Duluth made history last week when it became the first city in the state to pass a resolution in support of a constitutional amendment that would essentially overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision, namely Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission.
The court ruled in 2010 that corporations are entitled to the same constitutional rights as individual U.S. citizens. A majority of justices also concluded that political spending was a form of free speech and that corporations should be able to spend an unlimited sum of money to influence voters, without disclosing financial details of their activities.
Although Duluth is the first Minnesota city to come out against the ruling, other city councils across the nation have already taken a similar stand. The Los Angeles City Council did so Dec. 6. And New York City is slated to follow suit soon, according to Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to public advocacy.
Nathan Ness, a statewide organizer for Move to Amend, a group working to blunt the effects of the Citizens United decision, estimated that about 50 similar resolutions have been passed in other cities.
Ness said about 3,000 Minnesotans and about 150,000 people nationwide have signed a petition calling for a constitutional amendment such as the one proposed by the Duluth City Council.
Councilor Jeff Anderson, who is leaving the Duluth City Council in January to run for the 8th District congressional seat now held by Rep. Chip Cravaack, introduced the resolution. It called for an amendment that would "firmly establish that money is not speech, that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights, and that whenever the word 'person' is used in the Constitution it means a natural person."
But the measure met with some resistance, as well. The Duluth council voted 6-2 in support of the resolution, with Councilors Jim Stauber and Todd Fedora in the minority. A third city councilor, Jay Fosle, left the meeting rather than vote on the matter, as well as another resolution opposing a proposal that the state define marriage as being solely a union between man and woman. That measure also passed by the same margin.
"I left because we weren't conducting city business any more in my eyes," Fosle said. "Do we really think the U.S. Supreme Court is going to dig through our minutes to see what the Duluth City Council thinks it should do?"
Fosle said the resolution is "not worth the paper it was written upon" and called it "a waste of time and tax dollars."
Anderson said he took offense at that. "These issues are important to a lot of citizens."
Council President Sharla Gardner also defended the resolution, saying: "This isn't something Councilor Anderson decided to pick out of the air because it's interesting. It's important to each and every one of us."
Weissman acknowledged individual city councils have no direct say in what will become of proposed constitutional amendment to counter the Citizens United decision but called resolutions such as the one passed in Duluth Monday "hugely important."
He pointed out that any constitutional amendment will need to win the support of at least two-thirds of lawmakers in both houses of Congress.
"We're not in a position to win that right now, even though the vast majority of Americans oppose Citizens United and ridicule the decision," Weissman said.
"That's why we're building a grass-roots movement that forces Congress to address the issue," he said. "These city and state resolutions are markers of public support."