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Can Republicans Be Persuaded to Join the Fight Against Citizens United?

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Will there ever be enough Republican support to accomplish the daunting task of overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which lets corporations and unions spend millions of dollars to drown out your voice in elections?

That's the question I was left pondering after Friday's rally in Philadelphia to mark the third anniversary of the infamous decision.

Organizers Angela Lee of PennPIRG and Steve Masters of Public Citizen had done a great job of recruiting speakers from across the progressive spectrum. The modest crowd, braving a chill winter wind amid the shivery shadows in Love Park, across from City Hall, heard an insistent message: Contrary to what the five activist judges on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, corporations are not people and writing checks is not speech. To undo the damage Citizens United inflicted, we need a constitutional amendment to repeal it.

Taking the podium that day were two state legislators, reps from the Sierra Club, WolfPAC and Decarcerate PA, and various activists for peace, economic justice and good government.

From City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez to the fiery Rabbi Arthur Waskow, they represented many of the seeds needed to grow a mass movement. And that movement will need a lot of mass if it is going to be powerful enough to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the judicial fiat that has allowed our elections to be tainted by multimillion-dollar propaganda campaigns funded by secretive special interests.

But, in my mind, Carole Rubley was the day's key speaker. That's because she represented an essential, but as yet scarce, ally in the fight against Citizens United: She is a Republican and served 16 years in the Pennsylvania House from Philadelphia's suburbs. She is now a board member of the clean government group Common Cause's Pennsylvania chapter.

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Philadelphia marked the third anniversary of the infamous ruling with a rally in Love Park, next to City Hall. (Photo is author's own.)

If citizens are going to overturn the grossly misnamed "Citizens United" ruling, it's going to take Republican votes in the U.S. House and Senate. That's a tough sell, as the party swerves steadily further to the right, thanks to gerrymandering, closed primaries that punish moderates, and a self-reinforcing media echo chamber.

Former state Rep. Rubley gave a colorful speech, calling Citizens United a "Titanic gash in our democracy" and invoking Republican Teddy Roosevelt's legacy of reforms a century ago.

Later I talked to Rubley on the phone. "It's going to be an uphill battle," she said about passing an amendment reversing Citizens United. She sees it as a two-step process. First, she's working with "No Labels" group to get members of Congress to sign a pledge that they will work together to solve the nation's problems.

She's hopeful No Labels can help end the knee-jerk partisanship that stymies congressional action on so many fronts. If so, the new spirit of cooperation may "carry over to [working] on Citizens United," she told me.

I doubt there were many Republicans shivering in Friday's crowd when Rubley spoke, but there are plenty of reasons for Republicans to heed her call.

While Democrats and progressives bemoan corporate influence in elections, Republicans worry about what union money buys.

Democrats complain about Sheldon Adelson's multimillion dollar influence-buying binge; Republicans decry the same behavior by George Soros.

Republicans complain about "crony capitalism" in Washington -- well, where does the money fueling that culture come from? When there's a contest between small businesses on Main Street and big business on Wall Street, guess who wins and why?

No less a red-meat, red-state Republican than former Wyoming U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson warns that the dangers of money in politics cut both ways.

It's one reason, he says, that workers in public unions have pensions that cost so much. On the other side, he notes, defense contractors use their financial influence to pump up the federal budget with projects the Pentagon wants to stop. (Hat tip to Public Citizen for that tidbit about Simpson.)

Friday's rally against Citizens United was a stirring call to the progressive base, but the campaign reform movement also needs messengers and a message that can connect with Republicans.

My suggestion:

Appeal to the all-American sense of open competition and fair play. Drive home the point that the rules of the game in our elections are no longer fair. There's one set of rules for ordinary citizens; another for the high-rollers who get to schmooze with the politicians. The playing field isn't level.

If you've got millions of dollars at your disposal, you basically get to roam the sidelines with a bullhorn, shouting at the players. You might even get invited into the huddle and start calling the plays, while ordinary folks are stuck far away in the cheap seats.

The smaller the crowd in the stands, the more influence the big-money insiders have. A lot of times, ordinary folks don't even show up because they don't know there's a game being played. That allows the people who bankrolled the winners' campaigns to sneak in there and call the shots.

With Citizens United, unelected, activist judges went out of their way to give corporations and unions the right to use big money to meddle with our elections. The court could have decided the case on much narrower legal grounds. But five of the nine Supreme Court justices were itching to throw out 100 years of law that had been duly passed by the people's elected representatives.

Our nation's founders gave us a government of the people, for the people, by the people. Corporations are not people. Neither are unions.

People of all political persuasions ought to be able to agree on that.

Matt Zencey is a former journalist now living in West Chester, Pa.