Former senator speaks to Brown about campaign finance reform

photo by Tom Barrett

by Corinne Cathcart

Former Democratic Senator of Wisconsin Russ Feingold stressed the significance of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and its negative effect on campaign finance law in a speech at Brown on April 25.

The Supreme Court decision in the 2010 Citizens United case held that money was a form of free speech protected under the First Amendment, and therefore, the government could not limit the amount a corporation or union could spend on individual candidates in a given election.

In his speech, Feingold said the Citizens United case created “a fork in the road.” One fork marked the “beginning of the destruction of our campaign finance system,” leading to an era of “corporate dominance.” The other fork, he said, led to a “wake-up call” for individual citizens, who would be forced to stand up and demand change from their political representatives.

Feingold was a huge advocate for campaign finance law and the reduction of corporate power in his 18 years in the Senate. He partnered with Republican Senator John McCain in 2002 to produce the McCain-Feingold Act, which focused on regulating campaign finance, especially with regards to soft money and political contribution limits. After losing his reelection to the Senate in 2010 to Republican Ron Johnson, Feingold founded Progressives United, a political action committee dedicated to curtailing corporate power and repealing the Citizens United decision.

The changes brought on by this decision are particularly dangerous for the Democratic Party, Feingold said. “The true strength of the Democratic Party is ‘people pull,’” he said, citing the unbelievable number of small donations that President Obama received in his 2008 election. “A passionate party can win,” he said, and a decision like this “deadens our base,” on top of being “just wrong,” he added.

It is not an overly ambitious goal to attempt to repeal the decision, Feingold said, especially since the decision passed because of one vote in a 5 – 4 decision. All we need to change the decision are the voices of the public to insist on more from their political representatives, even bipartisan action, he said. “You can demand it.”

Although Feingold kept his speech light at times — speaking about his love for his home state of Wisconsin’s bratwurst festival as well as commenting on comedian Stephen Colbert’s effectiveness in publicizing the issue — Feingold was unafraid to stress the urgency of repealing the Court’s decision and the degree to which doing nothing was dangerous. Change is necessary, Feingold said, because “the future of our democracy depends on it.” Feingold’s straightforward candor was refreshing, especially in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, where politicians seem to be more and more afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Nicholas Palermo, an associate professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, said “(Feingold’s) a great speaker — very articulate, highly experienced” and “he doesn’t try to give simple answers for complex questions.”

Perhaps the most disappointing part of Mr. Feingold’s speech was the low student turnout for the event. Less than half of Salomon 101 was full, and a good portion of that audience were adults from the Brown community, as well as Feingold’s staff and team.

Ellen Dessloch, Palermo’s wife and a communications specialist at Brown’s Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, expressed her wish that more students had attended.

In response to a student’s question, Feingold summed up the danger of corporate contribution with brevity and silliness: “People say there is no such thing as a free lunch. Well, there is also no such thing as a free $10 million contribution.”


photo of Russ Feingold by Tom Barrett

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