When Missoula City Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken knocked on doors in her ward this year, she heard a disappointing theme among constituents.
"I heard an overwhelming sense of despair about government," Wolken said Wednesday.
People don't believe their voices are heard, especially at the state and federal levels, she said. And they believe campaign dollars are distorting democracy.
"A lot of people feel what they say doesn't matter because somebody with more money will come along and drown out their voices," she said at a Committee of the Whole meeting.
At one time, Wolken, who represents Ward 2, said she could have convinced them otherwise. But not since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Citizens United.
That's a judgment that gave corporations the right to pay for political ads based on the First Amendment. Some critics say the 2010 decision is harmful to democracy because it's yet another ruling that gives corporations rights the U.S. Constitution grants to people, such as the right to free speech.
So Wolken, a lawyer, wants the people of Missoula to join the leagues of communities across the country that are calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She is asking the Missoula City Council to place on the 2011 ballot a referendum to push the Montana Legislature and the U.S. Congress to amend the Constitution and declare "corporations are not human beings and do not have the same rights as human beings."
"The city of Missoula, unfortunately, can't fix this problem, but we can give our constituents a voice at the local level to say how they feel about it," Wolken said.
The Committee of the Whole has adopted a version of Wolken's resolution, and the Missoula City Council will take up the matter Monday at its regular meeting. (In the meantime, a couple of councilors will tweak a clause regarding mass media the committee removed.)
At the meeting Wednesday, though, councilors praised Wolken for bringing the item before them, and state Sen. Carolyn Squires rose up in support of the resolution. She was the only member of the public to comment and called the Supreme Court decision a "folly."
Squires pointed to recent record-breaking campaign contributions in Wisconsin's recall elections, which are headed toward the $40 million mark. The Missoula Democrat said she serves a low- and moderate-income income district, and her constituents can't compete with corporate spending.
"My folks would not have the opportunity to be on an equal footing with corporations," Squires said.
While local governments across the country try to battle campaign finance and "corporate personhood," the issue is playing out in Montana, too. The Montana attorney general is defending an effort to undo campaign finance and disclosure laws. The plaintiff, American Tradition Partnership, aims to influence elections but has refused to report its donors or campaign spending; it charges Montana's definition of a political committee is too broad.
Councilwoman Wolken, the newest member of the Missoula City Council, joined the body in January after Alderman Roy Houseman resigned to take a job in Washington, D.C.
Councilwoman Stacy Rye described Wolken as "brave" for taking on such a substantive issue, and Councilman Dave Strohmaier said he supports local bodies taking on national matters, even in a way that isn't binding.
"I think it's entirely appropriate for local municipalities, local governments, to weigh in on issues that have an effect upon our citizenry," said Strohmaier, who himself has brought symbolic resolutions to the council. "We've taken positions previously on state and national issues that have local impact."
Some other communities have gone so far as to adopt ordinances that ban "corporate personhood" in their own jurisdictions. Wolken said she considered doing so but decided to remain focused on the broader issue of amending the U.S. Constitution.
The draft ballot statement in the resolution is this: "The citizens of Missoula, Montana, hereby urge the Montana State Legislature and United States Congress to amend the United States Constitution to clearly state that corporations are not human beings and do not have the same rights as citizens."
The resolution describes the reasons for the amendment, among them this one: "The recent Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision that rolled back the legal limits on corporate spending in the electoral process creates an unequal playing field and allows unlimited corporate spending to influence elections, candidate selection, policy decisions and sway votes, and forces elected officials to divert their attention from The Peoples' business ... "
Adopting a constitutional amendment is no small feat: It typically is proposed by a two-thirds vote in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House and requires approval by three-fourths of states.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller [at] missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.