Supreme Court Ruling Could Prove Harsh For Minority Politicians

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 63-year-old law and two of its own decisions that barred corporations and unions from spending money directly from their treasuries on ads that support or oppose candidates for President and Congress. Host Michel Martin talks with Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, and Linda Chavez, chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity, about how the decision to overturn campaign finance law impacts minorities seeking elected office.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I am Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a fresh look at the political trailblazer Shirley Chisholm. She was the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress and now her 1970 memoir is being re-released. We'll talk to a filmmaker who knew her well, about what we might learn from her life and from her story and her career today.

But first, we dig a little deeper into the Supreme Court's decision last week to overturn some long-standing laws in the area of campaign finance.

Last Thursday, in a five to four vote on the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court overturned a 63-year-old law and two of its own decisions that barred corporations and unions from spending money directly from their treasuries on ads that support or oppose candidates for president and Congress.

Companies still cannot give money directly to candidates and anybody who spends money on political ads must still disclose the names of contributors. But it's the change in the law that has gotten many Democrats and progressives upset because they believe that the money raised by corporations will overwhelm the funds that other kinds of groups can raise, and tilt the system inevitably in support of the interest of big corporations.

That was the view expressed yesterday on this program by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the number three Democrat in the House. Today, we wanted to reach out to two more voices to hear what they have to say. We're particularly interested on the potential impact on minority candidates. So we have called Angelo Falcon, he is the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. Also with us is Linda Chavez, she is the chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

ANGELO FALCON: Hi.

LINDA CHAVEZ: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Linda, let me start with you. As we mentioned, we had Congressman Jim Clyburn on the program yesterday, and I just want to play a short clip of our conversation for those who missed it. Here it is.

JAMES CLYBURN: If corporations that have deep pockets come to these campaigns and make it uncomfortable for elected officials to oppose some of their habits, then I think that you've got a problem. It is the first step towards fascism, and I think it's a dangerous escalation of corporate monopoly.

MARTIN: So, Linda, I am interested in your perspective. I was particularly interested in calling you because you have been a candidate for elective office yourself. You ran for the Senate, United States Senate in Maryland some years ago on the Republican ticket. What's your perspective on this? What do you think?

CHAVEZ: Well, first of all I think that the Supreme Court decision was long overdue. The Constitution of the United States is pretty direct and unambiguous. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. And the question is whether or not corporations, which are after all, associations of individuals should somehow be punished in ways that other types of associations are not. And I think the decision was a correct decision.

I don't think it's going to have any kind of pernicious effect. And, frankly, you know, there's been a lot of attention focused on corporate money that's now going to be used in these kinds of ads that are issues- focused or candidate-focused but are independent expenditures, but very little attention has been focused on the fact that labor unions are also able run these kinds of ads. And labor unions, frankly, are well-geared up to be able to do so and I think they are going to have as much, if not more, influence in running...

MARTIN: I'm interested why you say that given that labor unions only represent maybe at most 12 percent of the workforce these days. So it's interesting...

CHAVEZ: Well, they actually represent quite a bit less. They represent about eight percent.

MARTIN: About eight percent. So how is it possible that you think that their influence on the system would be equivalent to that of major corporations?

CHAVEZ: Because they spend their money on elections. In fact, labor unions - I wrote a whole book about this back in 2004. Labor unions now exist primarily to promote political points of view. And, in fact, they use their money, they use their staff in elections in unprecedented ways over the last 20 years. And they are I think, in many ways, less responsive to their members than corporations are to their shareholders.

There aren't a whole lot of shareholders out there who are going to want to see corporate profits turned into political speech except in very exceptional circumstances. And so I think you're going to have a lot more activity on the part of unions than a lot of people anticipate.

MARTIN: Well, just to clarify, I'm being told the unionized workers are some seven percent of the workforce and most of its members are employed by the government. So, just so we are clear.

Angelo, what do you think about this? You wrote an opinion piece about this on your site. You said that the decision is, you said while framed as an association of individuals, including nonprofit corporations and unions, the courts majority clearly ignored the problem of the concentration of corporate power and the fact that corporations have many ways they can express themselves through pacts and other means. You say it also ignores the growing economic inequality in the U.S. and its negative implications for the value of free speech and democratic politics. Tell us more about what you mean by that.

FALCON: Well, that was very well said, well-written, thank you very much. No, basically I think I told you, listening to Linda in terms of the implications. It's because I think the issue is, is what is the role of corporations in society? How do you characterize the nature of corporations?

The idea of making corporations equivalent to individuals of natural being, it just doesn't make sense when we look at the kinds of tensions that we've seen in American society around the issue of corporate power and democracy. And I think there's been a set of precedents, decisions that have basically said that corporations are limited in terms of their rights in many ways. They're not human beings. It can't be equivalent even through association, that there's something special about a corporation.

And what the Supreme Court did was also very suspect in the way it happened. I thought it was very interesting when you look at Stevens' dissent, where he actually charged the majority with having a hidden agenda. And having an agenda - by actually kind of bringing this case in a very unorthodox way, so that they can make this kind of decision. And also the fact that, you know, while I agree with Linda, I'm not sure what the ramifications are going to be.

I mean, right now, people are hyping it up from all different angles. It's either not going to have any impact or the United States is going to be totally destroyed as a result of this decision. I think the only fact I see is that this gives more power to corporations to influence elections, to influence the political process in a way that I think basically plays on these inequalities in this country.

I was looking at it from the point of view of the Latino community, a community that's low income, that doesn't have much representation in the corporate sector, and how this is going to create even more challenges for groups like Latinos to get involved and have a say in the political process.

MARTIN: Let me, let me just jump in just briefly to say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity; and Angelo Falcon of the National Institute for Latino Policy. We're talking about the Supreme Court's recent decision to overturn a previous campaign finance law that barred corporations and unions from making direct - from direct spending on ads that support or oppose candidates. And we're particularly interested on the potential impact on minority candidates.

But, Angelo, you also go on to point out that Latinos represent a trillion dollars worth of buying power in this country and African- Americans certainly represent a number equal to that amount. I mean, couldn't one argue that then perhaps these groups, if they're particularly concerned about having a political voice, need to reorient perhaps their spending priorities to put more effort into supporting or opposing political candidates?

FALCON: Well that's the problem. The problem is that, right now, as a lot of people who supported this decision point to is that we have these regulations that really haven't been that effective at holding back corporate power in terms of, you know, decision making process in terms of policy. What this does, it makes it even tougher to do that. I think it raises the ante in terms of how various communities, various political activists are going to have to kind of play a role to kind of offset this increased power, I think, that corporation is going to have.

And so, I think that the Supreme Court decision basically, you know, ignores those kinds of, you know, situations where corporations really represent a special case in terms of the kind of concentration their insulation, I think, from, you know, basic political processes. And, yes, I think there are some countervailing forces, some new challenges that this create.

For example, in the Latino community, for example, I'm trying to organize the whole corporations accountable. They obviously see us as a major market that they would now want to offend. I don't think they're going to go out of their way to create problems. But yet, it's not a group that we really have a lot of accountability over.

MARTIN: Let's let Linda Chavez respond here. Linda, it just seem, I mean Angelo's point that Latinos as a group - and there are certainly exceptions - tend to be, at this point in our history, lower income than other groups. African-Americans, of course, you know, we know the data there that there's a sort of a wide range of sort of identities in both of these groups. But on average, they tend to earn less.

So, isn't it sort of intuitively obvious that they would have less ability to negotiate their interest if money is the main vehicle by which their political interests are advocated? I mean, doesn't it seem intuitively obvious that there is an imbalance in the system?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think Angelo sort of glided over the point that in fact Latinos are a huge market in United States. They represent a very large part of the market in the United States, the consumer goods. And therefore, they do have power. They have power in the way in which they spend their money. And because there are choices available in most things, if you found a corporation taking a position that Latinos found not to be in their interest, then they could in fact engage in boycotts, simply avoid buying the products of a company whose behavior they didn't approve.

But I want to get back to the point of this idea that somehow corporations have this huge influence in American politics. If you look at the Center for Responsive Politics, which is a (unintelligible) organization, but one that does a very good job of tracking political spending and who gives what to whom. And you look at the top donors in the United States. The top political donor in the United States is the National Education Association. It gave in 2007-2008 cycle $56 million to politics.

There isn't a corporation that comes close. The only association of realtors which is the number sixth rank gave only $28 million. And there was not a single corporation on here, obviously corporations don't give direct political contributions, but their individual members who work for those corporations or executive, et cetera do. And when you look at the way in which those executives actually donate their money, they are much more likely to try to split the baby down the middle giving both to Democrats and Republicans.

So, this idea that somehow corporations speak with a single mind that they're going to use their money in ways that are somehow not in the interest of their shareholders, I just think is naive and does not recognize that corporations are in fact aggregates of individual.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, this is an interesting topic and we'll have to revisit it perhaps right around the midterm elections. I thank you both for joining us. Linda Chavez is the chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity. She joined us on the line from her home office in Virginia. Angelo Falcon is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. He joined us on the line from his office in New York. I thank you both for speaking with us.

FALCON: Thank you.

CHAVEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: Just ahead, the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm famously described herself as unbought and unbossed. She was driven to succeed despite the opposition.

SHOLA LYNCH: People her whole life were telling her she couldn't do things and she honestly got irrigated with this.

MARTIN: We'll talk about the significance of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress, the first African-American to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Her memoir is being re- released.

We'll talk more about that next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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