PORTLAND, Maine — By a 6-2 vote Wednesday night, the Portland City Council joined Los Angeles and New York City councils in a thus far symbolic effort to strip corporations of First Amendment free speech rights controversially cemented by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A local resolution supporting a constitutional amendment abolishing “corporate personhood” initially was proposed by Councilor David Marshall and co-sponsored by John Anton, Kevin Donoghue and Mayor Michael Brennan. The move was hailed by some councilors and several members of the public as an early step in a grass-roots push to overturn a ruling they argued opens the door to unchecked political spending by wealthy corporations.

The council’s vote was received with an eruption of applause and celebration by the packed council chambers after audience members spent nearly two hours testifying almost entirely in favor of the measure.

“We’re seeing a vast outpouring of money that is taking over our democracy,” Malory Shaughnessy, a Portland resident and former Cumberland County commissioner, told the council. “This will be the defining issue of our time, in my opinion.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 ruled by a 5-4 vote that limiting corporate or union political contributions equates to an infringement of the groups’ First Amendment right to free speech. The divisive decision, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, helped usher in a new era of super PACS — political action groups that can raise and expend unlimited funds in support of candidates or issues often without disclosing donors until after elections take place.

Because the issue already has been appealed to the highest court in the country, the only way to throw out corporate personhood now would be a constitutional amendment. That prospective step has received votes of support from several municipal council and boards across the country.

During the Portland council’s turn to weigh in Wednesday, several members of the public, many from the nearby OccupyMaine encampment and the Maine League of Young Voters, told councilors the local resolution would be a small but important victory in the movement against the court ruling.

The Portland meeting was a preview of sorts to a Friday demonstration planned by OccupyMaine to take place at the U.S. District Court in the city, where protesters plan to show solidarity with other occupations around the nation marking the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision with a ceremonial “funeral for democracy.”

“Corporations do not have the same interests as you and I, as the average Mainer or the average Portland resident,” said Adam Marletta, chairman of the Portland Green Independent party. “All of this corporate money tends to drown out the voices of the average citizens.”

Not everybody on the council approved of the resolution, however. Councilor John Coyne joined Cheryl Leeman in voting against the measure, the latter of whom argued that U.S. constitutional interpretation is not a job for the City Council.

Leeman suggested discussing the issue during a council meeting detracts from the panel’s ability to deal with more appropriate city business.

“I do on one hand feel that what you’ve said and what you’ve brought forward is an important issue,” Leeman said to the audience Wednesday. “Where I part ways with all of you is I just quite simply don’t believe this is the forum to do this.”

Voting in favor of the resolution were Councilors Nicholas Mavodones and Jill Duson, in addition to sponsors Marshall, Anton, Donoghue and Brennan. Councilor Ed Suslovic left the meeting before the vote because of an ailing back, but before leaving, he called for his fellow councilors to consider placing the issue before the council’s Legislative Committee to develop an amendment establishing a municipal-level Clean Elections program.

Brennan said that as a former state lawmaker and Democratic candidate for the Congress, he has seen firsthand the influence of money on campaigning and that Maine’s Clean Elections law has been a trendsetter for minimizing that influence.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.

20 replies on “Portland council throws its weight behind ‘corporate personhood’ abolishment”

  1. Nice symbolic vote. Does it mean anything, or not? The point is that the city made its voice heard in the national dialogue.

  2. “All of this corporate money tends to drown out the voices of the average citizens.”

    Think about it,

        Some of this Corporate Money comes from the Average Citizens in the form of Money invested in retirement funds. when is the last time Walmart / General Electric/ Macdonalds / Exon / Chevron ect ect ect called you and asked you to use your investment dollars on political matters?

    1. Stockholders merely get invited to annual meetings and asked to vote on board members and their compensation.  Spitting in the wind for most since any dissent gets nowhere, fast.  And they certainly don’t get asked for permission to spend policial money.

  3. This whole issue of making non-living entities in our country, paper people, citizens of the US is an outrage.  How about we conscript the board of directors of WalMart and send them to Afghanistan?   Let us see how much these paper citizens of our country fulfill their obligations to America.  

    1. Your statement makes it sound like you don’t know what the Citizens United decision was all about. Do you want to try again?

  4. Hats off to Portland, and the others around the country that oppose this decision by a Supreme Court which is proving to be not so supreme, I wonder if Augusta will follow suite being that it’s the capitol of our state. But then again, it’s hard to lead when one always follows.

  5. Wish I knew who said this first: “I’ll believe corporations are people when the state of Texas executes one.”

      1. Cheesecake, though I often disagree with your point of view you normally present a well considered opinion.  However as concerns this issue you seem to be kind of far off the mark.

        1. Well,  when I see an opinion that is a bit hyperbolic like above I kind of move to the other side with the same level of hyperbole.

  6. I cannot figure where this issue really intersects with city level politics.  I agree with those that consider this more symbolic than substantive.  That is not necessarily bad, but it does make it a non-issue for those outside Portland since there are not likely to be any real impacts.

    The development on the anti-Citizens movement that is most worthy of note is the Montana challenge.  Montana has had on its books a law prohibiting dark money for a hundred years.  With the history they have had with large mining companies once controlling their elections, Montanans are holding fast to their ban.  The state supreme court upheld the ban that has been in place since 1912.  That decision will only affect state elections but the lack of consistency between the laws may give rise to a federal challenge to Citizens United v. FEC rendered in 2010. 

    History is full of great lessons.  Failure to read and pass history along through the years can mean reliving the pain of past problems.  This appears to be the case with the Citizens  decision.  In the period from 1890 through 1920, our country saw the power large corporations could exert in almost every aspect of life.  Monopolistic interests controlled prices, bought judges and candidates and exploited workers.  After several banking crises, the people had enough and a number of laws were passed restricting the role of corporations.  The anti-trust law still in place today came from that era and those struggles.  The wave of deregulation that has characterized the last decade or two has dismantled most of those protections.  Once again, we are seeing corporations writing legislation (ALEC), influencing elections (Super PACs), weakening oversight through lobbying (SEC) and basically running amok.  The result is also the same as it was one century ago, the wealthy who own the corporations live in a new gilded age.  The rest of the country is left to suffer economically. 

    In time, Citizens United will either destroy American democracy or it will be overturned though an  amendment or weakened through other decisions.  Unfortunately, we are reliving a part of Americas dark history of excessive corporate power and seeing the same consequences our ancestors saw in their day.  This is why we need to teach history.  Democracy only works when the electorate is well informed.

    1. I think you answered your own question by the time you finished your comment. If not local, then where does the grassroots start?

      Personally, I believe this decision has done more damage to SCOTUS than anything else I can remember. These individuals are supposed to be above politics, but this is about as political as it gets.

  7. This is just Brennan and his cronies creating a distraction by waving one hand in front of your face while lifting your wallet with the other hand.  Look for some backroom discussion or illegal executive session, that didn’t make the paper, to figure out what crooked deal they are trying to conceal this week.

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