This article was originally published in the DC Mic Check.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, legislatures across the country have been passing resolutions calling for an end to corporate constitutional rights, also known as corporate personhood. On April 14, the Occupy DC Corporate Personhood Solutions Working Group hosted a conference titled, “Money Out of Politics: How Cross Partisan Movements Can Reform our Democracy in 2012 and Beyond.” Activists gathered for the day-long conference at All Souls Unitarian Church, a fitting venue as it counts among its founding members the nineteenth-century anti-corruption advocate and political theorist John C. Calhoun.
Conference organizers sought to bring together occupiers, private citizens, politicians, left- and right-wing activists, and even a presidential candidate to discuss ways to clean the political system in the United States from the corrupting influence of money from special interest groups.
Participants discussed and debated many potential solutions. Some focused on overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling, which led to the creation of Super PACs. Others proposed the funding of elections be limited to citizens, and not corporations or other entities.
Keynote speaker and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig spoke about the potential of Americans Elect. This first-of-its-kind internet presidential poll promises to place a third-party candidate on the ballot in all 50 states and to foreground the issue of money and politics during the presidential debates. Former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who participated in the morning panel and has made campaign finance reform a cornerstone of his political career, is vying for this nomination. “If the people can get Roemer nominated,” Lessig posited, “it will [force a] cross-partisan discussion on this issue and a clear demand from the public that politics change.”
Panelist Rob Weissman of Public Citizen described the effect of Citizens United as “a tidal wave of money from special interests.” According to Reuters, Mitt Romney’s Super PAC, Restore Our Future, raised $43 million through the end of February, and has spent $40 million attacking other Republicans.
Stephen Erickson of Americans United to Rebuild Democracy opened the conference by warning that although Citizens United is a part of the problem, focusing solely on that decision ignores other systemic problems. “Lawmakers would still be free to receive money from interests they regulate, our political leadership will still suck, and many believe elections in America are fundamentally unfair,” he stated.
Throughout the day, the speakers struck a theme of unity on the subject of campaign finance reform. In his opening remarks, Erickson stated, “I am unaware of any conservative-leaning transformative reform groups. [But] I felt very welcome, and our group is very committed to balance,” he said. Americans for Campaign Reform, who was represented by their National Field Director Rob Werner, has a similar cross-partisan strategy and is chaired by two Democratic and two Republican former legislators.
“Seventy-five percent of the self-identified Tea Party members think Citizens United is wrong,” added Weissman later in the day. “Only eighty percent of the United States believes the earth revolves around the sun. Eighty percent is very hard to get,” he explained, driving home how universally unpopular the ruling is. Similarly, Roemer said, “Occupy and the Tea Party don’t know it, but they are the same. They both smell corruption.”
Not everyone believed that progress can be made on this issue under the current system. Ben Zucker of Occupy Montgomery County asked, “Is it possible that all politics are corrupt by nature?”
Conference organizer Gene Hummel was pleased with the turnout and with the high level of participation. He said, “The conference was another testament to Occupy’s ability to bring passionate activists together around solving a problem. Not everyone agreed on what the solution is, but we all recognize the necessity of building a diverse and strong coalition that represents the concerns of everyone, not just a powerful few. It’s not the easiest way to solve an issue, but it is the right way.”