Interview with Lee Brooker, Kent Citizens for Democracy

KentCitizens

Listen to the interview here

Interview with Lee Brooker, facilitator of Kent Citizens for Democracy. The group waged a successful citizen initiative campaign, despite opposition from the City of Kent, to place a measure on the November ballot calling for an annual “Democracy Day” public hearing on money in elections and for a Congressional Constitutional Amendment to end corporate personhood and money as speech. The initiative passed with 64% of the vote. Lee discusses the issues, the campaign, the challenge before the Ohio Supreme Court, and lessons learned for other communities.

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The Weakening of Citizen Initiatives in Ohio

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First, a way too brief history of citizen initiatives in Ohio…

•    Before 1912: Corporate interests capture The Ohio General Assembly. Laws are passed by House and Senate members beholden to corporations who ignore the needs of average citizens and who overturns municipal laws, including those promoting municipal ownership of public utilities.

•    1910: In response to corrupt state public officials, Ohio progressives and populists call for a statewide constitutional convention. Voters approve the calling for a convention in the November elections.

•    1912: Ohio Constitutional Convention held.  Forty-two proposed amendments are approved for the ballot, over 30 of which are approved in November. Among the most important items were 3 “direct democracy” measures – the initiative (creation of a law), referendum (repeal of a law) and recall (removing an elected official from office). These measures provided direct citizen rule – providing them with the exclusive power to “do democracy directly” with surrogate middle- (wo)men politicians playing virtually no role in the process. These measures decentralize and democratize political power.

•    Over the next 100 years, only 15 other states provide citizens with this powerful direct democratic tool to create laws bypassing the state legislature as a means of promoting public accountability and responsibility and to offset the power of corporate interests.

•    2015: Voters approve Issue 2. Cast as an “anti-monopoly” amendment to the constitution, the ballot measure empowers a five member “Ballot Board” to decide whether a proposed citizen initiative promotes the creation of a “monopoly,” “oligopoly,” or “cartel;” or a non-uniform tax rate (say, imposing a higher tax rate on large corporations vs locally-owned ones); or “confers a commercial interest, commercial right…” to some person(s) or entities but not all similar ones. If just three of the five Board members (composed by the way only of Republicans and Democrats with no Independents or third party representation) determine that a proposed citizen initiative is, for example, a “monopoly,” the proposed initiative would be labeled as unconstitutional. Citizens would then vote on the Ballot Board-branded unconstitutional monopoly as a separate measure before actually voting on the citizen initiative itself.

Implications of Issue 2

While the desire and need to prevent monopolies, oligopolies and cartels are legitimate and needed; the above-mentioned key terms contained in the amendment are undefined. This leaves incredible latitude to the Ballot Board members – all existing politicians. The Ballot Board’s kiss of death’s unconstitutional label of a citizen initiative will virtually kill the chances of the citizen initiative’s passage.

Legitimate citizen initiatives are already extremely difficult to pass. If and when a strong grassroots social movement arises in Ohio by itself or part of a larger national movement seeking real political or economic reform, the corporate captured majority of state legislators and statewide office holders may hope that Issue 2 provides many potential hammers to strike down any initiative they don’t like. If the federal level is any guide, hundreds of laws passed in the 19th and early 20th century were overturned by the courts as impeding “commerce” under the Commerce Clause that furthered workers, consumer and community rights (including those favoring local businesses over non-local ones). These laws were seen through the lens of protecting workers, consumers and communities by city councils and state legislatures. The Supreme Court saw these identical laws very differently — exclusively through the lens of “commerce.”

What’s to prevent the monopolistic Ohio Ballot Board from using Issue 2’s vague language from defining citizen initiatives brought before them any way they and they alone determine? It may not happen right away (it didn’t with the Commerce Clause either), but the anti-democratic tools are now baked into the Ohio Constitution for usage by this politically concentrated entity. No state law can reverse it. No regulation can overturn it. Political power is further concentrated – away from the public. Only another constitutional amendment can overturn it. How achievable will that be when the amendment will be framed primarily once again by its defenders as protecting citizens from “monopolies?”

Prior to 1912, corporate interests had to corrupt a majority of General Assembly members or committee members for their economic or political benefit. Passage of Issue 2 makes “influencing” elected officials much more efficient, not to mention cheaper. Only three politicians now need to be the recipients of legalized bribery or any number of other inducements.

Elected officials have now substantially weaseled their way into the citizen initiative process. The citizen initiative, intended as a direct democratic tool by citizens to bypass elected state officials, now must pass through the gauntlet of Ohio elected officials – where many of them may not make it through unmarked.

The wealthy 1%ers and corporate CEOs have, of course, hijacked the citizen initiative process at different times via huge sums of money by creating “astro-turf” campaigns, but at the same time tried to assume the appearance of being “grassroots.” Issue 3 was Exhibit 1 (actually probably 10,001) across the country over the years.

Rather than perceiving the problem as the profoundly undemocratic “right” of money being defined as “free speech” – which allows the 1%ers and mega corporations to spend unlimited sums of cash to distort, deceive and discombobulate issues, messages and voters, the strategy was instead to perceive the problem as one of We the People’s few remaining democratic tools. The need to “reform” (more like deform) the supposedly inadequate citizen initiative process under the guise of targeting concentrated capital became the solution.

It turned out Issue 2 was not needed to take down Issue 3 and the blatant greed behind it. Voters did that all by themselves.

Issue 2 may legitimately prevent or deter actual monopolies, oligopolies and cartels even as written if we lived in a genuine democratic culture. The problem in reality will be its ultimate illegitimate application by a monopolistic Ballot Board, interpreting vague language, and operating in a political culture that isn’t broken, but fixed — as in rigged to benefit the super wealthy and corporate interests.

The big mistake was singularly focusing on changing the citizen initiative process to solve the immediate problem at hand (i.e., Issue 3) without assessing the potential unintended antidemocratic consequences, whether knowingly or unknowingly, of Issue 2. The new amendment provides another potential avenue to corrupt the citizen initiative process – this time, though, from the inside out.

When single issues or problems are addressed in a reactive or defensive mode, long-term solutions can easily be put off for another day. The growing corporatization and plutocracy of our country is a root cause of our ever-expanding democratic crisis. What is needed to prevent the 1%ers and the corporate crowd from completely redefining the political culture – which will continue to find outlets through citizen initiatives, candidate elections, regulatory agencies, lobbying, the courts, privatized/corporatized public assets, media, schools, think tanks and other societal institutions?

Reforming/deforming citizen tools is a very poor answer.

There is no single solution. Dealing with gerrymandering is a piece of it, which can happen at the state level. But there are some solutions that go beyond the state. Specifically, if the problem is corporatization of (you fill in the blank of your favorite issue) and plutocracy, then one fundamental solution is abolishing the constitutional doctrines of money as speech and corporations as legal persons with inalienable constitutional rights.

In the case of corporations, this extends far beyond the first amendment to include other never intended Bill of Rights rights (4th and 5th Amendments), the 14th Amendment, and the Commerce and Contracts clauses.

While there was division of opinion among good people of concern and conscious on Issue 2, I believe there is growing awareness by individuals of diverse views and backgrounds that profoundly fundamental solutions that go beyond single issue reactions, responses or defensive actions are needed.

To explore and take effective collective action on any of these, we need all that is left of our democratic tools – many of which haven’t even been mentioned.

The citizen initiative is a tool too important to be in the hands of the power elite.

We have our hands full.

Keep power with the people

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Letter to the Editor / Akron Beacon Journal
October 28, 2015
http://www.ohio.com/editorial/vop/letters-to-the-editor-not-donating-to-ua-opposed-to-state-issue-2-and-no-repeal-in-fairlawn-oct-28-1.635816

It was enthusiastically supported as an “anti-monopoly” constitutional amendment by many of the same legislators and interests who sat on their hands when the casino monopoly initiative earlier appeared on the ballot.

It was fast-tracked through the Ohio legislature with little time for debate.

It provides no definitions of key terms — such as “monopoly,” “commerce,” “commercial interest” and numerous others.

It would provide monopoly power to the Ohio Ballot Board to interpret the above non-defined terms to determine whether a circulated citizen initiative would create a “monopoly.”

It would insulate wealthy and corporate interests from citizen-initiated measures supporting state tax and commercial laws favoring the non-wealthy and small or cooperative businesses that may better protect people and communities.

It would weaken citizen initiatives, whereby citizens gather signatures to place a law directly on the ballot for voter consideration, one of our few remaining tools for direct democracy.

When a few with significant political power in any society call for weakening citizens’ power, we must resist.

Vote no on state Issue 2.

Greg Coleridge
Director
Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee
Cuyahoga Falls

Different problems. The same solution.

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Tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision — which extended first amendment “free speech rights” to individuals and corporate entities. It’s also the 5th anniversary of the launch of the Move to Amend coalition. What follows are a few reflections to mark these anniversaries.

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Trying to keep up with, let alone respond to, the staggering number and severity of problems in our communities, state, nation and world is virtually impossible. The threats — whether political, economic, or environmental — are real, imminent and severe. They numb the mind, paralyze the body, and stunt the soul.

Many of the our most series problems…
Be they local budget crises
The Ohio budget crisis
Or the federal
Efforts to “privatize” Ohio’s prisons
And municipal services
Drilling or “fracking” for oil or gas in our state parks
Or in our back yards
Hot and cold wars for oil
Or oil spills
Buying elections
And politicians
Home foreclosures
Lack of living wage jobs
Exponentially increasing public debts
Attacks on the rights of people to collectively bargain
(Insert any other pressing economic, political and environmental problem here)…

Spring, derive, emanate and originate from a single source:

Business corporations, almost always very large business corporations, exerting their influence.

Their authority.

Their power.

Their supposedly “inalienable” constitutional “rights.”

There are, of course, other factors that contribute to the aforementioned problems.

But arguably no other single factor has been more responsible for these problems through, by and because of…

– Corporate political contributions.
– Corporate lobbying.
– Corporate political advertising.
– Corporate influence in writing laws and regulations directed at corporations.
– Corporate mobility that, by playing one community, state or nation against each other, exert leverage for favorable tax breaks, funding, incentives, guarantees, and protections
– Corporate placement of chain stores, toxic dumps and drilling pads protected by constitutional 14th amendment “equal protection” rights that trump local and/or state rights – which hurt local economies, environments and self-determination.
– Corporate takeover of many of our public assets and services, including the license to print money.

The list goes on.

And on.

And on.

Corporations were never intended to possess political, economic or constitutional powers and rights.

Corporations are legal creations of the state. They wouldn’t exist and couldn’t function with their legal protections unless governments shielded them.

Such protections in the past came with a condition – a democratic condition:

Public control and definition through the corporate charter (issued mostly at the state level) that specifically defined their parameters. Early in our history, those parameters included a prohibition against anything directly or indirectly related to political influence and governing.

That was until corporate agents won rights and powers in our constitution that were reserved exclusively for human beings.

– Inalienable rights.
– “Personhood” rights.
– Rights “found” in the constitution for corporations by Supreme Court Justices that were never intended.

Talk about “judicial activism!”

Corporations should possess certain protections to conduct their business.

But only by statute.

Only by laws passed by We the People and representatives after debate and discussion.

Only to the extent people and elected representatives feel comfortable with.

Such protections shouldn’t be equal to, let alone surpass, the rights of people.

The created should never be more powerful than the creator.

Only humans have inalienable Bill of Rights and other constitutional rights.

So what do we do?

What can we do?

How do we prioritize?

Where do we place our limited time, energy and resources?

Especially when problems, crises and chaos seem to be coming from all directions?

Three suggestions:

1. Recognize and internalize that many of the different problems we face derive from the single source of never intended corporate constitutional rights. If this means you say to yourself every morning while eyes closed and tapping your shoes together “Corporations are not people” then do it,

2. Continue to educate, advocate and/or organize on the problem(s) you care most about. As you do so make the connections to corporate constitutional rights. Acknowledge and publicly proclaim at least in part why the problem(s) you care about spring, derive, emanate and originate from corporate power and rights. This also requires that you shift some of your time, energy and resources (10%? 15%? 50%? That’s your decision.) away from responding, reacting and resisting to these manifestations of corporate rights. Time to act, proact, create and initiate by…

3. Work to directly end corporate rule. Become involved in Move to Amend, the national (movetoamend.org) and state (movetoamend.org/ohio) movement to amend the US Constitution to abolish corporate “personhood” and legalize democracy.

The two tenants of Move to Amend are:
– Corporations are not persons and have no inherent inalienable human rights under the Constitution.
– Money is not speech. Money is concentrated capital and it cannot speak.

If you agree with these, become involved.

How?

Six suggestions.

1. Educate yourself. Many resources are at http://movetoamend.org/ and http://www.movetoamend.org/ohio

2. Sign the national petition to abolish corporate rights online at http://movetoamend.org/ More than 106,000 people have already done so.

3. Download and circulate the Move to Amend petition to your friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. The petition is at http://movetoamend.org/petition

4. Organize a meeting in your home and/or community on abolishing corporate constitutional rights. Circulate resources from the aforementioned websites. Invite a speaker. Organize to pass a city council resolution or citizen ballot initiative.

5. Get organizations you are connected with to endorse Move to Amend.

6. Become connected to Move to Amend Ohio. Join our monthly conference calls. Get active.

The solution to maintaining a healthy psyche as well as being political relevant and prophetic is developing a balance between reacting and responding to pressing problems that cry out for immediate attention and creating and initiating alternatives that address root causes.

This is a long haul struggle transcending current state or federal political administrations or is can be fixed by changing a few faces or a political party.

It’s structural.

Nothing short of a social movement is required. It’s happened in other times, in other places and on other concerns as daunting as this one.

It’s now our turn.

It’s now our time.

Our Swiss Cheese Democracy

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Any person who is remotely aware of the state of our political system knows we’re in deep trouble.  One doesn’t need a PhD in political science to believe that the “representatives” part of our “representative democracy” increasingly do the bidding for the wealthiest 1% of the wealthiest 1%, as well as for corporate entities that flood elected official’s offices with lobbyists, political campaigns with cash, and our sensibilities with insulting negative political ads that are paid for but, in many cases, don’t have to be disclosed.

A majority of the 99% are political PhDs in their own right – well schooled and experienced in having their political voices drowned out by the political voices of those with money who use the first amendment’s “free speech” provisions as a constitutional titanium shield.

If money is speech, then those with the most money have the most speech. This isn’t just a slick saying, but devastatingly documented recently by formal PhDs from Princeton and Northwestern. Their report “Testing Theories of American Politics” concludes the U.S. is more an oligarchy than a democracy. “[T]he preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” the authors conclude after examining the public’s role in 1779 issues from 1981-2002. This was eight years before the Citizens United vs FEC Supreme Court decision, which expanded the ability of the wealthy and corporate entities to contribute to political causes.

The lack of authentic democracy, representative or otherwise, precedes Citizens United and even 1981. It goes back to day one of this nation – to the undemocratic U.S. Constitution and the many laws since passed insulating a political and economic power elite.  For evidence, see this, this and this.

Further proof of our undemocratic political system is unmistakable – at least in terms of elections — when comparing it to that of Switzerland.
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The Swiss are going to the polls next week.The election is next Sunday, as in a weekend when more people are off work. Not so in the U.S. when elections are always on Tuesdays.

Swiss voting procedures are much more convenient and democratic than in the “Land of the Free. “Every Swiss voter can cast a ballot if (s)he prefers by mail, which is done by a majority. There are no voting machines. All votes, whether in person or by mail, are counted by hand by citizens who are randomly chosen by each municipality.

The real democratic difference, however, concerns the voting subject matter. This is where our so-called “democracy” is Swiss cheese with holes galore comparatively.

Nation-wide voting in the US is strictly for officials – President, Senators and Representatives. Check that. Technically, we don’t directly elect the President. Only members of the “Electoral College” choose the President.

Swiss voters elect people to represent them at different levels, but they also vote on issues. Many issues. Several times a year. Since 1848, in fact, they’ve voted on more than 550 issues. Since 1798, there have been roughly three times as many referendum elections (voting on issues) as there have been Parliamentary elections (voting for people and parties).

That’s direct democracy!

The issues are of two types:
–    Legislative referendums – to overturn a law passed by their legislature.
–    Constitutional referendums – to modify or amend their constitution.

Initiating a national legislative referendum to repeal a law requires the collection of 50,000 signatures of Swiss voters within 100 days after the law becomes official. That would be the equivalent of 2 million signatures in the U.S. For a constitutional modification, 100,000 valid signatures are needed – the equivalent of about 4 million signatures here.

If a simple majority of voters support the legislative referendum, it passes. A constitutional referendum requires both majority support from all voters and a majority of voters from a majority of the 26 Swiss “cantons” (the equivalent of our states).

Imagine if such a system existed in the U.S. Amending the Constitution to end corporate “personhood” and money as speech would be infinitely easier. Rather than circulating a symbolic organizing petition or working to pass local and/or state council resolutions or ballot initiatives as vehicles to pressure 2/3rds of both Houses of Congress to pass a constitutional amendment, which if passed, would still have to be ratified by ¾ of state legislatures, We the People could completely eliminate “the middle man” – Congress and state legislatures – and solicit signatures directly from fellow citizens.

Additionally, national policy questions like climate change or the proposed trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership could be put up for a national vote.

We could do democracy directly.

That may be exactly why our constitution is not like Switzerland’s. It wasn’t designed to empower people. All three branches of government were meant in their own way to shield the power elite directly from the populace.

Referendums are, of course, insufficient by themselves to achieving a real democracy – even if our own Constitution permitted them.  The power and/or rights of elected officials, of the Supreme Court, of zillionaires, of corporate behemoths and of our constitutional rigged ground rules are major democratic hurdles.

While not permitted at the federal level, populists and progressives more than a century ago amended state constitutions to supply citizens with these direct democratic tools – as well as the recall to throw elected officials out of office before the end of their terms. They have permitted citizens to do an end run around corrupt elected officials and judges.

Like any tool, popular initiatives and referendums can be harmful rather than helpful in the quest for justice, peace and self-governance – depending on the cause.

Still, these few direct democratic tools at the state and local levels remain threats – despite their limited effectiveness in the face of an entire tool shed of the power elite. Efforts are periodically made to slice away these powers in various ways (i.e. raising signature requirements, reducing the time for signature gathering, restricting who can gather signatures, how petitions are to be certified, etc.).

These constant threats by the power elite indicate why they are so important to protect and expand. In the course of doing so, we should be obligated to plant the educational seeds for federal equivalents. A federal initiative and referendum are constitutional ground rules that would dramatically expand our democratic tool kit.