PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday January 21st, 2015, 3:24pm

Chicagoans Decry Big Money In Elections On Citizens United's 5th Anniversary (VIDEO)

On the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling, critics of the controversial decision gathered Wednesday morning at Chicago's Federal Plaza to speak out against the "flood of big money" in elections. Progress Illinois was there for the rally.

On the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling, critics of the controversial decision gathered Wednesday morning at Chicago's Federal Plaza to speak out against the "flood of big money" in elections.

Holding signs reading, "Corporations are not people" and "Money out, voters in," leaders of several public interest, labor, environmental and other groups discussed the fallout from what they called the Supreme Court's "wrongheaded" ruling and offered solutions meant to "reclaim the democracy for the people" and empower the voices of ordinary Americans in politics, including small donor financing programs.

"The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has made legal the theft of democracy in this country," Sheilah Garland with National Nurses United said at the rally of roughly 50 people. "This decision serves to silence the vast majority of us by drowning us out with massive amounts of money."

The game-changing Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision allowed outside groups, including corporations and unions, to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of or against political campaigns so long as they do not directly coordinate with candidates. The decision gave rise to Super PACs and a tide of big money from mega-donors.

"In 2012, the 32 top contributors to super PAC[s] contributed about $9.9 million each," said Maggie Galka with Illinois PIRG. "That's the same as the 3.7 million small donors to Obama and Romney combined. When big money gets bigger, it forces politicians to pay attention to big donors, rather than donations from regular Americans."

Wednesday's demonstration in Chicago was one of many across the country marking the fifth year since the ruling. 

Citizens United protesters with the grassroots group 99Rise disrupted the Supreme Court's session today and were arrested, according to the organization. In the courtroom, seven protesters delivered a "series of statements calling for the justices to overturn their unpopular Citizens United decision," according to a news release.

"Each protester stood up and presented a demand to the court before raising their index finger in the air," the statement adds. "The gesture represents 'one person, one vote' political equality, a principle which has been undermined by the limitless campaign spending facilitated by the activist court."

Across the country, there has been a "grassroots revolt" ever since the Citizens United ruling, Chicago organizers said.

Galka noted that since 2010, 16 states, including Illinois, and more 600 municipalities have formally called on the U.S. Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to effectively overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. In September, the U.S. Senate took up, but failed to pass, an amendment to reverse Citizens United. The measure fell six votes shy of what was needed to end a filibuster on the measure. Still, Illinois PIRG called the effort "an incredible milestone in the fight to reclaim our democracy."

Those at today's protest said the push for a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United will continue. As far as more immediate solutions, the groups are advocating for campaign finance systems meant to increase the impact of small donors.

Common Cause Illinois recently launched its Fair Elections Illinois campaign to bring such a system to Chicago. Organizers noted that small donor financing programs already established in New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland have been successful.

As part of its campaign, Common Cause Illinois successfully secured the advisory ballot question in Chicago's upcoming municipal election that will ask voters, "Should the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois reduce the influence of special interest money in elections by financing campaigns using small contributions from individuals and a limited amount of public money?"

The advisory ballot referendum is meant to gauge public opinion on the matter and spur action on the issue in the city council, says Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director of Common Cause Illinois.

"We're starting it off from the grassroots up on purpose," he said. "We're talking about democracy. Let's start this in a democratic way. So, the first thing we're going to do is take a poll of voters, and that's the poll that counts."

Here's more from Galka and Lopez-Calderon:

At the event, a spokeswoman for Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia read a statement on behalf of the Cook County commissioner. Garcia supports the upcoming municipal ballot question about the financing of elections and legislation to establish small donor matching programs.

"This kind of legislation helps create a new system that will increase political participation and help ensure that voters have diverse, viable choices at the ballot box -- progressive choices for candidates who are running to support a healthy environment, a fair tax system, just economic and social policy and government programs that put the needs of ordinary people first," Garcia's statement reads. "We can't go on with the current system, which lets super PACs and dark money drown out the voices and the aspirations of the rest of us. New York and Los Angeles now have similar systems, and in New York City's last election, every winning candidate used it. It's time for Chicago and Cook County to join this movement for a more accountable democracy."

Also speaking at today's action included members of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, the Northwest Side Housing Center, Illinois Move to Amend and others.

"These CEOs poisoning our skies with their fossil fuels are part of the same 1 percent that's poisoning our politics with their money," said JC Kibbey with the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. "As long as fossil fuel companies can keep spending millions of dollars buying politicians, they can rig our policies to use our air as a garbage dump and pocket our tax dollars no matter what voters want. We can build a strong middle class in this country again. We can have clean, healthy air for us and our kids to breathe. That starts with getting big money out of politics and building a government that works for us, and not fossil fuel companies and billionaires."

Campaign Finance In 2014 Midterm Congressional Elections

Last week, meanwhile, Illinois PIRG issued a new study examining campaign finance in the 2014 congressional elections. The analysis, conducted in partnership with Demos, showed that "successful candidates and their closest competitors" in 25 competitive U.S. House races in 2014 received more than 86 percent of their campaign funds from individuals giving $200 or more. Just two of the 50 candidates running last year in the 25 most competitive U.S. House districts, as rated by the Cook Political Report, got less than 70 percent of their campaign dollars from large donors, according to the report. Also, seven candidates in these U.S. House races raised more than 95 percent of their individual campaign funds from large donors.

The report calls for the adoption of proposed legislation to establish campaign finance systems at the federal level for U.S. House and Senate candidates that match small contributions with "limited public funds." Federal legislation that has previously been floated to create small donor matching programs includes the "Fair Elections Now Act," spearheaded last year by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and the related "Government by the People Act" in the House.

Durbin joined Illinois PIRG in releasing the study last Friday.

"In the five years since the Citizens United ruling, corporations and wealthy individuals have effectively been given a blank check to influence our democracy," Durbin said in a statement. "Americans would be shocked if they knew how much time members of Congress and candidates seeking office must spend dialing for dollars and attending fundraisers. Fixing our broken campaign finance system would give candidates the opportunity to focus on dealing with our nation's problems, rather than chasing after campaign cash.

"The report by U.S. PIRG and Demos outlines the damaging effects of rampant spending that has given unprecedented political power to the wealthy," the senator added. "I applaud these organizations' efforts and will continue to work with them to pursue common sense reforms, such as the Fair Elections Now Act, so that we can ensure all Americans have their voices heard."

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