Editorial: Amendment needed to save ‘government of the people’

  • Amerock developer legally gave Morrissey campaign $4,500 in contributions — moneyed influence, or a public-private partnership working in tandem?

Congress shall enact no law that prohibits an individual’s equal access to representation based on an individual’s ability to contribute to political candidates and campaigns, and no such law shall provide corporate entities rights equal to those of individuals. No law shall also restrict legal citizens from voting on Election Day based on lack of prior voter registration.Example of a possible 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

By Brandon Reid
Senior Assistant Editor

The above example of a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution aims to restore confidence in our political process by providing equal representation and by ensuring that all citizens are able to vote on Election Day.

Three United States Supreme Court rulings — made Jan. 3, 1976, Jan. 21, 2010, and April 2, 2014 — are possibly the greatest threats to American democracy and our “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In the same vein, when citizens are unable to vote on Election Day because of a lack of prior voter registration, citizens’ voices are not heard (read the guest column “Same-day voter registration could help curb political corruption rate” on page 8 for more about this topic).

Jan. 3, 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech.

Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that, contrary to longstanding precedents, corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money to promote or defeat candidates.

And April 2, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that putting a limit on the amount of biennial financial contributions individuals can make to national party and federal candidate committees is unconstitutional. Prior to the ruling, the limit an individual could contribute every two years to a federal candidate was $123,200.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the legal opinion for McCutcheon that “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”

Meantime, justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented, warning the McCutcheon ruling “creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign. Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310 (2010), today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

In response to the McCutcheon ruling, a group of environmental, voting rights, labor and government reform groups rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court. Phil Radford of Greenpeace called the U.S. campaign finance system a “legalized system of corruption through money in politics,” and suggested the system had resulted in few major environmental laws passing in the U.S. since 1980.

Ari Berman wrote in the liberal publication The Nation that the McCutcheon ruling shows that “The Court’s conservative majority believes that the First Amendment gives wealthy donors and powerful corporations the carte blanche right to buy an election but that the Fifteenth Amendment does not give Americans the right to vote free of racial discrimination.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in response the McCutcheon ruling: “The Supreme Court once again has sold American elections to the highest bidder. This decision may be more good news for American oligarchs, but it is bad news for voters. We have to move away from the wild west of deep corporate pockets and special-interest war chests and focus on creating a fair elections system that allows mere mortals, without million-dollar bank accounts, to have their voices heard by the candidates that seek to represent them.”

Durbin — a longtime supporter of numerous campaign finance laws — introduced the Fair Elections Now Act (S.2023) Feb. 12, 2014. Read a summary of the bill at congress.gov. The act has not seen any action since it was read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance Feb. 12, 2014.

The court reached its conclusion in the McCutcheon ruling based on the belief that restrictions on campaign contributions constituted a violation of First Amendment free-speech rights. One could argue the exact opposite, as speech that costs $4,500 — the total amount recently contributed by Amerock developer Gorman & Co. to the campaign of Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) — although totally legal, is not free speech that provides equality for all.

Furthermore, restrictions on our First Amendment free-speech rights already exist. You cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater in the absence of fire, and you cannot slander, libel or otherwise unjustly defame the character of another person.

The court’s rulings in Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission seem to suggest wealthy individuals and corporations should have the right to yell “fire” in the political arena, while the rest of us should not have that right because we cannot afford the high price tag associated with it.

Citizens United’s effects

The effects of the 2010 Citizens United ruling were evident immediately, as the 2012 election cycle saw a record $6 billion in political contributions. The Citizens United ruling overturned a century of campaign finance law and forced 24 states to change their own campaign finance laws to become compliant.

Sixteen states have formally called for an amendment by ballot measure, resolutions passed by the legislature, or official letters signed by a majority of state legislators in opposition to Citizens United. Those states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

Nearly 500 cities, towns and counties, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, have called for an amendment, and more than 2,000 elected officials nationwide are on record supporting one.

A 2010 Peter Hart poll found 82 percent of Americans supported congressional action to limit corporate spending on elections (which Citizens United unleashed), and that 79 percent supported a constitutional amendment to accomplish this.

A September 2013 Associated Press poll found that 83 percent of Americans favor limits on the amount of money corporations, unions and other organizations can spend on elections. The 2012 AP poll also showed that 81 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of independents, and 85 percent of Democrats wanted to limit corporate, union and other outside spending.

Amending the Constitution

The following is from the 1994 movie With Honors:

Simon Wilder (played by Joe Pesci): You asked the question, sir, now let me answer it. The beauty of the Constitution is that it can always be changed. The beauty of the Constitution is that it makes no set law other than faith in the wisdom of ordinary people to govern themselves.

Professor Pitkannan (played by Gore Vidal): Faith in the wisdom of the people is exactly what makes the Constitution incomplete and crude.

Simon Wilder: Crude? No, sir. Our “founding parents” were pompous, white, middle-aged farmers, but they were also great men. Because they knew one thing that all great men should know: that they didn’t know everything. Sure, they’d make mistakes, but they made sure to leave a way to correct them. The president is not an “elected king,” no matter how many bombs he can drop. Because the “crude” Constitution doesn’t trust him. He’s just a bum, OK, Mr. Pitkannan? He’s just a bum.

The last amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the 27th Amendment — was ratified May 7, 1992. The 27th Amendment delays laws affecting Congressional salary from taking effect until after the next election of representatives. The amendment was first submitted for ratification Sept. 25, 1789. Ratification of the amendment took 202 years, seven months and 12 days.

The 26th Amendment, ratified July 1, 1971, prohibits the denial of the right of U.S. citizens, 18 years of age or older, to vote on account of age. The amendment was first submitted March 23, 1971, and took just three months and eight days to be ratified.

The time has come for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, one that makes political contributions by corporations unconstitutional and one that allows for caps on individual political contributions.

The 15th Amendment, ratified Feb. 3, 1870 — just 11 months and eight days after it was first submitted for ratification Feb. 26, 1869 — prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race, color or a previous condition of servitude. This amendment came fewer than four years after the conclusion of the American Civil War.

As our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, noted Nov. 19, 1863, during his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa.: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Unless an amendment is made to the Constitution breaking us free of the oppressive chains of wealth and greed and their influence on our democracy, our “government of the people, by the people, for the people” will surely perish from this earth.

A good description of the process of amending the U.S. Constitution can be found at http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/constitution/. To boil it down, an amendment may be proposed either by Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures. None of the 27 amendments has been proposed by constitutional convention. A proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution as soon as it is ratified by three-fourths of the states, or 38 of 50 states. Beyond offering support for or against an amendment, the White House has little to do with the process.

Influence of moneyed interests in Rockford

The influence of moneyed interests on local politics is highly prevalent, and the impact of this affects our day-to-day lives more often than we realize.

With Rockford City Council’s recent approval of Milwaukee developer Gorman & Co.’s plan to turn the downtown Amerock building into a hotel and convention center along the Rock River, the city has once again given the appearance it is a “pay-to-play” city with regard to politics and development.

The council’s 13-1 vote (Rockford Ald. Linda McNeely, D-13, was the only one to vote against the project) puts the development in the hands of Gorman & Co., which will put $52 million into turning the building into a 150-room hotel at 416 S. Main St. The facility will also house retail space, condos and a convention center. The city, meantime, will spend nearly $20 million from the motor fuel tax to build a parking deck, turn South Main Street into a two-way street and make improvements along Chestnut Street.

The Illinois State Board of Elections’ campaign disclosure website (elections.il.gov) shows Gorman & Co. donated $4,500 to the campaign of Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I). The $4,500 from Gorman came in a series of three donations: the first was for $2,500, made March 11, 2013; the second for $1,000, made Sept. 3, 2013; and the third was for $1,000, made March 27, 2014.

The council’s final vote on the Amerock project came Monday, April 7 — a little more than a week after Gorman made its last $1,000 gift to Morrissey’s campaign.

The downtown hotel project in the former Amerock building needs to be completed by the end of 2016 to be eligible for historic tax credits.

Gorman & Co. worked with the Rockford Housing Authority to build the Jane Addams Park Apartments at 502 Seminary St. The project was completed last year. The company also redeveloped Milwaukee’s famous Pabst Brewery building into the Blue Ribbon Lofts, a 100-unit complex on the once-blighted north side.

Interest in the development of the downtown Amerock building into a hotel and convention center was reportedly based — at least in part — on possible rail coming to downtown Rockford and on a proposed 115,000-square-foot indoor sports facility in the former Ingersoll building at 301-401 S. Water St.

The indoor sports facility would feature eight basketball courts, at least 14 volleyball courts, an extreme sports park, children’s play area, riverwalk and more. It is anticipated the complex would host 30-plus tournaments per year. State grants would cover approximately $9 million of the project, while the City of Rockford would cover the remaining $12 million, including a loan for $800,000.

As reported in the March 6-12, 2013, issue of The Rock River Times, Morrissey campaign contributor SupplyCore, Inc., owned a number of properties near the former Ingersoll building.

The article stated: “The Winnebago County Treasurer’s tax parcel database showed that Madison Street Properties, LLC — operated by SupplyCore — owns properties listed at 1XX N. Madison St., two properties on South Madison Street, one on North Madison Street, 307 Walnut St., 323 Walnut St., and two listings for 220 S. Madison St. All of the properties are across the street from or within blocks of the new sports complex.”

The article also stated that “The Illinois State Board of Elections’ campaign disclosure website (elections.il.gov) shows SupplyCore, Inc., has given more than $150,000 in contributions, in-kind donations, services and loans to Morrissey’s campaign since 2001. …

Morrissey’s most recent D-2 quarterly report of contributions indicates his campaign, ‘Citizens for Morrissey,’ owes a total of $28,700 in debt to SupplyCore, Inc. The debt is in relation to loans given April 1, 2005 (original amount was $20,000) and May 23, 2005 (original amount was $13,500). Citizens for Morrissey has paid a total of $4,800 toward the debt.”

Reportedly, relations between Morrissey and SupplyCore are no longer as close as they once were. However, Morrissey’s outstanding political debt to SupplyCore remains.

As was announced April 15, daily Amtrak service will travel to and from Chicago, making stops in Belvidere, Huntley and Elgin, beginning in 2015. The train will run on Metra and Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The promise of rail coming to downtown Rockford also likely assisted in Gorman & Co.’s interest in the Amerock project.

Long-term impact of contributions on the community

Sunil Puri and his First Rockford Group, and a select few design and construction companies — notably Stenstrom, Larson & Darby Group, Scandroli Construction, Joseph Behr & Sons, Inc., and Rockford Blacktop — have long been among the most notable beneficiaries of politician-developer relations. Their well-documented — and completely legal — heavy contributions to political campaigns have assisted in landing these companies various contracts, which have helped make many of these companies’ executives fairly wealthy. A number of these projects have also provided local jobs. Yet, many of these developments also contributed to urban sprawl and the depleting of the City of Rockford’s tax base.

The depleting of the city’s tax base has meant the city no longer has the funds to properly care for roads or make necessary infrastructure improvements — or even keep street lights turned on — let alone hire and retain a fully motivated and properly staffed and equipped police force in one of the country’s most dangerous cities.

A mostly abysmal Rockford Public Schools system has also contributed to sprawl. Since the school desegregation lawsuit of the late 1980s/early 1990s, any parent with the means moved their children to neighboring school districts or enrolled their children in private schools — leading to a private school empire. Meantime, Rockford Public School District has been left with the challenge of educating the remaining 27,000 students — a majority of whom, 78.8 percent, come from low-income households — all while ensuring the safety of students, faculty and staff.

The good news for Rockford residents is that at least with the Morrissey administration — and its connections with Gorman and SupplyCore and other contributors (Morrissey raised more than $50,000 in the last election) — the city’s dedication to sprawl seems to have slowed, while long-awaited development in downtown Rockford is finally slated to happen.

FINALLY, Rockford has committed to “in-fill” rather than “out-fill,” or sprawl. Friends of Ziock (FOZ), the group that fought for the historic preservation of the Amerock/Ziock building, also deserves much of the credit for this River District development.

Citizens should be thankful for the work done by the Morrissey administration, in coordination with city leaders, city council members and other local, state and federal leaders. With the recent announcements of Amtrak service and the Amerock and Ingersoll projects, along with previous and ongoing projects such as the river walk and Morrissey’s support of the Rock River Trail Initiative, Morrissey’s original campaign promise of the “Three Rs” — river, rail and roads — seems to be becoming a reality. Now, if we can only add a “c” to the Three Rs — for “crime” — we may be even better off.

Restoring confidence in elected officials

With regard to campaign finance, voters would be better served not having to wonder whether the Amerock and Ingersoll projects, among others, are happening because they are in the best interests of Morrissey’s campaign contributors or because they are in the best interests of the city and its residents.

For example, we may never know whether the downtown Amerock building would be slated to be converted into a hotel and convention center if Gorman & Co. were not allowed to legally make $4,500 in contributions to Morrissey’s campaign. One would hope this project would have been possible without those contributions and that the contributions and project are simply examples of private and public entities working together for the betterment of the community.

However, in a similar fashion, we may never know whether Barry Bonds would have been able to hit 73 home runs in 2001 without the possible assistance of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Just as PEDs impacted the purity of the game and the integrity of the sport of baseball, campaign contributions are affecting the purity and the integrity of our democratic form of government.

An amendment to the U.S. Constitution is needed to restore integrity to the political process and to restore citizens’ confidence and trust in their elected officials. As history has shown, such an amendment can be made within a year — or it can take more than 200 years. For our nation’s sake, one would hope a 28th Amendment would be in place closer to the former rather than the latter.

From the April 30-May 6, 2014 issue

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