The kid down the block and the CEO up the hill

July 22, 2012
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In 2008, I was a junior at the University of Michigan, scrambling to be done with school forever. I was sick of hearing about the job market's grim outlook for my class of debt-saddled, soon-to-be graduates.

Growing ever more dissatisfied with classes and what I felt was becoming a regressive society, I decided, for better or worse, that I could change things around me. I became an organizer for then Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

On weekends, I canvassed door-to-door, both on campus and in my neighborhood. Overall, the reception at most doors was warm.

I spoke with neighbors I'd grown up around and with welcoming strangers not far up the street. Most of the time, I had gone to school with their children or worked with a relative of theirs. I was surprised at how casual conversation led to deeper issues and, in some cases, to decisions to support the young candidate from Illinois by donating money.

The process felt organic and real.

It also felt good to play a role in the process. There are Obama supporters in the Oakland County area who will attest to conversations with their neighbor — me — as a large reason behind their decision to contribute to the campaign and support the candidate.

The same was true for McCain supporters I am sure. I occasionally arrived at doorsteps only to find that a canvasser from the Republican candidate had beat me to it and was already sticking a sign in the front yard.

Now, four years later, as the 2012 election cycle continues into the summer, I am concerned over the ever-decreasing role neighbor-to-neighbor canvassing will play as it loses a battle with high-priced ad campaigns fueled by the unlimited contributions that corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals may now give to Super PACs.

You have most likely heard the term "Super PACs" in the news. Super PACs are political action committees with the power to accept unlimited contributions and use these huge amounts of money to influence elections.

Since fundraising money is a necessary component to winning elected office, allowing these political action committees the opportunity to amass unlimited sums arguably increases the incentive of politicians to cater to the Super PACs and lessens their incentive to act on behalf of ordinary citizens who cannot contribute hundreds, thousands, or millions.

Some would ask how and why this is legal. In fact, the practice was illegal prior to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Jan. 21, 2010.

The Supreme Court's 2010 decision, in a case known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, made it legal for corporations to 1) put independent expenditures toward federal elections and 2) contribute unlimited amounts of money to Super PACs without public disclosure of the identity of the contributor or the amount of the contribution.

It's not as if wealthy individuals and corporate entities were shut out of the political process before the decision in Citizens United. However, the decision has been criticized in many corners as allowing Super PACs to act as "front groups" for corporations, special-interest groups, and wealthy individuals who seek to secretly influence elections without being held accountable for the ads they scatter across TV and social media.

Both retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and President Barack Obama have publically expressed concern over the Citizens United decision. Both believe the decision could lead to undisclosed "foreign entities" contributing money to American elections to influence the political process.

Some would argue that corporations are people in the eyes of the law and thus deserve a voice in election campaigns. They would also note the contribution of a corporation can be said to represent the interest of its leadership, its staff and the community in which it is located. Still others contend that inaccurate or incomplete media coverage is to blame for negative feelings toward Super PACs.

In a political climate that frets over the birth certificate of our president, it is surprising to me that concern over foreign influence has not been more thoroughly addressed in the media. Of course, what the media decides to cover or not to cover is a complicated process. So maybe we are simply left to our own thoughts here.

Regardless of whether you're hoping for a Republican or Democratic congress, or a change at the White House, the floodgates of corporate spending opened by Citizens United might be worth thought. Perhaps the decision will warrant good conversation between neighbors over whether such large corporate — and possibly foreign — influence is a good or bad thing.

So, when those canvassers come knocking on your door on yet another 90-degree day like so many we’ve had this summer, have a glass of ice water waiting for them.

Jerry Avila Johnson Jr. is a summer associate at Varnum law firm, and a second-year law student at Michigan State University College of Law.

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