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PFAW Panel on Constitutional Amendment at Take Back the Dream

At this week’s “Take Back the American Dream” conference, Representative Keith Ellison, Missoula City Councilman Jason Weiner, Rev. Barry Hargrove, and Maryland State Senator and Constitutional Law Professor Jamie Raskin joined PFAW’s Marge Baker for a panel discussion entitled “Overturning Citizens United: A Movement Mandate,” to discuss the growing grassroots momentum at the local, state and federal levels for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s flawed 2010 decision.

The standing-room only audience heard about a groundbreaking statewide ballot initiative in Montana calling for overturning the Citizens United decision by amending the Constitution, as well the pending Supreme Court decision on whether to hear the Montana State Supreme Court case giving the high court the opportunity to reconsider its decision. Panelists discussed the underlying need for amending the Constitution as the only effective way to reverse the harm caused by the Supreme Court in Citizens United. As put by Jamie Raskin, who is also a PFAW Senior Fellow, “For the sake of ‘We the People’ and our democracy, all corporate money is foreign money.”

The panel examined how this fight has galvanized the progressive movement as a whole, from jumpstarting voter registration drives to increasing general interest in politics and civic engagement.

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Waking up from the Nightmare

Although the DREAM Act seemed to remain a dream after being blocked by Senate Republicans in 2010, the Obama administration has recently taken steps to make staying in the United States a reality for thousands of young undocumented immigrants.

Last Friday, President Obama announced a new policy directive to allow undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 to apply for a two-year, renewable work permit if they met an array of criteria, including arriving to the United States before the age of 16, and are in high school, graduated from high school, or were honorably discharged from the armed forces. The plan doesn’t grant amnesty or a road to citizenship; but as the president stated, it is a “temporary solution” and “the right thing to do.”

This decision will positively impact up to 800,000 law-abiding, hard-working Americans who have until now lived in constant fear of deportation. One such DREAMer is 26 year-old Mohammad Abdollahi, who immigrated to this nation at the age of three from Iran. His family’s visa soon expired and was not renewed. Not only has Mohammad had to live the majority of his life in fear of deportation, but the price of being sent back to Iran was incredibly high. Mohammad is openly gay and due to Iran’s policy of capital punishment towards gay individuals, his deportation could be a death sentence.

With his life literally on the line, and running out of options, Mohammad became one of the first students to come out as undocumented in an attempt to pressure congress to pass the DREAM Act in 2010. Although the act didn’t pass, he hasn’t given up the fight. When President Obama made this historic announcement last week, Mohammad was occupying an Obama re-election office in Deerborn, Michigan as a symbolical plea directed towards the president to take action. This change in policy ends this nightmare for Mohammad and so many other DREAMers like him.

In his address in the Rose Garden, President Obama stated, “We are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids.” Sadly, it seems many Republicans in Congress don’t share this value. After the announcement, Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas claimed, "President Obama's decision to grant amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants is a breach of faith with the American people…It also blatantly ignores the rule of law that is the foundation of our democracy.”

Not only is Rep. Smith just flat wrong to claim that the plan grants “amnesty,” he appears to believe that the foundation of our democracy requires ridding our nation of young, productive and patriotic members of society. Republicans should wake up and embrace this change as an opportunity to finally be a part of a more permanent solution.

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Context for the Effects of Citizens United

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is commonly criticized by good government advocates because it has led to countless wealthy individuals and corporations making unlimited contributions in unprecedented amounts to groups attempting to sway electoral outcomes, often anonymously. As a result, those with means are able unfairly amplify their voices above that of average Americans.

To appreciate the magnitude of the ruling’s anti-democratic effects, it is important to consider the sheer amount of money that it takes to be a player in the Super-PAC game.

Sheldon Adelson, one of the world’s richest men with a far-right personal political agenda, plans to contribute upwards of $71 million in this election cycle, according to the Huffington Post. He is so determined to unseat the president that, after sinking $21.5 million on Super PACs supporting Newt Gingrich’s failed run, he is ready to refocus his efforts and spend similarly astronomical sums to support groups in favor of Mitt Romney and Republican congressional candidates.

His influence is real – $71 million can buy a lot of TV advertising, and ads funded by Super PACs and 501c4 groups can be particularly nasty because they are not officially “accountable” to a candidate. Average Americans, even those who can afford to contribute toward their preferred candidate, simply cannot compete on this scale. According to a friend of Adelson, “We think ‘$100 million, wow!’ But it’s a meaningless amount of money to him.”

In an interview with Forbes, Adelson acknowledged the reality that his extraordinary wealth allows him to influence elections in ways he otherwise couldn’t, in ways which ordinary Americans cannot. He doesn’t even think it’s a good thing, but that hasn’t stopped him: "I'm against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections," he said. "But as long as it's doable, I'm going to do it."

The only way to make hijacking our elections no longer “doable” is with a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. To anyone without a spare $100 million, the need couldn’t be clearer.

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Citizens United Continues to Stack the Deck

Two short paragraphs from a Wall Street Journal article about billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s political contributions vividly illustrate the damage to democracy done by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision:

Mr. Adelson has told friends that he intends to give at least $100 million to conservative causes and candidates this election cycle. He contributed some $250,000 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who just won against a labor union-forced recall election there.

But he has also told his friends and colleagues that he would prefer to keep his contributions under wraps in order to avoid controversy, and will likely focus donations mostly on non-profits affiliated with political PACS, which don’t have to disclose the names of donors. He is expected to donate to the conservative non-profit Crossroads GPS, which was founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, a longtime friend of Mr. Adelson, according to Republican fundraisers.

The article was prompted by recent revelations that Mr. Adelson donated $10 million – the largest amount single donation so far – to a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney.

Adelson is credited for single-handedly keeping Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign afloat (for a while, at least), and he has long been pressured by Republican fundraisers to support Mr. Romney. Thanks to Citizens United, one very wealthy individual has the power to donate unlimited amounts to super PACS that are unaccountable to the public. And, as is the case with special interests who try to use their enormous wealth to skew elections, Adelson would prefer to keep his activities a secret so no one even knows who’s buying the race. Thanks to Citizens United, he can do exactly that.

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Hurwitz Finally Confirmed By Voice Vote

Senate Republicans agree to a voice vote to confirm a nominee who they claimed was not qualified to be a federal judge.
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Another Day, Another Filibuster

The just-defeated filibuster of Justice Andrew Hurwitz to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was unwarranted.
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Allen West's "American Way'

Congressman Allen West (R-FL) is out with a new ad this week. Set to soaring, dramatic music, the Congressman tells the story of his upbringing and how describes how his father gave him the opportunity live the American Dream. He runs through typical Republican talking points calling for tax cuts and slashing services, and laments the failings of Washington. It’s standard campaign-ad fare, and he concludes by stating “I’m just getting started; that’s the American Way.”

However, West’s record suggests that his notion of the “American Way” is rather at odds with the Constitution’s promise of freedom and equality for all.

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion for all Americans, and Article VI of the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” But West thinks that Representative Keith Ellison (D-MI), a practicing Muslim, represents the "antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established." He also harbors some vehemently anti-Islamic ideas.

America is a country that values free speech and open debate. Yet West has a habit of resorting to calling his colleagues who disagree with him Communists. Liberals, he said, can just “Get the hell out of the United States of America.” 

Freedom of the press doesn’t seem to be high on his list either. He once called for censoring American news agencies for publishing information about the government’s activities.

West believes America is a land of opportunity – something to which he owes his own success – but “equality” and “fairness” somehow fly in the face of liberty. Marriage equality, he says, is not only un-American but will destroy society as we know it.

Congressman West may have produced a slick ad, but the agenda he pushes in Congress would increase inequality, harm working families, destroy core constitutional liberties and cripple Americans’ ability to address pressing problems through government. That’s not the American Way.

PFAW

New Report Grades States' Response to Citizens United

A new report by the Corporate Reform Coalition released this morning grades each state's response to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, the flawed decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited, undisclosed spending by corporations and special interests to influence our elections. The decision forced 22 states to reexamine their laws on the books that limited such expenditures.

The report, "Sunlight State By State After Citizens United," examines how many states either repealed their corporate expenditure bans or declared them unenforceable in the wake of Citizens United. Montana is the notable exception, claiming that its law is still valid. That claim will be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Other states have adopted more creative approaches to ensure that the public is informed about the outsized influence in our elections that corporations try to buy with their vast treasuries. For example, Alaska, California and North Carolina require the disclosure of the top contributors to political ads, and Iowa requires that shareholders be directly informed of corporate political spending.

The Corporate Reform Coalition, which is composed of more than 75 good-government groups seeking to combat undisclosed money in elections, evaluated each state's response to the Citizens United decision by scoring disclosure requirements related to political spending. While only a constitutional amendment to reverse the Court's decision can undo the damage of Citizens United, disclosure requirements are an important step toward a more transparent democracy.

AK, CA, CO, HI IA, IL, MA, NC, SD, VT, WA, WI and WV all received the top score. IN, SC, WY, NY and ND received the lowest scores.

You can read the report here.

PFAW

Vitter Single-Handedly Deprives Louisianans of Their Day in Court

Sen. David Vitter's single-handed partisan obstruction of a qualified judicial nominee is a far cry from the principles he claimed when a Republican was president.
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PFAW Helps Get Out the Vote in Wisconsin

PFAW staff, members and activists have been very busy in Wisconsin working to turn out every last progressive vote in the final days leading up to the June 5 recall election.

Here's PFAW Political Director Randy Borntrager at a field office with our great partners at Voces De La Frontera, who headed up canvassing efforts in the Latino community:

Here he is giving a radio interview:

And canvassing door to door with volunteers from Voces:

These are just a few images from GOTV weekend... as members of our team return home and things become less intense, we'll have more pictures to share with you from various activies and events from our Recall the Right campaign in Wisconsin.

 

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Recall Foes Resort to Cheating

Opponents of Wisconsin's recall elections have resorted to one of the Right's favorite dirty tricks to suppress the vote: deceitful robocalls.

Wisconsin voters are reporting that last night, the day before the recall election, a wave of vote-suppressing calls are being made around the state, targeting voters likely to oppose Governor Scott Walker. The call allegedly tells voters that if they signed the recall petition, there was no need to actually vote: "If you signed the recall petition, you do not have to vote because that would be your vote." 

Unfortunately, the deceitful robocall tactic is not new in Wisconsin. Last summer, a group told Wisconsin Democrats not to vote on election day and instead wait for an absentee ballot. 

Wisconsin voters, be aware. It seems that the folks who pretend to be so concerned about voter fraud are in fact trying to steal the election themselves.

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PFAW Presents at 'Crisis in the Courts' Forum

Yesterday, PFAW’s Marge Baker joined a distinguished panel of legal scholars, federal judges and officials representing members of congress and the White House at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, OH to discuss possible solutions to the unprecedented vacancy crisis in the federal courts. Republican obstruction in the Senate has severely impaired the important work of the federal judiciary, with serious consequences for the American people. Fortunately, the White House has signaled a renewed focus on ending the stalemate and restoring the court system’s ability to swiftly serve those who seek justice in a court of law.

Panelists included:

• Marge Baker, Executive Vice President for Policy & Program, PFAW

• Hon. James S. Gwin, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio

• Christopher Kang, Senior Counsel to the President, Office of White House Counsel

• Jeremy Paris, Chief Counsel for Nominations and oversight, Chairman Patrick Leahy, Senate Judiciary Committee

• Michael Zubrensky, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Policy, U.S. Department of Justice

• Jonathan Adler, Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director, Center for Business Law & Regulation, Case Western Reserve University School of Law

The panel was sponsored by The Cleveland –Marshall College of Law, National Coalition of Jewish Women, Ohio Coalition of Constitutional Values, Alliance for Justice, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and People For the American Way.

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Wal-Mart Drops ALEC

Wal-mart announced yesterday that it is ending their membership in ALEC, making it the 18th corporation to do so. The company also joins 4 nonprofits and 54 state legislators who have severed their ties to the organization.

Wal-Mart had been a member of ALEC since 1993, was a member of ALEC’s Corporate Board and was the co-chair of the recently-disbanded Public Safety and Elections Task Force – the committee responsible for advancing dangerous gun legislation like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law around the country. Even as the nation’s largest seller of guns, Wal-Mart decided that the ALEC agenda is too extreme, going far beyond the free-market principles the organization claims to focus on:

"Previously, we expressed our concerns about ALEC's decision to weigh in on issues that stray from its core mission 'to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets," Maggie Sans, Wal-Mart vice president of public affairs and government relations, said in a May 30 letter addressed to ALEC's national chairman and executive director.

"We feel that the divide between these activities and our purpose as a business has become too wide. To that end, we are suspending our membership in ALEC."

Wal-Mart’s task force participation also included Health and Human Services, Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development, and Tax and Fiscal Policy, according to documents obtained and released by Common Cause. These committees are responsible for developing model bills that undermine workers rights, insurance mandates, capital gains taxes for the wealthy and deregulating certain industries.

People For the American Way’s President and Director of African American Religious Affairs spoke out about Wal-mart’s decision in a statement released this morning:

“Wal-Mart’s decision confirms the growing consensus in the business community that ALEC does far more harm than good,” said Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way. “The 18 corporations that have stopped supporting ALEC’s dangerous agenda have made the right choice. Customers don’t want their paychecks going to support laws that disenfranchise and endanger their families and communities.”

“I commend Wal-Mart’s decision to listen to the thousands upon thousands of American voices who believe Wal-Mart had no place in an organization that tries to suppress the right to vote, promote discrimination and presents dangerous gun laws that are harmful to all,” said Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action. “When we stand together to make our voices heard, the movement we build cannot be ignored. ALEC’s extreme and undemocratic agenda has motivated a diverse movement that is growing stronger every day. One by one, our efforts are helping make our communities better for all families and especially those most vulnerable – those with special needs, our children and our elders.”

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Mary E. Gonzalez Wins Texas House Primary

People For the American Way is happy to congratulate Mary E. Gonzalez on her win last night in a Democratic primary in El Paso, Texas. She will run unopposed in November for District 75’s seat in the Texas State House of Representatives. Gonzalez, endorsed by PFAW Action Fund’s Young Elected Progressive program will be the only current openly gay member of the Texas state legislature.

Gonzalez won her primary with a decisive victory and garnered 52% of the vote. She has spent the past few years working in higher education with the University of Texas at Austin and Southwestern University. Additionally, she’s shown great leadership with her work as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for Texas’ Queer People of Color organization.

Once elected, Gonzalez will join former State Representative Glen Maxey as the only two openly LGBT members to have served in the Texas House. Her election may show a cultural shift in what is still a largely conservative state and gives the Texas LGBT community a voice in the Texas state government. Her addition to the Texas State House of Representatives cuts the number of state legislatures without an LGBT official to 16.

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Super PACs Make 2008 Look Like Child's Play

In total, the candidates in the 2008 presidential election spent just over $1 billion on their campaigns. Just four years ago, President Obama raised $750 million, primarily via small donations from grassroots supporters. But the landscape looks pretty different in 2012: that amount will be surpassed by just a handful of GOP patrons and super PACs alone.

Made possible by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, dark money organizations like Restore Our Future and American Crossroads will raise and spend virtually unlimited amounts to prop up Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican ticket. Politico notes that American Crossroads and the affiliated Crossroads GPS, a Karl Rove brainchild, is expected to spend up to $300 million. That’s almost as much as John McCain spent on his entire 2008 run.

The bulk of campaign expenditures go to advertising – and $1 billion certainly buys a lot of airtime. Thanks to Citizens United, this elite group of financiers can buy the loudest, most far-reaching voice in the 2012 elections. The amount collected by Super PACs and 501 c(4)s dramatically dwarfs traditional party and direct-campaign fundraising, which is the mechanism by which the grassroots are able to contribute to the process. The contrast is stark:

Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, spent twice as much on the air as the campaign did in the thick of the primaries: Through March, the campaign had put $16.7 million into TV, while ROF shelled out $33.2 million.

In Florida, the super PAC outspent the campaign, $8.8 million to $6.7 million. (The campaign can get more spots per dollar because of more favorable rates.) In Michigan, it was $2.3 million to $1.5 million. In Ohio, ROF outspent the campaign, $2.3 million to $1.5 million.

The Citizens United decision has granted the 0.01% more leeway to try to buy our democracy than ever before. The sheer numbers make the need for constitutional remedies to overturn that decision and restore the balance of influence in our elections to everyday Americans is more apparent than ever.

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Citizens United Turns 2012 Race into Billionaire's Playground

If there was any question that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United skews the balance of influence in our elections to the rich, an analysis by Rolling Stone shows that the real beneficiaries of the decision are really the very very rich. This profile of the 16 donors who have given at least $1 million to super PACs supporting Mitt Romney, including hedge fund managers, hotel tycoons, oil barons and of course, William Koch, reveals who is making the biggest impact in the presidential election.

In a democracy, we should be electing those who represent vast swaths of the American people. But one thing is clear: the special interests propping up Romney’s campaign have very little in common with average Americans. As Rolling Stone notes:

Most of the megadonors backing his candidacy are elderly billionaires: Their median age is 66, and their median wealth is $1 billion. Each is looking for a payoff that will benefit his business interests, and they will all profit from Romney's pledge to eliminate inheritance taxes, extend the Bush tax cuts for the superwealthy – and then slash the top tax rate by another 20 percent. Romney has firmly joined the ranks of the economic nutcases who spout the lie of trickle-down economics.

How are these individuals able to throw so much of their wealth into the race? Essentially, Citizens United allows individuals and corporations to skirt the caps on contributions to campaign treasuries by funneling money through entities like Super PACs and 501c4 organizations:

Under the new rules, the richest men in America are plying candidates with donations far beyond what Congress intended. "They can still give the maximum $2,500 directly to the campaign – and then turn around and give $25 million to the Super PAC," says Trevor Potter, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. A single patron can now prop up an entire candidacy, as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson did with a $20 million donation to the Super PAC backing Newt Gingrich.

It’s unlikely that these donors are throwing so much money into the race solely for bragging rights – they certainly have agendas of their own. Most of the individuals profiled in the article stand to benefit from Romney agenda: more tax cuts to the rich, lax regulation of Wall Street and other industries, a hamstrung E.P.A, lucrative government contracts – and their outsized contributions demonstrate their belief that money buys influence. Citizens United exacerbated this unfortunate reality. At least that can be fixed by the people, with an amendment to the Constitution.

PFAW

Guest Post: Fighting the Right in Wisconsin, by WI State Senator Chris Larson

Wisconsin has enjoyed a rich tradition as a state of opportunity, a state welcoming social innovation and embracing progressive values. However, today communities across Wisconsin today are bracing for our June 5th gubernatorial recall election in response to a divide and conquer legislative strategy that rejected compromise and moderation.

Over the last year and a half, Wisconsin has reversed course to become a petri-dish for a radical, corporate social agenda. Growing evidence illustrates a strong influence by ALEC in promoting an economic and social attack on Wisconsin workers and their families.

Although the assault on workers’ rights to collectively bargain is perhaps the most widely publicized of these legislative efforts, it was is just the tip of the iceberg. Wisconsin’s middle class is being hurt by massive funding cuts to K-12 public education, fewer restrictions on for-profit schools, greater restrictions on voting, debilitating funding reductions to technical schools, reduced water and air pollution protections, massive corporate tax giveaways, an unparalleled attack on women’s health and reproductive rights, defunded public transit, reduced access to life-saving state safety-net programs, and fewer consumer protections.

Despite the extraordinary legislative efforts of Senate Democrats and countless hours of debate by Assembly Democrats calling for negotiations and moderation, the Republican majorities in the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate were unwilling to check the Governor’s brutal attack on workers and their families. This attack on workers has left Wisconsin mired in a sluggish economy, leaving Wisconsin dead last in the nation for job growth.

With the Wisconsin legislature not scheduled to return to the Capitol until January, all eyes are on the electoral process. The Governor’s seat and control of the State Senate will be decided on June 5th. The success or failure of these recall elections will likely determine the policy direction Wisconsin will take, and will have a ripple effect in legislative houses across our nation.

Chris Larson is a Wisconsin State Senator and a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.

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