From his perch above I-5, Tom Behan is fighting Citizens United, one commuter at a time
Wearing a bright orange safety vest and matching gloves, Tom Behan stands on the NE 50th Street overpass. It’s rush hour, so an estimated 15,000 cars will pass underneath him in the next couple of hours.
Only a fraction of those drivers will even bother to look up at Behan, a 68-year-old retired Navy veteran and public relations consultant.
A man in an old maroon pickup truck with a white canopy waves at Behan. The driver of a 16-wheel semi-truck blasts his horn.
Occasionally, someone flashes Behan a middle finger. In response, Behan points at his head, a gesture meant to suggest the driver to think about the message on the giant vinyl sign that hangs from a PVC pipe frame.
“Corporations are not people,” it reads, a reference to the 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that determined corporations are allowed to spend money freely on political campaigns.
Behan, like many people, was outraged when he read about the decision now known as Citizens United. But not many people go out and demonstrate near freeways.
Behan began doing so because he was amazed at how few of his friends were familiar with the decision, or realized its potential impact on civic life.
In March 2012, hoping to spread the word about Citizens United, he took to the 50th Street overpass with a vinyl sign that was soon toppled over by the breeze. It was the first time he’d done anything like it.
Behan returned with a friend he met on the overpass. Together they’d built a sturdier sign that he carries by cart to his thrice-weekly shifts.
The response has been encouraging: More people honk and wave than flip Behan off. The type of vehicle seems unrelated to the response: “There’s no predicting who’s going to give you a honk or a wave,” Behan said.
In addition to his “work on bridges,” Behan also volunteers with WAmend, a coalition of local groups planning to put an initiative on the 2014 general election ballot calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. Sixteen other states have already passed advisory resolutions calling for an amendment.
The case is rooted in the 2008 “Hillary: The Movie,” a documentary critical of then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. A right-leaning group, Citizens United, wanted to air the documentary within 30 days of a primary election, but the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) forbade it.
Citizens United challenged FEC, and the Supreme Court agreed, stating that government cannot stifle the political spending of an organization.
The only way to change a Supreme Court decision is through a constitutional amendment, but it’s a huge task. A constitutional amendment takes a massive amount of support from both elected leaders and their constituents. It requires a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate. Then 75 percent of the states have to ratify the amendment by vote.
The last successful grassroots campaign to amend the Constitution was in 1971, to change the legal voting age to 18.
But it’s because of these long odds, not despite them, that people are drawn to opposing Citizens United said David Domke, a University of Washington professor of mass communications. In this sense, Citizens United has much in common with the response to the Roe v. Wade decision, which sparked a long-standing and ardent anti-abortion community, he said.
“Pro-life activists do not oppose Roe v. Wade because they want to win,” Domke said. “It sharpens their identity. It helps them to know who they are.”
Domke said people opposing Citizens United have clung to the idea of a constitutional amendment because there are so few options to combat the decision.
The Citizens United ruling means corporations can spend political money on any campaign from local city councilmembers to the president.
“That’s a very high bar in a society where Congress can’t get anything done,” Domke said.
In January, WAmend hopes to send out 3,600 people to collect 100 signatures each to put an initiative on the 2014 primary election ballot. The initiative would not change any specific law, but would state that the voters of Washington want Congress to pass an amendment repealing the Citizens United decision, said founding member Jay Heyman.
A retired rabbi, Heyman called Citizens United “the greatest civil rights test in our time.”
He’s got some experience in civil rights. As a teen he participated in a sit-in at an Arkansas Woolworth that refused to serve people of color.
In the 1970s, as a rabbi in West Virginia, he became a target of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan group.
The community was embroiled in a debate over text books including topics such as homosexuality, and the Klan staged protests and attacks on religious leaders who supported the schools.
Police had to escort Heyman throughout the town and stay at his home with his wife and two children every night for two weeks, he said.
Heyman sees corporate spending in political elections as the next great threat to civil liberties and believes it is affecting all other issues in the United States. Economic inequality, education and global warming all suffer because of Citizens United, he said.
“It is moneyed interests that keep us from solving our problems in government,” he said.
During his presidential run in 2012, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney embodied the worst fears of Citizens United opponents. He was, Domke said, the consummate business man who famously said “Corporations are people, my friend.”
Citizens United didn’t help Romney much. The type of spending the Citizens United ruling allows influenced the primary, but not the general election, Domke said. Romney lost the election and faded from view.
Behan, by contrast, sees no end to his overpass vigil. He estimates he’s waved at two million cars. If only a few of the people in those vehicles go home and look up “Citizens United” it will be worth it, he said, because they will likely be angry, too.
“I don’t understand why a person wouldn’t be opposed to this,” he said.
CommentsRight on Tom! David (Domke) may say that money didn't make a difference in 2012, but I think when you reach a saturation point, which takes a lot of money and happened on both sides of the presidential campaign, voters get turned off. However, the lower you go on the election ladder, the easier it is to have money influence political thinking. We need a Constitutional Amendment to stop wealth and corporate greed from totally taking over our government at all levels. This issue seems to be at the root of so many problems NOT getting addressed by congress. We have lost our voice to the wealthy and corporate interests. And our representatives have to spend all their time trying to get money instead of doing our needed work! Thank you Tom!
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