Al Smith Commentary: “Independence From Corporate Tyranny?”

Tomorrow is Independence Day – the day we celebrate our declaration of independence from England. Most of us remember our grievances that led to the American Revolution as being against King George. What most of us don’t remember, or never learned, was that many of our grievances were with King George carrying out the bidding of the few corporations that dominated colonial America, like the East India Company – the original tea partiers threw its tea into Boston Harbor. In 1776 we declared our independence not only from British rule, but also from the corporations of England that dominated and controlled us, and extracted wealth from us.

There is more than a bit of irony that as we celebrate our independence this year, we are experiencing ever more of the corporate dominance that we rebelled against at our nation’s birth. Our country’s founders retained a healthy fear of the threats posed by corporate power and sparingly granted corporations a limited business role. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” Those ‘moneyed corporations’ Jefferson warned about were banks and financial speculators.

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court summarily voided Montana’s Montana’s Corrupt Campaign Practices Act, thereby approving American Traditions’ challenge to Montana’s ban on corporate expenditures in independent expenditure races. The result is that corporate money can be used to fund independent expenditures in Montana state campaigns, just as the Court’s Citizens United case had done for federal campaigns.

The Court rejected a full hearing, and showed no deference to the founders concerns with the corrupting influence of corporate power, or our state’s right to decide how our state will regulate campaign finances in our state elections. The Court refused to even listen to Attorney General Steve Bullock’s argument that Montana has not had corporate corruption of the electoral process since the days of the Copper Kings precisely because we have had effective, and constitutional, laws to prevent such corruption. I’m not even sure a resurgence of Copper King like corruption would sway this Court in the future.

What did corporate spending look like in our recent election? In the Republican primary race for Attorney General, a Virginia group spent over $100,000 in corporate money to support Jim Shockley’s opponent. 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. Most likely more corporate money will be seen in the general election – either attacking Attorney General candidate Pam Bucy, or supporting her opponent, or both. This time though, I would not be surprised if the money comes without the corporate sources being identified.

We will see more front corporations who gather corporate money, refuse to identify where the money comes from, flaunts campaign laws, and floods mail boxes with sleazy attack pieces. This primary season we had a Montana corporation, Montana Growth Network, that officially spent $42,000 on an independent expenditure campaign attacking Supreme Court candidates Elizabeth Best and Ed Sheehy. MGN also likely spent money on a push poll that was the basis for their attack mailers and for radio ads – expenditures not reported. In it’s official filing MGN does not identify any source, not even itself, for the contributions that are funding it’s attack pieces. Who is funding these attack ads – MGN, another corporate front group, Montana corporations or out of state corporations, or even foreign corporations? MGN and it’s treasurer, Jason Priest, aren’t saying in reporting to the political practices commissioner.

While supporters of Citizens United, like Dennis Rehburg, 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 will be filtered through front groups, and those front groups will refuse to divulge their contributors. American Tradition is currently fighting Montana’s disclosure laws, while refusing to divulge its contributors.

In one bright spot, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell rejected a request from the Sanders County Republican Central Committee to strike down the Montana law banning political parties from endorsing nonpartisan judicial candidates. The Sanders Republican Party committee said it wanted to endorse candidates running for the Montana Supreme Court and a local state district judgeship. But stay tuned, Lovell only declined to grant a preliminary injunction, and set a hearing for September on whether to void the law.

So, what can be done with all these assaults on Montana’s campaign laws? You can support candidates who support people and not corporations. 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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