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Citizens United Backlash Grows from Cali. to NYC Urging Congress to Overturn Corporate Personhood

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Adding to a growing nationwide backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, California lawmakers have introduced a resolution that calls on Congress to “propose and send to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.” The New York City Council has just passed a similar resolution, echoing measures passed in Los Angeles, Oakland, Albany and Boulder. We speak to Public Citizen President Robert Weissman; California Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, who introduced the state’s Citizens United resolution; and New York City Council Member and measure co-sponsor Melissa Mark-Viverito. “I think it taps into the sentiment that we’re seeing around the country growing, regarding Occupy Wall Street, where people really feel that government is disconnected from the vast majority of the population, and because of this influence that corporate interests have,” Mark-Viverito says. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to a growing nationwide backlash against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that opened the door for nearly unlimited political spending to influence elections. On Wednesday, California lawmakers introduced a resolution that calls on Congress to, quote, “propose and send to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United … and to restore constitutional rights and fair elections to the people.” Meanwhile, here in New York, the City Council passed a similar resolution. All of this comes after similar measures passed in Hawaii and other cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland, Albany and Boulder. On Friday, Montana’s Supreme Court restored a 100-year-old ban on corporate spending directed at political campaigns or candidates. Last year, federal lawmakers introduced four different constitutional amendments to the U.S. House and Senate aimed at overturning the Citizens United ruling.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the concern about the impact of Citizens United is inspired by the influx of unlimited corporate cash into Iowa’s presidential caucus. Television ads sponsored by a political action committee that supports Mitt Romney plastered the state’s airwaves, attacking his rival, Newt Gingrich.

RESTORE OUR FUTURE: Ever notice how some people make a lot of mistakes?

NEWT GINGRICH: It was probably a mistake. I made a mistake. I’ve made mistakes at times.

RESTORE OUR FUTURE: So far, Newt Gingrich has admitted his mistakes or flipped on, teaming up with Nancy Pelosi, immigration, Medicare, healthcare, Iraq, attacking Mitt Romney, and more.

NEWT GINGRICH: I made a big mistake in the spring.

RESTORE OUR FUTURE: Haven’t we had enough mistakes? Restore Our Future is responsible for the content of this message.

AMY GOODMAN: That ad was paid for by super PAC, or political action committee, called Restore Our Future. The PAC has no direct participation from the Romney campaign, but three of its founders were campaign staffers on Romney’s failed 2008 presidential bid. Gingrich finished fourth in the Iowa caucus and accused Romney of trying to buy the election.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two lawmakers who helped introduce resolutions opposing Citizens United. California Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski joins us from Sacramento. He helped author Assembly Joint Resolution 22, which he introduced on Wednesday. And we’re joined by Melissa Mark-Viverito, a member of the New York City’s Progressive Caucus and co-sponsor of the resolution which passed here in New York yesterday. Rob Weissman is also staying with us, the president of Public Citizen.

Let’s go to Sacramento, California. Bob Wieckowski, talk about the legislation, the joint resolution that you introduced yesterday.

ASSEMBLYMEMBER BOB WIECKOWSKI: Well, good morning, Amy and Juan.

California is the most populous state, obviously, and we want to send a strong message to members of the United States Congress that we need to have Citizens United overturned, that it’s just—the influence of corporate money in our elections is just not going to be tolerated in California.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what would it take to be able to get a constitutional amendment? This is a resolution, right? It’s not—it’s not binding, even on the state?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER BOB WIECKOWSKI: Right, correct. It’s a voice in the debate that’s going on. And we understand that Congress has to go through the process of introduce the amendment, has to be ratified by the states, three-quarters of the states. So it’s an uphill battle. But the dialogue and the outrage that people feel, and people in California feel, about this potential influence that corporate money is going to have on our elections is—needs a vehicle. And this is where we start.

AMY GOODMAN: And Melissa Mark-Viverito, talk about the New York City Council resolution that you co-sponsored.

COUNCIL MEMBER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Well, basically, as the assemblyman said, it’s about really allowing this municipality to have a voice in this debate. We’re seeing this discontent grow. Surveys demonstrate that people just don’t want this level of corporate influence and dominance over government. And so, this is a way of really adding our voice. I think it taps into the sentiment that we’re seeing around the country growing, regarding Occupy Wall Street, where people really feel that government is disconnected from the vast majority of the population, and because of this influence that corporate interests have, which is really representing that 1 percent and continuing to want to dictate the laws and regulations in this country.

So, it is, coming from New York City, a strong statement that we also, as a municipality—and hopefully the state will do the same thing here in New York, is to send that message that we want a constitutional amendment. Historically, obviously, most of these amendments have come from Congress, having—bringing it back to the states, and it’s never been done at the state level, making the request to the Congress. But again, we’re seeing this grow across municipalities and across states, so hopefully this will lead to some level of resolve and resolution on this matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Who were the forces on this New York City Council—you’re a City Council member—that pushed this forward and off, the communities, like the community you represent? How does that fit in with campaign finance reform?

COUNCIL MEMBER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Well, we have one of the strongest campaign finance laws in the country, is in New York City. And obviously, this also impacts—this decision is going to impact local elections, because your independent corporate interests can spend as much as they want. And so, it is going to impact us. But we do have strict laws, and we’ve been historically the strongest to say that we don’t want that level of influence in our local politics. And so, my community, which is a low-income community, it is a community of color that a lot of times has been disenfranchised, in general. You know, we obviously are very concerned about having our voice heard and having government really reflect the true interests and needs of our communities. And again, limiting corporate influence and dominance through contributions is one way of doing that. Allowing—

AMY GOODMAN: You represent East Harlem.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, hours before voters took part in the Republican caucus, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared on CBS and publicly accused Mitt Romney of being a liar.

NORAH O’DONNELL: You said of Mitt Romney, “Somebody who will lie to you to get to be president will lie to you when they are president.” I have to ask you, are you calling Mitt Romney a liar?


NORAH O’DONNELL: You’re calling Mitt Romney a liar?

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, you seem shocked by it. I said yes. I mean, what else could you say?

NORAH O’DONNELL: Why are you saying he’s a liar?

NEWT GINGRICH: Because this is a man whose staff created the PAC. His millionaire friends fund the PAC. He pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It’s baloney. He’s not telling the American people the truth.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Rob Weissman, what about this whole issue of how these groups have developed and their so-called ties, or no ties, that they supposedly have to the candidates?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, under the election rules, they’re not allowed to coordinate with the candidates. And let’s assume that they’re not. They probably aren’t. But in the case of the Romney PAC, as well as—the super PAC, as well as the others, it’s exactly as Newt Gingrich said. It’s run by Romney’s prior campaign manager and other Romney friends. They’re soliciting from the super Romney donors. And they’re running ads on behalf of Romney, doing exactly what Romney would like to do, but worse.

So there’s two key features of it. One is that because there’s no accountability whatsoever for an entity called Restore Our Future, unlike there is for candidate Romney, they can do nothing but run vicious attack ads, and they can’t be held accountable in the way that Romney himself would be if he were to run the ads.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain—

ROBERT WEISSMAN: The other is that Romney—the Romney campaign has got donation limits. The Restore Our Future super PAC does not. So they’re getting donations on chunks of a million dollars or more, and it’s coming from individuals and from corporations, thanks to Citizens United. We’re really moving very quickly in the direction of massive corruption of the election process, in a way that goes back at least to Watergate and maybe long before.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob Weissman, can you explain Citizens United, what this group was, what this Citizens United decision came out of, how it links to Hillary Clinton and an organization that Newt Gingrich, who seems now hoist on his own petard, worked closely with, Citizens United?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, the organization Citizens United is an extreme, fringe, right-wing organization. If you go to their website, they’re very concerned about the U.N. takeover of the in the United States, and that’s sort of one of their core agenda pieces. They also spend a lot of time developing so-called documentaries. And in the lead-up to the 2008 election, they did an hour-long video hit piece on Hillary Clinton, assuming that she was going to be the nominee for—the Democratic nominee for president. Then the issue—as it turned into a court case, the issue was, could Citizens United air this hour-long attack video on Hillary Clinton on cable TV on demand? And that was actually a really narrow question to our election law that’s kind of technical—not unimportant, but not really that interesting. And that’s how it was handled as it went up to the courts.

When it got to the Supreme Court, it was argued that way, the first time in front of the Supreme Court, over that narrow, technical issue. And the Supreme Court said, “Well, that’s all very nice, but we’re interested in a much bigger question, which is, can we just wipe away all restrictions on corporate spending on elections, so long as there aren’t direct contributions from corporations to candidates?” So having decided what the question should be, even though it wasn’t the question in the case, the Supreme Court then held a new argument and answered the question the way they intended to, which was to say, corporations have a constitutional First Amendment right to spend whatever they want to influence election outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that Newt—

ROBERT WEISSMAN: So that was all generated from this organization, Citizens United.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that Newt Gingrich made films with Citizens United, his own organization. But Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I’d to bring back Bob Wieckowski from—the California assemblymember. What’s been the impact? Because California obviously has very expensive media markets throughout the state. What’s been the impact of the Citizens United case on races already in California?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER BOB WIECKOWSKI: Well, so far, we had—we had like the city of Los Angeles and the city of San Francisco races. So, our primary season starts in June. And I think folks are terrified, as Robert pointed out, that there’s going to be this deluge of corporate money that’s going to come in. And we also have a changed primary system where we have the top two—top two voters are going to go into the general. So we’re concerned that we’re just at the beginning of a whole year of corporate spending to, you know, determine what the outcome of the elections are going to be. So, the spending is just—hasn’t started yet. They’re collecting the moneys, I guess.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of privacy, Bob Wieckowski?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER BOB WIECKOWSKI: Well, I don’t put much weight on the issue of privacy. I mean, corporations aren’t natural people. The public has a greater interest, and we as legislators have a greater responsibility, to let people know who this message is coming from. As has been outlined on your show, there’s—we don’t even know who, you know, People for Good Government are when they come in, and there’s no—there’s no accountability that we have with that. And, you know, this decision flies in the face of all the history of the United States of trying to limit corporate influence and trying to limit these—have these manipulations in our elections. It’s really—it’s quite scary right now in California with all the money that potentially could be spent on determining the outcome of races.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to ask Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito—as you said, New York City has one of the toughest campaign finance laws, and it also has a six-to-one public match for those who participate in—under the rules, but it hasn’t stopped a billionaire from running for mayor three times and spending $70 million to $100 million each time to get himself elected as mayor.

COUNCIL MEMBER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Right, and it’s true. I mean, our—what we obviously would want to see is people to opt in to the campaign finance program, because it does create a level playing field. Everyone that participates in the program for the position you run, you’re capped in terms of how much money you can raise and how much public money you get back to really have a budget for your campaign. But people can opt out of the program, and then that’s where the amount of undisclosed money or the amount of money that you can raise for an election is one that is not capped in any way. So, obviously that’s where we saw our mayor independently finance his own campaign and in the last election spend over $100 million in a mayoral election. So, we obviously are concerned.

And just to reiterate, the other issue with the Citizens United is the lack of transparency and accountability, that you don’t know where this money is coming from. And you’ve already seen, two years in, you know, how much additional money has been spent in the last election cycle. So, really, it’s a bad, bad decision. And we’re really concerned about the implications running into the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Melissa, you used to work for SEIU. This also involves union money.

COUNCIL MEMBER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Yes. But unions are made up of members, and it’s very clearly known who the individuals are that comprise unions. And so, when a union is giving money in a donation to a candidate, you know exactly where it’s coming from, so there is that level of disclosure that it already exists. And fighting on behalf of worker rights and collective bargaining rights, to me, is very different than fighting behind an interest who actually wants to exploit workers and really government intervention in the protection of workers. It’s a very different dynamic.

AMY GOODMAN: And in a moment, we’re going to have a very interesting discussion about what’s going on in Indiana around worker rights. But I wanted to turn to one last clip. A day after narrowly winning the Iowa caucus, Mitt Romney came under intense questioning in New Hampshire Wednesday by a member of Occupy Boston and Occupy New Hampshire over his past comment that corporations are people. The exchange took place at a televised town hall during which Senator John McCain endorsed Romney.

MARK PROVOST: You’ve said that corporations are people. But in the last two years, corporate profits have surged to record highs, directly at the expense of wages. That’s in a JPMorgan report. Now, it seems that the U.S., it’s a great place to be a corporation then, but increasingly a desperate place to live and work. So would you refine your earlier statement from “corporations are people” to “corporations are abusive people”? And would you be willing to reverse the policies of both the Obama administration and his predecessors around corporate-centric economic policies that only see wealth and income, you know, just go to the top, at record highs seemingly, every—faster every year? And the people in this country are in a permanent economic stagnation. So, I just want to see some color on that.

MITT ROMNEY: Where do you think corporations’ profit goes? When you hear that a corporation has profit, where does it go?

MARK PROVOST: [inaudible] profit, I mean, it depends—

MITT ROMNEY: Yeah, but where does it go?

MARK PROVOST: Well, it depends. If they retain it, there’s retained earnings, that means that they’re not spending it on—they’re not distributing it as dividends, and that means they’re not using it for capex, capital expenditure. You know, so they could just hoard it. That’s retained earnings. Right? But as profits, it goes to shareholders. So it goes to the 1 percent of Americans that own 90 percent of the stocks.

MITT ROMNEY: OK, not let’s get to facts, all right? There are two places they can go.

MARK PROVOST: Those are facts, Mr. Romney.

MITT ROMNEY: Hold on. It’s my turn. You’ve had your turn. Now it’s my turn, all right? First of all, you’re right it goes to dividends, all right, which is to the owners. But they’re not the 1 percent. All right? They’re not only the 1 percent. I’m sure, among the dividends, go to the 1 percent, but also go to the people who have pensions. All right? There’s a guy. You don’t—are you in the 1 percent? No. He’s got dividends and retirement plans, 401(k)s. They’re filled of the dividends that come out from corporations. That’s number one.

Number two, you are right, they can go into retained earnings, which then can be used for capital expenditures or growing the business or hiring people or working capital. When a business has profit, it can do good things: give it to the shareholders and grow the enterprise. And by the way, the only way it can hire people is if it grows the enterprise.

Now, corporations, they’re made up of people, and then, of course, the buildings that people work in. The buildings don’t pay taxes. The only people that—the only entities that pay taxes are people. And so, corporations are collections of people that are trying to have good jobs for themselves and promote the future. And so, corporations are made up of people, and the money goes to people, either to hire people or to pay shareholders. And so, they’re made up of people. So, somehow thinking that there’s something else out there that we could just grab money from and get taxes from, and everything could be better, that doesn’t involve people, well, they’re still people. And what I want to do is make America a place where those corporations that have that money decide to invest here.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitt Romney answering a question from one of the people at the town hall about calling a corporation a person. Rob Weissman, we just have a minute. Can you respond?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: You know, that’s a lot more of a refined response than he gave before. But he’s wrong about what he’s saying. Corporations are entities, not just a collection of people. They are entities that have their own legal life, state-created legal life. And the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United said that those entities, not the people within them, but the entity itself, has the right to spend whatever it wants to influence the outcome of elections, that’s—to represent actual, real, live, living, breathing human beings.

I mean, that’s why we need a constitutional amendment to both overturn Citizens United and clear the way of this confusion that corporations have a claim on the constitutional rights that are intended to protect people, real people, like you and me. It’s why the resolutions in New York and California are so important, and it’s why people are mobilizing around the country on the second anniversary of the decision, January 21st, to really build the movement to call for a constitutional amendment. It’s going to take a long time, but we are going to win this thing. Folks who want more information can go to a lot of places, but among them is, which is our campaign to help drive forward the movement for a constitutional amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Rob Weissman is president of Public Citizen. Thanks to California Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, joining us from Sacramento, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, a member of the New York City Council and co-sponsor of the resolution here in New York that passed yesterday.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Indiana to a debate over worker rights. Stay with us.

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Occupy New Hampshire Protester Takes Romney to Task for Declaring “Corporations Are People”

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