Referendums in Cuyahoga County aim to overturn controversial Supreme Court ruling

Mike Crissman

As residents of a swing state, Ohioans know all too well the effects of unlimited money in politics. President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney’s campaigns have spent a combined $128 million in TV ads in Ohio alone this election season.

The flood of money into politics has largely been made possible by highly controversial campaign finance laws affirmed by the Supreme Court. To combat, two Cuyahoga County communities — Brecksville and Newburgh Heights — have referendums on the ballot this November aimed at limiting political contributions by wealthy corporations and labor unions.

“Every level of our government [is] being run for profit and bought for profit,” said Rose Petsche, founder of Brecksville Citizens for Transparent Politics. The group helped put Brecksville’s referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot. “Corporations have taken over our government … they don’t want people involved. They don’t want people voting. They want to suppress it.”

Brecksville’s proposed ordinance would create a “Democracy Day” every two years where residents would share their thoughts on the influence of donations by corporations, PACs, super PACs and unions on political campaigns. It would also require the mayor of Brecksville to send letters to Congress saying the city’s residents support a constitutional amendment asserting that corporations are not people.

The legislation on the ballot in Newburgh Heights is similar to Brecksville, but it wouldn’t require its mayor or council to ask anything of the federal government. City leaders in Newburgh Heights proposed the referendum themselves.

There’s been a national debate about whether or not corporate money should be considered free speech protected by the First Amendment ever since the contentious 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 decision, the court stated that the federal government can not restrict independent political contributions by corporations and unions.

According to a Pew Research Poll conducted in January 2012, 78 percent of those familiar with the Citizens United ruling say its effect on political campaigns has been negative.

Despite widespread bipartisan support for reform, Brecksville city leaders have actively opposed the referendum because they assert city government has no place reforming federal law, especially overturning a Supreme Court decision.

“We just don’t think it’s the proper avenue to go,” says Brecksville City Council President Greg Skaljac. “They should be taking it up with their state and federal legislators and not burdening local government with this kind of a law.”

Nevertheless, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with Brecksville Citizens for Transparent Politics in early October when it denied an appeal by the city to take the issue off the ballot.

Petsche believes more referendums could show up in cities throughout Ohio if the ordinances in Brecksville and Newburgh Heights pass this November.

“We’re hoping to ignite the grass roots movement,” Petsche says. “We always felt if we could do this in Brecksville, we could do it anywhere.”

Contact Mike Crissman at [email protected].