Tacoma has joined a growing list of American cities pushing for a federal constitutional amendment to articulate that corporations are not human beings and campaign contributions are not protected speech.
In its final council meeting of the year, Tacoma’s City Council last week passed the resolution calling for the constitutional amendment and denouncing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission.
“The purpose of this resolution is to tell our state Legislature and the United States Congress that it is time to look forward to true (campaign finance) change at the national level,” said Councilwoman Lauren Walker, who co-sponsored the city resolution.
But like the controversial court ruling that prompted it, the city’s measure proved divisive: Five council members voted for it, and four members voted against it.
Saying she supports campaign finance reform, Mayor Marilyn Strickland voted against the measure because she and some of the causes she supports have benefited from corporate campaign donations.
“As an elected official who has to turn around and ask for money in 2013,” she said, “I feel like I’m being a hypocrite if I support this.”
The city’s measure came in response to a case involving the nonprofit conservative group, Citizens United, and its efforts to broadcast a film critical of then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during her campaign for president in 2008.
A U.S. District Court ruled the movie was an “electioneering communication,” and that broadcast of it or its promotions would violate a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002.
After the group sued the Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court eventually ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United. The court held that, like with the rights of individuals, independent political expenditures by corporations and unions are protected under the First Amendment and not subject to government restriction.
Since the high court’s ruling, more than 100 cities – from New York to Los Angeles, and Key West, Fla. to Port Townsend – have denounced the ruling or passed resolutions opposing it, according to various news reports.
Tacoma’s resolution calls on the Legislature and Congress to “initiate steps” to amend the Constitution so that it clearly states corporations aren’t human beings, and only humans have constitutional rights; that campaign contributions and expenditures are not free speech; and that Congress shall have the authority to regulate campaign financing and its disclosure.
Initially sponsored by Walker and Councilman Jake Fey, the Tacoma resolution came after a number of concerned city residents – including members of the League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County – urged council members over the past year to take up the matter.
Fey said he ultimately decided to support the measure because he believes campaign spending – particularly on negative ads that attack candidates – “is out of control.”
“So I’m going to support this,” he said. “I’m not going to get into the details of all of it, I’m just trying to send a message that there needs to be reform.”
Like Strickland, council members Joe Lonergan, Marty Campbell and David Boe also said they support campaign finance reform, but voted against the measure.
“I understand we want to look at bigger issues and we want to talk about issues on the bigger stage,” Boe said. “But last I checked, we are the Tacoma City Council. And if we want to talk about issues on the national level, we need to tie them to a nexus on the local level.”
Lonergan said he disagreed with the council resolution “on its face.”
“I would be eager to find a way to have a law that is constitutional,” Lonergan said. “But I’m reticent to support a change to the Constitution that would gut First Amendment rights for certain people while protecting them for other people.”
Council members Anders Ibsen, Ryan Mello and Victoria Woodards each said they supported the measure as a first step in what they hope will be meaningful local reform.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Woodards said. “It’s a huge issue, and like they say: ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’”
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542