Big Sky Populists Fight Back Against Big Corporate Money

Corporate Attack on Democracy in Montana: Communities Do Battle with Modern-Day “Copper Kings”

A year and a half after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that corporations are "people" with expanded constitutional rights, the impacts of the ruling continue to reverberate. 24 states have been forced to re-examine their legal limitations on campaign financing by corporations. Among them is Montana, a state with some of the country's strongest campaign finance laws.

Last year, in response to a challenge brought by the far-right American Tradition Partnership, Montana District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock overturned the state's landmark Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which prohibited corporate spending in candidate campaigns. Sherlock cited the Citizens United ruling as the primary basis for his decision.

Montanans are organizing and fighting back. With the help of the national Move to Amend coalition and the leadership of Councilmember Cynthia Wolken, the City Council of Missoula, Montana recently voted to place a measure on the city ballot calling for Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to clearly state that corporations are not people and that money is not speech.

Wolken is championing the effort because she believes that a constitutional amendment is needed to stop corporate attacks like the one Montana is facing. "This case is just the tip of the iceberg," she told Truthout in a recent interview. "There will be a lot of lawsuits filed against other states with such campaign finance laws."

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock is appealing Sherlock's decision on behalf of the State, arguing that the law is necessary to keep corporations from dominating state elections. As oral arguments began last week, Bullock made the case that Montana's historical circumstances provide a strong basis for the validity of the restriction. The nearly century-old campaign finance law was a hard-fought victory in the struggle to curb the undue influence of the copper mining industry in Montana politics during the late 1890s and the early 1900s.

As Ted Nace points out in his book Gangs of America, "the state of Montana was run as a virtual colony," where "corruption and hard-ball political tactics" were commonplace. State legislators were bought and paid for by the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company, at that time controlled by William Rockefeller and other leaders of Standard Oil. Wealthy industrialists known as the "Copper Kings" reaped huge profits with no regard for workers or the environment.

Knowing they had little chance of achieving victory in the corporate-controlled legislature, a group of shopkeepers, farmers, union representatives, civic leaders, attorneys and judges came together to organize the People's Power League, an organization inspired by the Progressive and Populist movements. They successfully spearheaded a grassroots effort to pass the Corrupt Practices Act and other reform measures by direct vote of the people.

Montana's recent move to defend the Corrupt Practices Act has been met with backlash from far-right groups demanding their "right to free speech" in the form of unlimited corporate spending. The major player, American Tradition Partnership, is a shady 501(c) 4 advocacy group dedicated to fighting "environmental extremism." The organization serves as an electoral and legal front group for corporations engaged in environmentally destructive industries. It recently filed another lawsuit against the State of Montana, alleging that the state's campaign contribution limits are unconstitutional under the premise that money spent in elections is free speech. They are joined in the suit by other far-right interests, including two oil companies and Montana Right to Life PAC.

Montana residents are not alone in the fight against Corporate Personhood. If Missoula's measure is successful, the city will join a growing list of over 30 cities and counties that have passed such resolutions. Recent victories include Madison and Dane County, Wisconsin, where voters overwhelmingly approved similar measures by 84% and 78% respectively. Resolutions have been introduced in the state legislatures of both Vermont and Washington. Voters in Boulder, Colorado are also set to vote on such a measure this November.

Much like the Populist and Progressive movements before them, the residents of these communities realize that the promise of American democracy has yet to be fulfilled. They know that true change can only happen with a grassroots strategy to codify the rights of people over corporations.

In Missoula and throughout the country, Move to Amend is working to build a new Populist movement to dethrone today's equivalent of the Copper Kings. Throughout history, in the struggles for civil rights, workers' rights, and women's rights, democratic reforms have only been successful due to mass movements of people demanding political power. Whatever the outcome of corporate legal challenges in Montana and elsewhere, Move to Amend will continue the fight to abolish Corporate Personhood and defend democracy.

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