By Devin Hiett

It’s his day off after a hectic weekend conference in Washington D.C., but rather than relaxing at home Azor Cole has come into work. Sipping coffee in his boss’ office, Cole is content soaking in the empowering energy that helps fuel his passion for Democratic reform. 

Cole is the state manager at American Promise, a cross-partisan nonprofit that organizes and empowers Americans from across the nation to advocate for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Passage of the 28th Amendment would repeal the controversial Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, a 5-4 ruling in 2010 that extended First Amendment protections to corporations by classifying corporate political spending as free speech. 

American Promise is using a state-by-state approach to garner national support for the 28th Amendment. Citizen activists in over 15 states have started regional American Promise Association chapters and over 800 cities and towns that have passed local resolutions in favor of the 28th Amendment. 

Once a year, American Promise activists from around the country come together in Arlington, Virginia, for the National Citizen Leadership Conference, the nation’s largest event devoted to passing a 28th Amendment. On Oct. 19, over 200 citizens spawning the political, geographical and generational spectrum came together for the third-annual conference with the goal of decreasing big money’s influence in politics. 

One of these citizens was Jim Rubens, a former Republican state senator from New Hampshire. Rubens describes himself as a principled conservative and has the physical aesthetic to match. Tall and slender with wispy white hair, Rubens could often be found at the conference coaching fellow activists on how to market the 28th Amendment’s appeal to Republicans.

Rubens has been fighting against what he calls “special interests oversized political influence” since the ’90s when he pledged not to accept PAC money during his race for New Hampshire State Senate in 1994. Throughout his four years serving as a state senator, Rubens co-sponsored bills to create public financing for elections and served on multiple study commissions researching the impacts of unchecked political spending. 

For decades, Rubens said he and his political colleagues “could see the immense weight of special interests even at the state legislative level,” although he believes the stakes are higher now than ever before. 

“The problem has become bigger, the amounts of money have become bigger, and so the policy implications have become bigger,” Rubens said. “That’s another incentive for entities to play in politics, because when the stakes get higher things become more intense.” 

Another change Rubens has noticed during his past two decades of advocacy work is a decrease in the public’s trust in government, he said. 

This observation was supported by a 2019 Pew Research Center report, which found that citizens’ trust in government has been steadily declining since the 1960s. According to the study, 75 percent of Americans say their trust in the federal government has been shrinking and 64 percent believe citizens’ trust in one another is also decreasing, making it increasingly difficult to solve many of society’s problems. 

Rubens believes American Promise has the unique potential to amass support across the ideological spectrum since the political influence of big money affects citizens equally regardless of political affiliation, he said. 

“In this unlimited spending regime, there are big spenders on all sides of all issues advocating for  every point of view,” Rubens said. “Facing this mega-issue of political corruption is in the best interest of most or all of us, so we have to decide as a group that we’re going to do something.” 

Rubens has testified on behalf of various organizations advocating for campaign finance reform over the past decade. When American Promise’s 28th Amendment bill came to New Hampshire over a year ago, Cole recruited Rubens to testify before the state legislature. 

The bill ultimately passed, making New Hampshire the 20th state to call on Congress to allow limits on political spending. For the 28th Amendment to become part of the constitution, it needs to be passed by 18 more states to reach the threshold of  38 out of the 50 states needed to ratify a constitutional amendment. 

So far, bills in support of the 28th Amendment have been ratified by states like Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Maryland, Washington and Vermont. Likely future targets include Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

The people behind the movement

Ann Drumm, a climate activist from Dallas who organized the first American Promise Association in Texas, hopes her state will soon follow suit and call for the 28th Amendment. 

Drumm’s advocacy for campaign finance reform began while she was volunteering as an environmental activist with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit organization that advocates for national policies to address climate change. 

Citizens’ Climate Lobby uses a conservative, market-based policy approach to address climate change, yet struggle to gain Republican support for its cause. This seemed suspicious to Drumm.

“I started asking myself why because they (conservative legislators) should be all over it, so I started educating myself. I started reading,” Drumm said.

After reading books like “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer and “Republic, Lost” by Lawrence Lessig, Drumm realized her goal of achieving meaningful action on the climate crisis was directly tied to the influence of big money in Congress. So she began getting involved with nonprofits that focused on issues like campaign finance, gerrymandering and ranked-choice voting―an electoral system that allows voters to rank candidates by preference.

In 2018, Drumm learned about American Promise, which uses the same cross-partisan advocacy model as Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Drumm said she was comfortable with this type of advocacy and is passionate about nonprofit work that emphasizes humanity and cooperation over partisanship and the politics of difference. 

“Coming together to fight for a common cause doesn’t require us to agree on everything,” Drumm said. “I can work with people that I have some substantial political disagreements with if we can agree on some basic values and some steps forward that are built on that agreement.”

When it comes to cross-partisan support for the 28th Amendment, a recent national study from the University of Maryland found that 75 percent of survey respondents — including 66 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats — support decreasing the influence of money in politics.

Drumm realized there was an unfulfilled need in Texas for an organization working  systematically to pass a constitutional amendment addressing big money’s influence. She also knew Texas faces a unique challenge when it comes to reform advocacy. Unlike many other states, residents in Texas do not have the power to create statewide ballot initiatives or referendums, because in 1914 Texas voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed residents to place new legislation on a popular ballot.

This all led Drumm to decide she would devote her time and energy to American Promise. She appreciated the organization’s commitment to a single issue and one cohesive policy solution.

“I think when organizations get involved advocating on a lot of different issues they run the risk of spreading themselves too thin,” Drumm said. “I like to really focus on just learning to be the best on one issue.”

After forming the North Texas American Promise Association chapter in January 2019, Drumm has been helping create American Promise teams in a dozen cities across Texas, each working to pass city council resolutions in support of the 28th Amendment. So far, Austin is the only Texas city that has passed a resolution, but Drumm expects this to change by the end of 2020. 

“My overall hope for the movement is that together those of us who are working on democracy reform — whether it be money in politics, gerrymandering or voting rights — that together we build a more responsive democracy that is able to address the myriad substantive issues it is not currently addressing very well,” Drumm said. “And I personally hope that with the 28th Amendment we can change the dynamic of the conversation around climate change in this country.” 

Like Drumm, Cole’s background in environmental advocacy helped ignite his passion for Democratic reform. 

While studying public relations and geography at Syracuse University, Cole worked as an environmental columnist for his university’s newspaper. His interest in political journalism exposed him to “stories with the consistent underlying theme of corruption and of people organizing together to combat legalized corruption.” 

After graduation, Cole was interning in upstate New York with Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group, where he was assigned to write a testimony for his boss to deliver about the importance of the 28th Amendment. 

Jeff Clements, founder of American Promise, heard Cole’s testimony and encouraged him to apply for a new position American Promise was creating. Cole got the job and within a few months he relocated from his hometown of Seattle to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where American Promise is based. 

For Cole, working to decrease the influence of special interests in politics is essential and empowering work, as he believes this is the critical issue “underpinning so many of society’s ills.” 

The Supreme Court’s interpretation that money is synonymous with free speech has created a dysfunctional political system unable to achieve meaningful action on issues like the opioid epidemic, gun control, healthcare and climate change, Cole said. 

Cole, who describes himself as someone who is “constantly questioning if what I’m doing is the most efficient way to solve a problem” believes that a constitutional amendment is the most effective way to remediate the problems plaguing American democracy, he said.

While Cole acknowledged that the threshold to ratify a constitutional amendment is “rightfully high,” he believes that just because something is hard does not mean it is impossible or not worth trying for.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” Cole said. “We have 27 amendments — if people think it’s too hard, they should look at history and history will tell them that even though it’s hard, it might be possible. Many of our country’s biggest achievements have come by way of constitutional amendments.”

Cole’s overall hope for the movement is to create a functioning democracy where voter interests are prioritized over corporate ones, he said. 

“The thing I’m most excited about is a decrease in voter apathy and an increase in civic participation where people’s votes will count for more,” Cole said. “Elected officials will be more reliant on their constituents than their donors and people will feel that their votes count for more and vote more frequently because of that.” 

The movement in Oklahoma

Robert Kerr, Ph.D. professor of media law and media history at The University of Oklahoma, became interested in the influence of corporate political media spending while he was researching his graduate thesis at OU.

When Kerr began researching the legal history of corporate political influence, he was open minded. Researching a dissertation requires spending a lot of time analyzing all sides of an argument and studying myriad related cases, he said.

His research ultimately led him to conclude “that the court had already protected corporate expression in many ways and that to go any further would almost certainly not be good for democratic processes,” Kerr said.

Since earning his Ph.D., Kerr has devoted much of his career to creating a body of First Amendment research that includes two books, a law review, a book chapter and more than a dozen refereed publications focusing on the legal and policy-related implications of the Citizens United decision and the increasingly powerful political influence of corporations. 

American Promise became aware of Kerr’s research and invited him to get involved. Kerr is now actively involved with the organization and helped co-host events in Oklahoma City in support of the 28th Amendment and attended events in Tulsa, where Oklahoma’s first American Promise Association was founded in 2017. 

One of Kerr’s major advocacy goals is to inform his students in the Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication about the legal history of corporation’s political rights and how the Citizens United decision influenced corporate spending in the media. 

Kerr also travels around the state to teach Oklahomans about the legal ramifications of Citizens United. He said there are a lot of public misconceptions regarding the case. Often, someone attending one of the events Kerr speaks at will tell him they support the Citizens United decision because they are a pro-business conservative, but they usually do not have a full grasp of the case’s legal consequences, Kerr said.

“The main thing that changed in terms of law is that for the first time ever the court said corporations can spend their stockholders money,” Kerr said. “If I invest in a corporation and if I’m anybody — if I’m the most conservative person in the world — I’m hoping to make money and I probably don’t want them spending stockholders money for political candidates.”

Sometimes people will respond to Kerr by saying they might be OK with their money being spent by corporations on political campaigns if they support the same candidates. However, corporations are not legally required to inform investors or the public about which campaigns they donate to, Kerr said.

“Most corporations have decided it’s not in their interest to reveal who they’re supporting because they want to sell to everybody,” Kerr said. “You might be investing in a company that’s using part of your shareholder money to support a candidate you oppose. You’re never going to know who your money is going to.”

Kerr said this has dark implications for the future of American democracy because it gives corporations more power than citizens to influence elections.

“Corporations have this way to dominate democratic processes and ordinary individuals have less influence,” Kerr said. “They just don’t have that powerful tool. A corporate executive can dip into the company profits but 99.99 percent of everybody else can’t.”

Kerr believes the most promising avenue for Oklahoma to become one of the states calling for a 28th amendment is through a ballot initiative. In Oklahoma, the number of signatures required for residents to create a ballot measure depends on the percentage of votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election. In 2018, the number of valid signatures required to put state questions like medical marijuana on the ballot was 65,987.

“If it (the 28th amendment) should ever make it to the ballot as a referendum and there was some way that the public could really, truly hear both sides I think that even in a state like Oklahoma it could pass,” Kerr said. “And if it even came close in Oklahoma that would tell the nation this issue has real legs.” 

“I sincerely feel it’s a matter of people actually knowing what the court did and what it means rather than just the catch phrases they tend to hear from partisan sources,” Kerr said.

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