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Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a large crowd during a forum on the role of corporations in campaigns at Montpelier High School on Saturday.
Photo: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

Sanders blasts Supreme Court

MONTPELIER — “Corporation” was a dirty word at Montpelier High School on Saturday afternoon as Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and a hand-picked panel of experts, railed against a year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling they claimed has and will continue to allow big-money special interests to influence the outcome of elections.

The controversial case — Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission — upheld a corporately funded nonprofit organization’s First Amendment right to invest in and publicize a political documentary targeting then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Sanders and others have argued the, 5-4, decision, has opened the floodgates to corporate spending in politics by essentially granting rights typically enjoyed by people to corporations.

“The U.S. Supreme Court upended over a century of precedent, taking a narrow legal question and using it as an opportunity to radically change our political landscape,” Sanders told a standing-room only crowd that packed the high school auditorium. “In doing that they have begun the process of unleashing a tsunami of corporate spending in politics.”

Sanders described the decision as a “U-turn” in the election process — elevating the money over ideas.

“What it essentially says is corporations and billionaires can sit in a room and decide who is going to become the president of the United States, a U.S. senator, a congressperson, a governor,” he said. “That is not what this country is about and that has got to be defeated.”

Sanders was among those who roundly ridiculed the concept of “corporate personhood” — enlisting the assistance of two well-known, socially responsible ice cream entrepreneurs to hammer home the point.

“I’m Ben. I’m a person,” Ben Cohen said.

“I’m Jerry. I’m a person,” Jerry Greenfield added.

“Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Not a person,” Cohen concluded.

However, while the panel assembled by Sanders spoke passionately in favor of his call for a constitutional amendment abolishing a legal premise that dates all the way back to the late-1800s, Williamstown resident Rama Schneider suggested they could start right here in Vermont.

Schneider observed Title 1 Section 128 of Vermont statutes included “corporations” in the definition of “person.”

“I agree and I would sign on to a Constitutional amendment in a heartbeat, but we need to start at home to,” Schneider’s comment kicked off a long line of questions from some 500 residents from around Vermont and New England.

Sanders kicked off the panel discussion by noting a reported shortage of parking spaces was sign of how strongly people feel about the issue.

“What this (turnout) tells me is that all of you, and I think many thousand of Vermonters who are not here today, are worried about democracy and are determined to do everything that we can to take on big money and preserve our democracy,” he said.

During an often animated crash course on the subject of “corporate personhood,” nationally syndicated radio host Thom Hartmann — a former Montpelier resident, said he welcomed Sanders call for a constitutional amendment, while acknowledging there are those who believe the problem, to the extent it exists, can be solved by tweaking existing language.

“There are some people running around saying: ‘Well we just need to put some limits on the constitutional free speech of corporations,” Hartmann said. “No, I’m sorry, we need to strip corporations of the power they have in this country because it’s killing us.”

Hartmann was joined on the panel by Robert Weisman, president of Public Citizen, which — like Citizen United — is a nonprofit corporation, albeit one that doesn’t engage in partisan political activities or endorse any candidates for elected office.

Weisman said “overturning an abominably stupid and dangerous Supreme Court decision” was critical given the most recent election cycle.

“It is not a theoretical problem,” Weisman said. “We have already seen the results in the last election. Corporations and the super-wealthy took advantage of Citizens United, channeled money through … so-called ‘independent outside organizations,’ not the political parties, put in $300 million. A pittance for them. Huge money in the race.

“It had a huge impact,” he added. “You had totally unaccountable organizations running the most nasty and vicious attack ads … and everyone agrees that 2010 is practice for what’s coming in 2012.”

However, while Sanders, Hartmann, Weisman were joined on the panel by two other critics of the decision — Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School, and state Sen. Ginny Lyons, D, Chittenden, who has introduced legislation asking Congress to act on a constitutional amendment.

On an afternoon when one woman called for the impeachment of a slim majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, and several suggested they should take a hard look at their corporate portfolios, one self-described “unincorporated citizen of Montpelier” wondered aloud how to build the sort of momentum it would take to effectively reverse the decision.

“You’re preaching to the choir,” he told Sanders. “What can we say to a different audience (to convert them)?”

Sanders said building a national grassroots campaign of like-mined people was the answer.

“Give the Congress an offer they can’t refuse and that is they’re going to be thrown out of office unless we begin to have a government that starts responding to ordinary people and not just the big-money interests,” he said.

One Vermonter said the town of Lincoln is already on board having voted at their town meeting to reject the notion of “corporate personhood.”

However, on a day when railing against the corporate elite was fashionable, even those who support the idea said crafting a constitutional amendment would be tricky.

The New York Times is a corporation. So, observed John Mitchell, publisher of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, are his two family-owned newspapers.

“I share everyone’s concern here about the power of large corporations and the role they play in elections,” Mitchell said. “But as you try to fix this … how are you going to make sure that my ability to do my job is not affected?”

Weisman admitted that could be “challenging.”

“I don’t think there’s a clean answer,” he said. “Our position is that media corporations should be exempt from … a limitation on First Amendment protections to the extent they’re operating as media corporations.”

Weisman acknowledged that could have some “bad consequences” for some in the news industry.

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