PORTLAND – Members of the City Council took a stand Wednesday night against corporations being given the same rights as individuals.
After hearing more than an hour of testimony, the council voted 6-2 in support of a nonbinding resolution calling on Maine’s congressional delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing “corporate personhood.”
Sponsors of the resolution said it is in part a response to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which gave corporations the right to spend unlimited money on political advertising. In the 5-4 ruling, the court said corporations have the same First Amendment rights to free speech as people.
No one who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing supported the ruling. Speakers said Portland could make a small difference by adding its voice to a rising tide of dissent across the country.
“Corporate personhood comes from the court, not the cradle or an act of Congress,” said Herb Adams of Portland. “The only thing separating a corporation from being human now is their ability to cast a vote.”
It wasn’t the first time that the council in Maine’s largest city had tackled a federal issue, as the resolution’s sponsor, Councilor David Marshall, pointed out.
Since he was elected in 2006, Marshall said, the council has considered resolutions calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and debated a resolution asking Congress to end the spending of tax dollars for “excessive and unaffordable war funding.”
Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who joined Councilor John Coyne in voting against the resolution Wednesday, said the council chamber is not the appropriate venue for such a discussion. But she said, “Your opinions have not fallen on deaf ears.”
People who spoke at the hearing said the local level is the ideal place to begin a national debate.
“We just want you to know that the rest of Maine is watching what you do here tonight. Your vote does matter,” said Delia Gorham, a member of the League of Young Voters.
The resolution calls on other Maine communities to join Portland in passing similar resolutions.
“I can’t think of a more important thing to talk about than democracy. It is being threatened,” said Eric Johnson, a small-business owner from Portland. “You need to help us be heard. There is no more important issue.”
Anna Trevorrow said, “It is absolutely the business of the City Council. The community has come together and asked you to make a statement.”
Mayor Michael Brennan, along with Marshall and councilors Kevin Donoghue, John Anton, Jill Duson and Nicholas Mavodones, supported the resolution. Councilor Edward Suslovic had to leave before the vote because of pain from a back injury.
Marshall said the Occupy Wall Street movement and its local version, Occupy Maine, inspired him to submit the resolution. One of the movement’s core grievances is that the United States has a political system that’s open to corruption, with its representative democracy taken over by corporate and special interests.
While U.S. courts are allowing corporations to spend unlimited money on political ads, they are rejecting people’s rights to peaceful assembly, Marshall said. He cited recent court rulings allowing cities to evict Occupy encampments.
The resolution says in part that “corporations are entirely human-made legal entities created by the express permission of We the People and our government. The great wealth of corporations allows them to wield coercive force of law to overpower the votes of human beings and communities, denying the people’s exercise of our constitutional rights.”
Brennan spoke in favor of the resolution, in which the city also expresses support for maintaining and expanding Maine’s Clean Election fund for state candidates, to keep private money from distorting election outcomes.
“I share the concerns that the people have expressed here tonight,” Brennan said. “To have unbridled money coming into an election should give us pause.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: