We begin with a civics question: What do we do when the U.S. Supreme Court, as it did just over nine years ago with its landmark Citizens United decision, claims that we are constitutionally obligated to drown our elections in big money?

We can complain, although that gets a little old over the course of a decade.

We can lose faith in the system and thus tread that fine line between disillusionment and abject surrender.

Or we can – stay with me here – change the U.S. Constitution?

Go ahead and chuckle. Tens of thousands of Americans are hard at work doing just that.

“Change can happen much more surprisingly than we sometimes think,” Jeff Clements said in an interview Friday.

Clements, who graduated from Colby College in 1984 and splits his time between Massachusetts and Portland’s Peaks Island, is the author of “Corporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy from Big Money and Global Corporations.”

He’s also president of American Promise, a grassroots organization dedicated to passing a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Founded just three years ago, the group’s membership has mushroomed from 100 in the early days to 170,000 people, and counting, in all 50 states.

As their mission statement puts it, they aim to “rebalance our politics and government by putting the rights of individual citizens before the privileges of concentrated money, corporations, unions, political parties, and superPACS.”

Translation: Corporations are not people. And easy money is not free speech.

It is, to be sure, a tall order. An amendment to the Constitution requires either a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of the states (which hasn’t happened since 1787) or approval by two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress, followed by ratification from three-quarters, or 38, of the 50 states.

But consider this: Already, Maine is one of 19 states whose legislatures have passed nonbinding resolutions calling for an amendment that would essentially overturn Citizens United. And with it, its overarching premise that government cannot curb independent expenditures by corporations, labor unions and other organizations seeking to influence an election.

The impact of Citizens United is inescapable: According to OpenSecrets.org., $6.5 billion poured into the 2016 presidential and congressional elections, much of it from deep-pocketed donors whose identities we will never know. By contrast, long before the benchmark decision, the 2000 presidential and congressional elections took in a relatively paltry $3 billion.

Former state Sen. Richard Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth, spearheaded the Maine resolution that passed overwhelmingly in 2013.

Noting that Citizens United and other previous Supreme Court decisions dramatically amplified the role of “wealthy special interests” in our elections while muting the voices of ordinary Americans, the resolution called on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment “that would reaffirm the power of citizens through their government to regulate the raising and spending of money in elections.”

Woodbury, a supporter of American Promise, said Friday that election cycles in the six years since the resolution’s passage have only intensified the average Mainer’s frustration with our broken system.

“It still seems to me that there are so many people who are just looking for the way to make a difference about something that will help our society,” Woodbury said. “And boy, this broken politics generally, but money in politics specifically, could well be that cause.”

Other prominent Mainers lining up behind American Promise include former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, a Democrat, and former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican.

Snowe, a member the American Promise National Advisory Council, said in a prepared statement last week that she’s encouraged by the progress toward a constitutional amendment.

“We need effective and reasonable regulation of money in our political system to protect the integrity of elections and secure the equal right of all Americans to free speech, representation, and participation in self-government,” she said.

Allen, in an interview Friday, said he was “just blown away” by a recent presentation Clements put on at Portland’s Cumberland Club, so much so that Allen joined and donated to American Promise on the spot.

Allen particularly likes the group’s strategy of pulling together a broad coalition of disparate interests before actually crafting the proposed amendment. In fact, the American Promise website includes a poll that lets individual citizens voice their priorities on what the amendment should look like.

“Hey, the Constitution has been amended 27 times,” Allen noted. “And even if you leave aside the Bill of Rights, if it happened before, it can happen again.”

Clements couldn’t agree more.

If anything distinguishes this effort, he said, it’s the fact Americans of every stripe already overwhelmingly support getting big money out politics.

Examples abound.

In Montana, a statewide ballot measure bluntly titled “Corporations Are Not Entitled to Constitutional Rights” passed back in 2012 by a whopping 3-to-1 ratio. It’s worth noting that in the same election, Mitt Romney outpolled Barack Obama by 14 percent.

In Massachusetts, where an anti-Citizens United resolution passed in 2013, voters took another step forward last fall by overwhelmingly endorsing the creation of a 15-member, volunteer commission that will help lay the groundwork for ratification of a 28th amendment.

And in New Hampshire, where 82 communities have passed measures calling for a constitutional remedy to Citizens United, the legislature currently is considering a bill demanding a constitutional amendment to “regulate the role of money in elections and governance to ensure transparency, prevent corruption, and protect against the buying of access to or influence over representatives.”

Importantly, the bill heads off the Supreme Court’s finding that corporations are just like people when it comes to free speech by adding, “No such regulation shall be deemed in violation of freedom of speech rights in the Constitution of the United States or its Amendments.”

So, what’s next?

Here in Maine, where 27 municipalities have joined the Legislature in supporting a 28th amendment, American Promise will sponsor two “Democracy is Brewing” gatherings this month to spread the word.

The first will be on Feb. 26 from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Stroudwater Distillery on Thompson’s Point in Portland. The second will be on Feb. 27 from 7-8:30 p.m. at Gritty McDuff’s Auburn Brew Pub, 68 Main St. in Auburn.

The future of our republic, with beer. What do you have to lose?

And if you’re among those who think it’s all a fool’s errand, consider that long before they were enshrined in constitutional amendments, ending slavery and ensuring a woman’s right to vote were once considered crazy talk.

“Most of our amendments were impossible,” Clements said, “before they were inevitable.”

 


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