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Bob Luddy 2You have to hand it to the massively oblivious Bob Luddy. One of the state’s leading hard right, fat cat political funders probably thought he was showing what a principled guy he is when he penned this letter promising Republican lawmakers a cutoff in campaign funds because he dislikes the House budget proposal.

What he did instead, of course, was to show how just how corrupt and out of control the state’s political system has gotten when a rich moneybags can, effectively,  publicly admit that he buys influence with his campaign money and then threaten to turn off the spigot because he doesn’t get his way. If ever there was a crystal clear demonstration of how the Citizens United decision and the recent toxic expansion in pay-to-pay politics that it has spawned needs to be reversed this was it.

Commentary
Gene Nichol

Prof. Gene Nichol

In case you missed it over the weekend, Gene Nichol had a fine editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer in which he shined a light on the utter madness of the narrow U.S. Supreme Court majority that, has, effectively, handed our national presidential elections over to a small group of billionaire plutocrats.

Here’s Nichol, after reminding us of Lincoln’s famous call to “allow the governed an equal voice in the government”:

“Few spectacles could more profoundly debase Lincoln’s sense of the meaning of America than the recent parade of presidential hopefuls seeking audience, in supplication, before a growing list of billionaire funders.

The Koch brothers announced that a billion dollars is up for grabs in 2016 for the candidate who most pleases them. Casino operator Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly coughed up $100 million in 2012, allowed tribute to be paid, and sought, a couple of weeks ago at his Las Vegas hotel. Republican candidates appeared with bells on.

Hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer announced he’ll sponsor Ted Cruz. Rick Santorum, once again, will carry the colors of investment manager Foster Friess. Florida billionaire Norman Braman will provide at least $10 million for Marco Rubio. Jeb Bush’s new Super PAC, Right To Rise, will reportedly secure $100 million of individual and corporate donations before the end of May.

Democrats are no better. Hillary Clinton followed up her announcement that curing the evils of money and politics will be a core component of her campaign by traveling to California to seek massive contributions for the Priorities USA Super PAC. She’s confident we’ve forgotten the Lincoln bedroom leases and the overtly purchased attentions (and pardons) of her husband’s administration….

The Washington Post described the unfolding primary as “a brawl of billionaires.” The elites of the super donor class shield and secure their own, seemingly essential, primary. The Center for Responsive Politics reminds that, in 2012, about a hundred people and their spouses contributed 67 percent of all Super PAC funding. The 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent.”

After reminding us that this ridiculous situation has all been made possible by a series of Supreme Court rulings that have equated unfettered spending by billionaires with “free speech,” he concludes this way:

“We are not without weapons. Jurisdiction can be curtailed. New seats can be added to the court. Judges can be impeached for attempting to destroy democracy. Enough is enough. Tom Paine wouldn’t put up with this. Neither would old Abe.”

He’s right. let’s get to work.

Commentary

As Sharon McCloskey reported in this space yesterday, the the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a modest victory for democracy this week when it said that states can ban direct campaign solicitations by judges. Would that North Carolina would join the list of states to do so.

What was perhaps the most amazing thing about the Court’s ruling, however, was Chief Justice John Roberts’ rationale. Ian Millhiser of Think Progress explains:

“Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion for the Court in Williams-Yulee is certainly better for campaign finance regulation than a decision striking down this limit on judicial candidates — had the case gone the other way, judges could have been given the right to solicit money from the very lawyers who practice before them. Yet Roberts also describes judges as if they are special snowflakes who must behave in a neutral and unbiased way that would simply be inappropriate for legislators, governors and presidents:

‘States may regulate judicial elections differently than they regulate political elections, because the role of judges differs from the role of politicians. Politicians are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters. Indeed, such ‘responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.’ The same is not true of judges. In deciding cases, a judge is not to follow the preferences of his supporters, or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors. A judge instead must ‘observe the utmost fairness,’ striving to be “perfectly and completely independent, with nothing to influence or controul [sic] him but God and his conscience.” As in White, therefore, our precedents applying the First Amendment to political elections have little bearing on the issues here.’

Most Americans would undoubtedly agree that judges should not ‘follow the preferences’ of their political supporters, as they would agree that judges should not ‘provide any special consideration to his campaign donors.’ But the implication of the passage quoted above is that members of Congress, state lawmakers, governors and presidents should provide such consideration to their supporters and to their donors. The President of the United States is the president of the entire United States. A member of Congress represents their entire constituency. Yet Roberts appears to believe that they should ‘follow the preferences’ of their supporters and give ‘special consideration’ to the disproportionately wealthy individuals who fund their election.”

Sadly, as Millhiser concludes, the view that it’s okay for donors to buy politicians is at the heart of the Court’s unabashed ruling in the infamous Citizens United decision. What’s bizarre about this week’s ruling is the Court majority’s apparent obliviousness to their own hypocrisy when it comes to donors buying judges.

News

PfizerA movement by shareholder groups across the country to force transparency about political activity upon their companies is gaining some traction as annual meeting time approaches.

Those efforts aren’t necessarily new. According to CitizensVox,  shareholders have filed more than 500 resolutions calling for more transparency in corporate political activity since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, holding that corporations had the right to spend unlimited amounts of money calling for the election or defeat of candidates.

What are new are the bills being introduced in state legislatures across the country, including House Bill 636 filed here, requiring corporations to make disclosure and in some cases get shareholder consent before spending company dollars on political contributions or expenditures.

Companies and trade groups gave more than $48 million to races for state-level candidates in 2014, and more than $211 million to state-level ballot measure campaigns, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Here’s Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin, who’s also a professor of law at American University, explaining the underlying concept:

Even if citizens cannot keep executives from spending corporate money in elections, surely shareholders can stop it. After all, it’s their money, right?

Indeed, it is.

In fact, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizens United essentially invites a shareholder solution. The premise of the decision was that government cannot block corporate political spending because a corporation is simply an association of citizens with free-speech rights, “an association that has taken on the corporate form,” as Kennedy put it. But if that is true, it follows that corporate managers should not spend citizen-shareholders’ money on political campaigns without their consent.

Kennedy wrote that, if shareholders oppose political expenditures made by management, they will be able to correct the situation “through the procedures of corporate democracy.” This will be easy to do, he predicted, because all political spending will be thoroughly disclosed online: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.”

A number of corporations face shareholder proposals at meetings this spring, including two of interest in North Carolina: Duke Energy and Bank of America.

Duke Energy shareholders have refiled a request made last year that the company disclose the details of its corporate political spending, including amounts and recipients.  As noted in the company’s shareholder meeting notice, that proposal garnered approval from close to half of Duke Energy shareholders last year.

Here’s the Duke Energy shareholder proposal:

Duke shareholders

In Bank of America’s case, shareholders are asking for better disclosure of lobbying expenses. Below is their proposal:

BOA shareholders

Not surprisingly, the board of directors for each company oppose the proposals.

 

News

VoteCitizens United v. FEC  — the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision holding that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts in elections — turns five next week.

In recognition of this “milestone,” Reuters has a cogent explanation of the 5-4 decision and the havoc that’s followed.

Points that can’t be emphasized enough:

  • Outside spending has since dwarfed that of candidates and political parties.

In the wake of Citizens United, there has been an explosion in spending by outside interests the likes of which we have never seen before. They have spent almost $2 billion in total since the ruling five years ago.

Below the presidential level, this spending was largely concentrated in a handful of close races in key battleground states. Outside groups now routinely outspend both candidates and parties in pivotal races.

  • Individual “mega-donors” now control elections, while the rest of us barely matter.

Since 2010, the top 195 individual donors to Super PACs and their spouses gave nearly 60 percent of the total that Super PACs spent — many times the amount contributed by business corporations.

All this is happening as ordinary Americans are giving less to political campaigns. In 2014, the number of reported federal contributors (those giving $200 or more) dropped for the first time in decades. Small donations are also down.

During this time of historic wealth inequality, individual mega-donors have more clout than at any point since Watergate. While these few voices are now much louder, many others are increasingly muffled.

  • Elections are now opaque as dark money has exploded.

While federal candidates and political parties are required to disclose all their donors above $200, outside groups need only do so if they qualify as political action committees (PACs). Since the Citizens United ruling, 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations and other groups have emerged to spend money in elections. They do not register as PACs, and they can keep all their donors secret. This is the dark money that has influenced many races. Donors who want to spend six or seven figures in elections without being identified funnel their money through these groups.

[Dark money] played a critical role in Republicans winning the Senate in November. Consider, dark money accounted for fully 89 percent of all outside spending to support Cory Gardner, the winner in Colorado, 86 percent to support David Perdue, the winner in Georgia, and 81 percent for Thom Tillis, the winner in North Carolina.