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This article was first published in the Concord Monitor, January 15, 2015

When President Lyndon Johnson reached Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by phone on January 15, 1965, it wasn’t to offer birthday greetings. The president wanted to strategize about voting rights.

The two leaders were at the peak of their popularity. King had recently returned from Oslo with the Nobel Peace Prize and was gearing up a voting rights campaign centered in Selma, Alabama. Johnson, elected by a landslide two months earlier, had boldly called for “enforcement of the civil rights law and elimination of barriers to the right to vote” for African Americans in his January 7 “State of the Union” speech.

“We take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro or whether it’s a Mexican or who it is,” the president told Dr. King. “That’s right,” King responded.

But between the two leaders and realization of voting rights stood the power of southern politicians and the often violent enforcement of white supremacy that blocked blacks from the voting rolls in southern states. In Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma was the major city, only 335 blacks were registered to vote by fall, 1964, despite repeated efforts. Outside Selma, black majority rural counties had no black voters at all. Attempts to register could provoke beatings, firings, or worse.

Before the Selma-based campaign led to passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of people would be arrested for peaceful protests, dozens would be beaten, and at least three – Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo– would be murdered by white supremacists. In Jackson’s case, the killer was a state trooper. (Jonathan Daniels, a seminary student from Keene, would be murdered three weeks after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.)

One Person, One Vote Principle is Under Attack

Fifty years later the principle of one person, one vote is again under attack, though the forces arrayed against democracy are less bloody.

For starters, federal election law been tilting toward the power of dollars and away from votes – just look at the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts. In a 2013 case, Shelby vs. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School calls “a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting.” Congress has power to rewrite the provision and restore this power to the Justice Department but has taken no action to date.

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Court famously affirmed the principles that corporations are people and money is speech, thus opening the gates for floods of corporate cash to pour into the election system. In 2014’s McCutcheon decision, the Court enabled donors to invest as much as $2.4 million in congressional candidates every two years. Then Congress piled on at year’s end with a last-minute amendment to the budget bill that raised the limits on contributions to political parties from $97,200 a year to $776,000.

Meanwhile the states have again become major battlegrounds for voting rights. According to the Brennan Center, 21 states, including New Hampshire, have approved measures to restrict voting since 2010. These include Voter ID requirements, laws making it harder to register, reduced voting hours, and measures making it harder for people with criminal records to regain their voting rights.

Race Still Drives Attacks on Voting Rights

“Race was also a significant factor,” the Brennan Center reports. “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote. And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrimination in voting have new restrictions since the 2010 election.”

New Hampshire is likely to see further efforts to erode voting rights in 2015. Bills to restrict same-day registration and suppress student voting are on the legislature’s agenda.

It’s not like the country has a problem of too many people voting. Nationwide, only 35.9% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2014. In New Hampshire, 47.6% of eligible voters went to the polls – hardly a figure to be proud of if we really believe in government of the people by the people and for the people.

Fortunately, lawmakers and voting rights advocates are taking action. In New Hampshire, bills are being proposed to make it easier to cast absentee ballots and to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 before the General Election.

A bi-partisan bill to put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act is likely to return to Congress. At the grassroots level, a growing nationwide movement is calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would establish clearly that the rights enumerated in the Constitution are intended for actual persons, not corporations, and that government regulation of campaign finance can be accomplished without infringing on political speech. In New Hampshire, more than 50 communities already have adopted resolutions backing such a measure.

The January 19 holiday marking Dr. King’s birthday and the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United decision on January 21 can be occasions for us to re-assert our commitment to democracy. Shall we overcome?

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“One Day Longer, One Day Stronger”

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With an inflatable corporate pig hovering behind them, hundreds of IBEW and CWA members with their allies rallied at the State House yesterday calling for a fair contract with FairPoint Communications.

The two unions went on strike ten weeks ago following months of frustrated bargaining before and after their contract expired on August 2.

“In April, FairPoint came out with their one contract proposal,” IBEW leader Glenn PC190063 Brackett said, waving his index finger while speaking from a stage attached to a Teamsters truck parked next to the State House.

The unions made three comprehensive proposals and even offered $200 million in concessions, Brackett said. But the company has refused to deal and lied to the public along the way. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of consumers have complained to the Public Utilities Commission that the company, which took over Verizon’s New Hampshire landlines in 2008, is not providing the services for which it is getting paid.  Vermont’s E-911 system has been among the casualties, as has the City of Nashua’s internet service. 

“This company has no credibility,” Brackett charged.

“The corporation is in North Carolina and this morning they have internet.  They’ve got 911 and their telephones work,” Brackett said.  “Why?  Because FairPoint does not provide services to the communities in which their executives live.” [see video] 

“How long will the State of New Hampshire allow its public safety to be threatened by a company frPC190054om North Carolina?,” Brackett asked. 

Strikers and supporters took a few circuits around the State House lawn, chanting and chatting, while  Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter and retired IBEW member Linda Horan greeted them as they went by.  Other political figures in the crowd included State Representative Renny Cushing and State Senators Jeff Woodburn, Donna Soucy, and Lou D’Allesandro. 

The crowd left the State House at about 12:30 pm and walked a few blocks to the FairPoint office on South Street, where they chanted some more and tauntedPC190065 strikebreakers who were looking down from company windows. 

The conflict is not just about wages and benefits.  Central to FairPoint’s strategy is its intent to outsource jobs now held by union members.  The unions points out that the service problems consumers are experiencing now will become the norm if FairPoint can hire unqualified contractors to perform functions now carried out by experienced union workers. 

The conflict over contracting out is emblematic of developments in the larger PC190064

economy, where outsourcing via staffing agencies is becoming the norm in ever larger sectors of the labor market.  Strong unions are about all that stops the slide toward a disposable workforce.

That may be why clergy from the United Church of Christ have decided to speak up about the FairPoint strike.  In a column published in the Valley News, they wrote:

So here we are today: hedge fund corporate owners versus dedicated New Hampshire (and Maine and Vermont) workers who have the courage to take a stand to protect the kinds of jobs that sustain families and strong communities. Shades of Moses standing up against Pharaoh’s hard heart, perhaps? Or David versus Goliath? Or Jesus challenging the greedy money changers?

According to the Concord Monitor, a spokesperson for Governor Maggie Hassan said she is “concerned about the disruption in FairPoint services and its impact on the state’s communications infrastructure, our public safety systems and economy, as well as the company’s overall commitment to the people and businesses of New Hampshire.”

“One day longer, one day stronger,” the strikers chanted.  That’s great spirit, but some emergency funds for workers on strike more than two months will help.  You can contribute to the IBEW/CWA Solidarity Fund by clicking here.

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But will the debate over the influence of mega-corporations continue to animate political debate?

This article was first published in New Hampshire Business Review.

Passage last month of a bill to keep the federal government running also extended the life of the Export-Import Bank, a controversial federal agency, until June 2015. The measure may also extend the life of an inside-the-GOP debate over “corporate cronyism” and mega-corporations that succeed in business due more to their political connections than their entrepreneurial prowess. Such debate is welcome.

In case you haven’t paid attention to discussions going on among conservative members of Congress and in the conference rooms at conservative think-tanks, right-wingers have taken to denouncing the cozy ties between big government and big business. The Ex-Im Bank, which provides loan guarantees to U.S. corporations peddling their goods and services in other countries, may provide the political context, but the principles reach far into other sectors of the economy and federal policy.

Speaking about the Export Import Bank and the “conservative reform agenda” in April at the Heritage Foundation, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a possible Republican

2014 04 12 mike lee @ freedom summit

Senator Mike Lee at the “Freedom Summit” in Manchester

presidential candidate, denounced “America’s crisis of crony capitalism, corporate welfare and political privilege: In which government twists public policy to unfairly benefit favored special interests at the expense of everyone else.”

This is the stuff of fire-breathing populism, not what we expect to hear at Heritage.

But Senator Lee continued: “The more power government amasses, the more privileges are bestowed on the government’s friends, the more businesses invest in influence instead of innovation, the more advantages accrue to the biggest special interests with the most to spend on politics and the most to lose from fair competition.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, another conservative Republican considering a run for president, has made similar statements. “Big companies may not like big government, but they can afford to deal with it,” he said at a GOP fundraiser in New Hampshire.

The senators remind us of President Eisenhower warning the American people to “guard against the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial-complex.”

Take Boeing, the aerospace company that ranks second among Pentagon contractors and has also attracted the ire of Ex-Im Bank critics.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Boeing’s hangar houses 85 lobbyists. Its annual tab for lobbying runs to about $15 million a year, and more than $9 million already in 2014.

That amount may be understated. Political scientists believe actual lobbying expenses are three times the amount disclosed on official forms

There’s more to cronyism than money spent on lobbyists. There’s the issue of the “revolving door,” people who go from elected office and jobs on Capitol Hill or the Pentagon to more lucrative careers at lobbying firms. Boeing’s lobbyists include four former members of Congress plus a firm founded by former House Speaker Richard Gephardt. In Eisenhower’s terms, Boeing’s influence is definitely “sought.”

Big companies also grease the wheels through campaign contributions, especially to incumbent members of Congress in leadership roles.

CQ Roll Call reported last month that “four of the top five candidates for the chairmanships of the House Armed Services and Intelligence panels have raised considerably more money this election cycle than they did at a similar point in 2012. The same four have also raised much more money from the defense industry than before – in some cases, more than doubling their takes.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is a contender for the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. According to CQ Roll Call, Thornberry has more than doubled his take from defense firms compared to the previous election cycle. Number five on Thornberry’s campaign committee donor list is Boeing.

The federal government and the Export-Import Bank have avoided shutdown for the time being. But the notion that mega-corporations have too much influence over federal policy has found new champions and should outlast the Ex-Im debate. Perhaps even the Democrats will join in.

Governing Under the Influence, #GUI

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Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall assembles an impressive array of facts that illuminate the realities of wealth inequality in America.  

Citing Federal Reserve figures, Edsall reports that household net worth, corporate profits, and the value of real estate have been going up at an impressive pace.  If you think that sounds like evidence of recovery you’d be mistaken, at least if you equate “recovery” with economic conditions that are improving for most workers.   

“The September Federal Reserve Bulletin graphically demonstrates how wealth gains since 1989 have gone to the top 3 percent of the income distribution,” he writes.  “The next 7 percent has stayed even, while the bottom 90 percent has experienced a steady decline in its share.”

It’s not just wealthy individuals getting wealthier; it’s also the corporations they own and run.    Citing statistics from Goldman Sachs, Edsall says corporate profits rose five times faster than wages last year.  And he quotes an article from Business Insider that stated,

“America’s companies and company owners — the small group of Americans who own and control America’s corporations — are hogging a record percentage of the country’s wealth for themselves.”

Edsall asks, “Why don’t we have redistributive mechanisms in place to deploy the trillions of dollars in new wealth our economy has created to shore up the standard of living of low- and moderate-income workers, to restore financial stability to Medicare and Social Security, to improve educational resources and to institute broader and more reliable forms of social insurance?”

It’s the right question. 

For answers he turns to a bunch of economists, who provide data about tax rates, labor force participation, the declining growth of well-paying jobs, globalization, and the reduction of labor’s share of profit relative to capital in a time of rising productivity.  

My answer is a bit more straightforward:  America’s companies and company owners — the small group of Americans who own and control America’s corporations — are hogging the political system.  This is nothing new, but in the legal environment created by recent Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United and McCutcheon in particular) it is becoming easier for corporate interests to wage class war and win.  Simply put, the people who make the laws and set the policies have their receptors tuned to the frequency where the corporations are broadcasting. 

Edsall notes survey data that reveal corporations are not so popular in the USA and other so-called “advanced countries.”   He asks if the legitimacy of free market capitalism in America is facing fundamental challenges.

My gut response is to say “I hope so.”  But the dynamics described by all those economists are not the workings of “the invisible hand.”  The market is operating under a set of rules established by those who already have more than their fair share of power, wealth, and privilege.  The legitimacy of our corporate-directed political system must be challenged as well.

#GUI

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Democracy Movement Takes a Message to Senator Ayotte

NASHUA, NH — The “Democracy for All Amendment” failed on a procedural vote today in the US Senate, but not before a dozen New Hampshire activists made one more attempt to get Senator Kelly Ayotte to support overturning the US Supreme P9110119Court’s “Citizens United” decision.

“Corporations are not people.  They should not control our political process,” Representative Sylvia Gale of Nashua said to the group assembled at City Hall Plaza at 9 am this morning.

The group was small, but they are part of a large movement of people concerned that “corporate people” and the wealthiest Americans have the legal ability to drown out competing voices in the political process.

“I don’t have a lot of money and I want my voice to be heard,” explained Fred Robinson, who drove to Nashua from Goffstown to participate.   

“Democracy should work for people,” offered Dr. Thabile Mnisi-Misibi, an ANC member visiting from South Africa.

The contingent of 13 people walked with signs and chants througP9110155h the downtown district to the Senator’s office.  There, they delivered a petition with 12,000 New Hampshire names calling on Senator Ayotte to support the constitutional change.   

“This is an issue for all of New Hampshire, and Senator Ayotte needs to get involved,” said Dan Weeks of the Coalition for Open Democracy, the group which led the organizing of today’s action.

Weeks handed the petitions and supporting material to Simon Thomson, an aide to Senator Ayotte, who met the group on the sidewalk outside her office.

Dan Weeks presenting petitions to Simon Thomson.

A similar action took place last week at Senator Ayotte’s Portsmouth office.

Ayotte voted Monday for a motion that allowed consideration of the amendment to go forward, but today joined her GOP colleagues voting against ending debate, thereby blocking the measure from an up or down vote on its merits.   New Hampshire’s other Senator, Jeanne Shaheen, was a co-sponsor of the amendment proposal.

The notion that the Supreme Court believes corporations are people, that money is speech, and that therefore corporations can spend without limits to affect election campaigns has provoked a reaction expressed through petitions, resolutions, and proposals for constitutional change.  SJ Resolution 19, the proposal defeated today in the P9110141US Senate, is just one of a couple dozen advanced by members of Congress in response to Citizens United.  Some groups, such as Move To Amend, have made it clear they think it doesn’t go far enough to reverse corporate constitutional rights.  But it was the only proposal likely to get considered in the foreseeable future, so many groups calling for constitutional change were on board. 

Writing in his blog at The Nation earlier this week, John Nichols said:

The amendment that is being considered is a consequential, if relatively constrained, proposal, which focuses on core money in political concerns but which does not go as far as many Americans would like when it comes to establishing that money is not speech, corporations are not people and elections should not be up for sale to the highest bidder.

Yet it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the debate that will unfold this week. The debate signals that a grassroots movement has established the rational response to a political crisis created by US Supreme Court rulings (including, but certainly not exclusively, the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions) that have opened the floodgates for domination of political debates by billionaire campaign donors and corporate cash.

No one expected the amendment to get the two-thirds vote it would need to pass or get a vote at all in John Boehner’s House of Representatives.   But the fact that any vote took place is evidence of a significant expression oP9110133f public sentiment that the“Citizens United” decision did serious damage to fundamental issues.  The questions now are whether the movement will grow or fizzle, and whether the pro-amendment groups will intensify their demands for more aggressive language or head down the familiar road of further compromise.  A decision to water down the language in hopes of gaining votes at this point would be a huge mistake.

“Constitutional amendments become viable when support for them grows so overwhelming that traditional partisan and ideological boundaries are broken,” wrote Nichols, who will speak at an AFSC dinner in Concord on September 27.  “When this happens, the divide becomes less a matter of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right and more a matter of a broken present versus a functional future.”

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2014 04 12 mike lee @ freedom summit

Senator Mike Lee at the Freedom Summit, Manchester, April 12, 2014

If you think critique of Big Business is a left-wing phenomenon then think again.

Two Senators who are testing the waters for Presidential runs, and a prominent Republican Representative, have been talking about “corporate cronyism” and “crony capitalism” in recent presentations at The Heritage Foundation of all places.

Speaking at the conservative “think tank” on April 30, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) issued a blast at “America’s growing crisis of crony capitalism, corporate welfare, and policy privilege.”

“The free enterprise system is based on the fundamental equality of opportunity for all—to succeed and to fail—on a level playing field, but cronyism cements the status of the politically well-connected, making it easier for favored special interests to succeed and harder for their competitors to get a fair shot. As a result, honest small business owners, would-be employees, and investors are unfairly kept on the sidelines of a rigged game,” Senator Lee went on.

Senator Lee has made at least one visit to New Hampshire, site of the first-in-the-nation Presidential Primary.  At Americans for the Prosperous’ “Freedom Summit” in April he gave a rather tepid speech in which he said Republicans “have to stop talking like Ronald Reagan and start acting like him.”  

His Heritage appearance was more interesting:

Cronyist policies come in many shapes and sizes—from subsidies and loan guarantees to tax loopholes and protective regulations—but they all work the same way: The elite leaders of big government, big business, and big special interests collude to help each other climb to the highest rungs of success, and then pull up the ladder behind them.

Senator Lee is not the only one talking like that.

In an appearance before the Rockingham County Republicans in New Castle, New Hampshire on May 9, Senator Marco Rubio issued his own blast at greedy capitalists.

As reported by Fox News Latino the Cuban-American Senator from Florida said “Big companies may not like big government, but they can afford to deal with it. They can hire the best lobbyist in Washington to help write those regulations. They can hire the best lawyers in America to find loopholes in those regulations. But if you’re starting a new business out of the spare bedroom in your home you can’t do that.”

Like Lee and a host of others, Senator Rubio is a contender for the GOP Presidential nomination. 

“Subsidies, tax preferences, and political influence”

Rep. Hensarling (R-Texas), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, was another recent visitor to Heritage, where he said “The Main Street competitive economy relies upon hard work, creativity, perseverance and ‘can do’ optimism to create wealth,” while “the Washington insider economy, in contrast, relies on earmarks, regulatory barriers to entry, subsidies, tax preferences, and political influence.”

Rep. Hensarling devoted much of his Heritage speech to criticism of the Export-Import Bank as the epitome of the “Washington insider economy.”

Created in 1934 to boost the U.S. economy by financing foreign purchases of U.S.-made goods, the Ex-Im Bank has earned its place as a focus of criticism.  For example, as a long article in a recent issue of The Nation describes, the Ex-Im Bank was behind the financing of a controversial ExxonMobil mining project in New Guinea, where a landslide cascaded 2 million tons of rocks and mud onto a village two years ago, killing at least 27 people.  The limestone quarry, where the fatal landslide originated, was part of a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project financed by a $3 billion Ex-Im Bank loan.

Ian T. Shearn writes:

This massive government loan to the ExxonMobil-led project was issued despite sharp rhetoric from the Obama administration on climate change. Indeed, the loan was approved by the administration just four days before the president delivered his address to the December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. “As the world’s largest economy and the world’s second-largest emitter, America bears our share of responsibility in addressing climate change,” Obama said then. “That is why we have renewed our leadership within international climate negotiations, and worked with other nations to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies.”

The PNG LNG loan was hardly the only exception to the president’s stated position. Since Obama took office, the Export-Import Bank has invested more than $27 billion in fossil-fuel endeavors, while lending less than $2 billion to clean-energy projects.

As the Presidential campaign heats up, alongside a growing movement of citizens concerned about the floods of corporate cash washing through the election system, it will be interesting to see whether populist attacks on Big Business find a secure home in the GOP.   Maybe we’ll even see some Republican Senators at the NH Rebellion march July 5.

 

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After an hour of circling Laconia and Meredith I intercepted the NH Rebellion walkers on Parade Road in the northern reaches of Laconia at about noon today.  There were several dozen of them, perhaps half of whom had set out from Dixville Notch a week ago.  Others joined later, or were like me just there for the day. 

Walking in the spirit of Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who was born in Laconia in  1910, the rebels aim to oust corruption from American politics by sparking an irresistible demand for reform of our money-driven election process.

The idea of the NH Rebellion was hatched by Larry Lessig, author of Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It.  Speaking at a late lunchtime rally at Laconia’s Vintage Cafe, he said polls indicate 96% of Americans believe we neelaconia 1-18-14 045d to reduce the influence of money in politics.  “There is no other issue in  America that unites us like this,” said Lessig,

One rebel told me he likes the fact that the effort speaks to the concerns of liberals and conservatives.  When I asked if he had met any conservatives on the walk, he could think of one.  There’s still time.

The aim of the Rebellion is to get New Hampshire voters to ask presidential candidates, “How are you going to end the system of corruption in Washington?”

Today’s turnout was largely people from other states.  I met people from New York, California, Massachusetts, and Colorado.

Vermonter Ben Cohen came with his dog, Riley, to walk for the day alaconia 1-18-14 019nd support the movement to get money out of politics.  “It’s all about corporations using unlimited amounts of money to buy politicians,” he said to the packed crowd at the Vintage Cafe.  It’s entirely feasible, Cohen believes, for a mobilized New Hampshire electorate to “create a situation where the presidential candidates have to address the issue.” 

Yes, there were a few Granite Staters among the walkers and supporters. Dick Pollock, from Conway, called the effort the most important thing he’s done.  That’s why he’s taking two weeks off from his normal activities to drive a support van.  And as the walk heads south through Concord and Manchester to its conclusion Friday in Nashua, the walkers expect to sign up more New Hampshire residents.  Lessig thinks 50,000 is a good goal by Primary Day, probably sometime in February 2016.

For more information on the walk and related events, or to enlist in the Rebellion, visit www.nhrebellion.org

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