet is threatened if we continue to disregard the implications of climate change. The Earth will survive after humans are gone and will likely renew itself, much like what has happened in various locations when human life has ceased likely Korean DMZ and Chernobyl. That will prove it was us, but we won’t be here to reap the benefits of the finding. Ah, yes we should have heeded the words of Pogo “We have met the enemy and he is us. Remember, “If you don’t change your direction you’re likely to end up where you’re going.”
One of the things we know resulting from the Supreme Court’s decisions to declare that corporations are people is that corporations now hold large say over State and Federal legislation. For example, though corporations don’t get sick or die, they hold sway over much of our healthcare polities. As designed they make enormous profits for insurance companies and drug companies. Healthcare policy is directly correlated with contributions made from the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries to our elected officials. We find similar correlations in the areas of education, the economy, infrastructure and the environment.
Ohioans know that this is not how our system should work. Sadly, we have entered into a dark period in which corporations, not the People, dominate legislatures where they seek to enact policies that favor their interest, not ours. This is evident at every level of government through a series of laws that have reduced environmental and employment protections, local rights, and access to the ballot across the country.
ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate funded organization operates with state politicians behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern our rights. They provide “model bills” that reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations.
We must take a hard look at the structure, operation, viability and future of our republic. We need to move in a direction that returns control of our state and nation to the people. The move to add a 28th Constitutional Amendment is a move in the right direction.