Local leaders turning the heat up on Citizens United
Today, the City Council of St. Petersburg, Florida, is considering a first-of-its-kind ordinance to protect their local elections from “super PACs” — post-Citizens United political committees that have become corrupting conduits for big-money interests — and from high-spending corporations that are owned or controlled in significant part by foreign nationals.
With such threats already overwhelming city councils across the country, often via opaque and untraceable money, St. Pete has the opportunity to make history by going on offense to protect the integrity of its elections — and sparking a national movement along the way.
Though, like other substantive policy issues, you don’t hear about it during the presidential debates, the role of money in American elections has been a hot topic this year. Both Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE have criticized Citizens United, the flashpoint U.S. Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for corporations and wealthy donors to spend as much as they want to influence American elections.
Reformers working toward a better democracy hope that a new Congress may make the issue a top priority. But we need not wait for Congress to act. Our local governments are all potential laboratories of democracy, and leaders who care about creating a more equitable, representative, and fair system of elections can take up the fight right now, and push back against the growing power of big money in our local elections.
These are not hypothetical issues. The Koch brothers’ attempt to influence mayoral and city council elections in Coralville, Iowa — a town of 20,000 — is perhaps the poster child for unhinged local-level spending by a super PAC.
But what was once a headline-making exception is now becoming the norm. Super PACs, which can accept — and spend — as much money as they want on local elections, recently dropped over $10 million on a mayoral race in Philadelphia, $2 million in state senate races in Virginia, and $400,000 in city council races in Oklahoma.
This flood of money has afflicted Democratic and Republican candidates alike, and no election, no matter how local, is immune: super PACs have poured huge amounts of money into races for county judge,district attorney, and even school board.
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Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg is located, just saw its school board race hit with electioneering materials by “Citizens First,” a super PAC that’s unloaded $160,000 on direct mailings alone. Under the law currently before the St. Petersburg City Council — known as the “Defend Our Democracy” ordinance — contributions to super PACs active in St. Pete would be capped at $5,000, essentially stripping them of their “super” power.
But super PACs aren’t alone in plaguing local races. Citizens United also cleared the way for multinational corporations to spend as much as they want on elections, and high-profile examples are causing both Republicans and Democrats to take notice.
Oil-giant Chevron pumped $3 million into a slate of city council candidates in Richmond, California in 2012, and this past May, ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft drove $10 million into the most expensive election in Austin, Texas’s history.
Because these multinational corporations are often owned or controlled in significant part by foreign entities — just weeks after its $10-million Texas flood, for example, Uber disclosed that roughly five and a half percent of the company, including a seat on its board of directors, is held by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — these mega-spenders compromise local cities and towns’ abilities to govern themselves, a principle that was unanimously affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court just four years ago.
Right now, the “homestay network” Airbnb has loaded $11 million into a super PAC that’s primed to envelop legislative races in New York. Under the “Defend Our Democracy” ordinance, any corporation that spends $5,000 or more on an election in St. Pete — or that gives money to a super PAC active in St. Pete — would have to certify, under penalty of perjury, that foreign entities do not own or control a significant interest in the company. This would keep Chevron, Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb’s efforts to buy influence at bay, and empower communities to govern themselves as they see fit.
Citizens United is no longer just a Washington, D.C. problem. The spending it unleashed threatens local governments across the country, and an ever-growing set of examples make clear what path we’re on.
But we have the tools to reclaim our local democracies. What we need now are local leaders with the courage to fight back.
Gretyak serves as counsel at Free Speech For People.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill