James Hugh Powers: Town Meeting Should Decide

This effort to stifle Town Meetings enraged the Towns,

and lit the fuse of the American Revolution.

When our 2012 Annual Town Meeting convenes on May 7th next, it will find an unusual article on its warrant, inserted by the Selectmen on a citizens’ petition under state law.

Warrant Article 23 calls upon the Town Meeting to support an amendment to the United States Constitution which would overturn a decision of the United States Supreme Court relative to corporate and union spending on elections.  It would also petition our State Legislature to endorse such a constitutional amendment.

The citizens’ petition addresses the rights of “persons” under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of our Federal Constitution, as interpreted by opinions of the United States Supreme Court over nearly two centuries.  It concerns basic rights of all Americans, including residents of Needham, and of the town itself.

In this essay, I do not debate the citizen petition.  Instead, I address only (a) whether the subject matter of the petition is properly before our Town Meeting, and (b) whether Town Meeting has the power to deal with it.  Constitutionally-speaking, the fundamental challenge has to do with the right of individuals, whether alone or in groups, to petition the Congress, their state Legislature and other governmental authorities for redress of their grievances.

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NEWS: Foxboro: A town divided (local election time inundated with ads)

some wonder whether the media onslaught is meant to have an impact on voters’ choices.

A foreshadowing of what big-moneyed interest can do to influence a local election in a “Citizens United” world…

Residents are hearing about their town frequently in commercials on Boston radio station WBZ and TV spots on MSNBC and other networks supporting a vote on a potential resort casino.

Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn announced plans last year to build a $1 billion destination casino on land owned by the Kraft Group across from Gillette Stadium on Route 1.

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NEWS: Framingham joins effort to overturn Citizens United decision

Framingham Town Meeting has a request for Congress that resonates around the country: Help stop runaway election campaign spending.

Framingham is one of the latest cities and towns to join what state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Action, calls an “amazing grassroots effort” to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United decision.

Town Meeting last week overwhelmingly passed a resolution that members now want to see make its way to the state Legislature and then Washington. It calls on Congress to pass and allow each state to ratify a constitutional amendment that sets “reasonable limits” on all election contributions and expenditures, including a candidate’s own spending.

“In other words, the last thing we want to do is leave all the major offices to multimillionaires and billionaires,” said lead sponsor Mel Warshaw.

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State Legislature Races Are Cheap

The thinking behind it, which was very ingenious, was that

State legislative races are cheap, and you can just put a bit of money into them and flip the statehouse…

And most people don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in the states. …

But state legislatures are ground zero for where politics play out.

In the 2010 state races, where people don’t spend much money, he and the groups that he helped found — that were supposedly independent groups — spent $2.2 million.

It doesn’t sound like a lot nationally, but it can make all the difference in the context of one state.

So basically what you’re looking at is one very wealthy corporate captain who, when motivated enough, can exert enormous influence in a state.

–New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, Fresh Air Interview, on how one billionaire is targeting state level politics, which could be a template for national interests seeking to leverage their politics at a local level in these “cheap” races in the age of Citizens United.

Patch: Board of Selectman Votes 3-2 to Support Citizens United Warrant Article at Town Meeting

Needham Town Meeting will have the chance in May to share its views on the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision…

Selectmen voted 3-2 in favor of supporting the article on the May 7 Annual Town Meeting warrant, with selectmen Dan Matthews and Matt Borrelli on the opposing side.

The article, which was placed on the warrant by a citizen’s petition, calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would essentially reverse the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling by clarifying that the First Amendment is not meant to protect the freedom of speech of for-profit corporations.

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Boston.com: Needham Board of Selectmen votes to support challenge to Supreme Court Decision

The Needham Board of Selectmen voted three to two on Tuesday night in favor of supporting a warrant article that calls for a challenge to the 2010 US Supreme Court ruling opening up unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.

The decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, led to the growth of Super Political Action Committees, which have poured vast amounts of money into the presidential campaign this year.

After a brief debate over whether a warrant article with national implications was appropriate for a local town meeting, chair Jerry Wasserman, and selectmen Moe Handel and John Builian voted in favor of supporting the Citizens United article. Selectmen Daniel Matthews and Matthew Borrelli voted against it.

“We can have an influence here on an important issue that affects all of us very personally,” said Wasserman. Continue reading

Coming to a Town Near You!: SuperPACs and Local Races

If you like what dark-money groups are doing to national politics, you’ll love what they can do in a local race.

How much further does $10,000 or $100,000 go at the state level? According to a Pew Center on the States analysis, in the mid-2000s the average cost of a winning state Senate campaign was anywhere from $5,713 (North Dakota) to $938,522 (California). In Arizona it was $36,696; in Wisconsin, $140,287; in North Carolina, $234,031. By contrast, the average cost of a US Senate seat in 2010 was $9.2 million.

Super-PACs playing at the state level don’t need to drop millions to make a big impact, says Neil Reiff. In a crowded state-level or congressional primary with three or four candidates, a little money goes a long way. “If you’ve got a field with little or no name recognition,” Reiff says, “you can drown out everyone else.” …

“If super-PACs are going to play at the state level, we’re not going to find out until later, and it will probably happen in a very different way than in congressional or presidential races.”

Corporate Free Speech Trumps Local Self-Determination

Earlier this month, a federal court declared a Worcester regulation limiting tobacco ads (enacted for community health reasons) unconstitutional, on the grounds that corporate free speech has been expanded to include advertising. 

Tobacco companies have a constitutional right to communicate with adult consumers through retail advertising and this court appropriately recognized that,” said Murray Garnick, a senior vice president at Altria Client Services, a subsidiary of Philip Morris’ parent company. “We will continue to vigorously defend this right when it is challenged.”

Boston Globe, May 2012

Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith

This resolution is a reaffirmation of the belief, shared by many Vermont communities, that corporations should not be allowed to engage in unlimited spending to unduly influence elections.

With our longstanding tradition of town meetings and our citizen legislature–

–any Vermonter can have an impact.

Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith