Al Smith Commentary: “What Do Corporations Want From Elections?”

Have you had your fill yet of political ads? Now that’s a rhetorical question if there ever was one, we’ve all seen more than we want to, and it doesn’t matter what we feel about them, the ads will just keep coming.

This is the first election cycle with full scale use by monied interests of the Citizens United holding that corporations are free to spend their corporate funds on elections, 2010 being just a tune up. Nationally the so-called super PACs are raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence our elections. Here in Montana we’ve seen an onslaught of ads from these groups attacking Senator Jon Tester.

While supporters of Citizens United, like Congressman Dennis Rehburg and the majority of the Court, say that we will have transparency – we get to see who is spending the money on campaigns – that is at best a half truth. The money has been filtered through front groups, and those front groups are not divulging their contributors – in fact, they solicit money on the basis that their donors’ names will be kept secret. In fact, these groups had a hard time raising money until they figured out how to hide their donors. The reality is that there is no transparency, something Congressman Rehburg knows very well, and something the majority in Citizens United was, at the least, naive about. Remember American Tradition, the Virginia group that had Montana’s ban on corporate money in elections shot down in the U.S. Supreme Court? It is currently fighting Montana’s disclosure laws, while refusing to divulge its contributors.

So what do these corporations want? Unlike their usual corporate ads, there usually is not any “product” they want to sell in the ads they are funding. Their money is instead usually used to attack opponents on issues that have absolutely no relationship to the giver’s business. Now, we the public may not know who is funding these ads, but the candidates being supported certainly know where the money is coming from. Do you think the corporate funders will have anything to ask of the candidates that win? Do you think they feel the money they’ve spent entitles them to preferential treatment?

Remember the recent Republican primary race for Attorney General? A Virginia group spent over $100,000 in corporate money to support Tim Fox. The Virginia group at least identified it’s corporate contributors – Yahoo, Walgreens, Endo Pharmaceuticals, the national Pharmaceutical lobby, a DC lobbying firm and last, but not least, Altria, the progeny of tobacco giant RJ Reynolds. Well they’re back for the general election – recently buying TV and radio ads for nearly $600,000 to again support Tim Fox. That is more than AG candidates Pam Bucy and Fox have raised in total. When asked about the ads, the group’s spokesman said “We think that our candidate is a solid candidate and look forward to him serving as the next attorney general.” Our candidate?? Corporations, none of whom are headquartered in Montana, and who act through a front in Virginia, consider Fox to be “our candidate”? Seems that what this group of corporations wants is a literal Fox guarding the metaphorical chicken house that is our state.

A previous bright spot in the assault on Montana’s campaign laws, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell’s rejection of a request from the Sanders County Republican Central Committee to strike down the Montana law banning political parties from endorsing nonpartisan judicial candidates, has gone black. The Ninth Circuit recently threw out our law, and political parties are now free to endorse non-partisan candidates for the judiciary. And, of course, corporate treasuries are free to try to buy judicial elections.

What does that mean for us individual human citizens? Judge Schroeder’s dissent in the 2-1 Ninth Circuit decision is worth repeating:

This decision is a big step backwards for the state of Montana, which we all agree has a compelling interest in maintaining an independent and impartial judiciary. The majority ignores the practical effects of its decision on that interest when it takes a formulaic approach to First Amendment doctrine. This is the first opinion to hold that even though a state has chosen a non-partisan judicial selection process, political parties have a right to endorse candidates. This means parties can work to secure judges’ commitments to the parties’ agendas in contravention of the non-partisan goal the state has chosen for its selection process.

So, what can be done with all these assaults on Montana’s campaign laws? You can support candidates who support people and not corporations, candidates like Jon Tester, Steve Bullock and Pam Bucy who have condemned the effects of Citizens United. You can become more informed – a good start would be listening to Bill Moyers’ interview with Trevor Potter tomorrow at 1:00 PM here on KUFM. And, you can take a close look at I-166, a citizen’s initiative that will be on November’s ballot. I-166 tries to reassert a little more citizen control over corporations in the electoral process, as it’s backers say “Quite simply, corporations are not people, they shouldn’t be granted the same rights as people, and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections.”

Al Smith writes on behalf of the Montana Trial Lawyers.

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