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Dozens protest Citizens United decision at state Capitol

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Signs displayed in the state Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday morning included: "Corporations are Redefining 'Buy American'," "Corporations Are Not People" and "Money Out, Voters In."

More than 100 people attended a "Rally for Democracy" to protest the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

Public Citizen, the West Virginia Citizen Action Group and several labor unions helped organize the event.

The 2010 Citizens United decision allows corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to independent groups backing or opposing candidates for federal political office.

Before Citizens United, corporations were not allowed to make political contributions. The decision, however, did not overturn the existing ban against corporations giving directly to candidates.

"Democracy runs best when people are informed. Citizens United tries to keep people in the dark," said state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

"I have never heard anyone say we have a better election process when we keep people in the dark. Corporations are not people," Kessler said.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said, "Corporations are becoming the biggest spenders. Eleven states and more than 350 cities have already passed resolutions to end Citizens United. The Constitution says, 'We the People,' not 'We the Corporations'."

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said, "Democracy is not about 'Winner Takes All.' I will fight to defend the access of all voters to the ballot box. Our democracy is only as strong as its most vulnerable voters."

Former secretary of state Edgar "Hike" Heiskell III said, "The people of this nation spent 237 years fighting those who want us to be ruled by the rich and powerful. Big money and Wall Street [leaders] can take their annual $40 million payments and put them into elections.

"The hard-working middle class has to work more and work harder to make ends meet," said Heiskell, a former Republican now registered as an independent. He served on the Republican National Committee from 1987 to 1990.

"We are headed back to a state where the rich and powerful dominate us," Heiskell said.

"Donors are allowed to hide beneath secrecy. They are using masks like super PACs and newly created corporations to influence politics because of Citizens United. The time is now for West Virginians to reverse the influence of the rich and powerful."

The rally urged state legislators to pass a resolution asking for an amendment to overturn Citizens United.

After the 5-4 Citizens United ruling allowing corporations to make unlimited financial donations to independent political groups, some corporations obscured their identities by creating new political action committees or other entities to funnel their donations.

Shortly before Tuesday's rally began, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted an appeal in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission -- a campaign finance case seeking to remove limits on contributions individuals can donate during two-year federal election cycles.

The National Republican Committee and Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama resident, are challenging the current "aggregate limits" on individual contributions -- 46,200 in contributions to individual candidates and $70,800 to political committees during every two-year election cycle.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia previously ruled to uphold the current limits.

Gary Zuckett, executive director of CAG, said, "Considering the previous unfortunate decisions this Supreme Court has given us on election law, I am concerned they may further open the floodgates to unlimited money in our electoral process.

"It is ironic that on a day when more than 100 citizens rallied at our state Capitol against the flood of unregulated money, the U.S. Supreme Court would agree to take this case."

Jonah Minkoff-Zern, a senior organizer for Public Citizen, said during an interview after the rally, "The Citizens United ruling is already having a disastrous impact on our democracy.

"To rule that individuals can give unlimited amounts directly to candidates would further deepen the corrupting influence of money on our political system.

"In the 2012 elections, 47 wealthy individuals gave a total of $130 million to super PACs. It destroys any semblance of democracy when their voice matters so much more than mine.

"It is hopeful that people are rising up against the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United. For us to have a democracy, we cannot allow billions of dollars to be spent on our elections," Minkoff-Zern said.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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