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Did Citizens United thwart the effort to overturn "Citizens United" in Washington state?

Party politics and big money interests often work in the shadows to defeat good public policy. An intersection of these two challenges in Washington state may have played a role in the failure of an erstwhile popular resolution to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

Public Citizen is a key part of the nationwide movement to pass state resolutions calling for an amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases. The 2010 Citizens United ruling allows corporations to spend unlimited sums in elections independent of parties or candidates. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia already have called for an amendment to overturn the unpopular decision.

Poll after poll shows that large majorities of Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike disapprove of Citizens United and want to see limits on election spending by corporations, unions and individuals. Yet too often, party labels block passage of popular and desperately needed laws.

Earlier this year, the Washington Legislature was moving a resolution calling for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. Thousands of Washingtonians called, emailed and visited their legislators to ask them to support the resolution. More than 15 Washington towns passed resolutions calling for an amendment, from the conservative Walla Walla to the more liberal Seattle.

Though several very positive hearings were held with support from both sides of the aisle, including from the Republican Senate leadership, the resolution lost Republican support as it progressed through the House, which passed it. The resolution died in the Republican-dominated Senate.

Republicans have supported overturning Citizens United in Illinois, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia. What was different about Washington?

One noteworthy fact is that Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party and former conservative talk show host, also sits on the board of the conservative media advocacy group, Citizens United – the very group that won the controversial 2010 decision, which unleashed the flood of outside corporate spending in our elections.

Wilbur has not made any public statements regarding the Washington state resolution calling for an amendment. However, the Washington state Republican party did raise $4.5 million for Republican candidates in the last election.

State party committees were second only to Bill Gates in the total percentage of contributions they made to Washington state candidates in the last election. For many candidates, state party committees were their top contributors. Regardless of what Republican legislators and their constituents really think about Citizens United, what legislator would risk losing party support by offending the party chair?

The fight in Washington state is far from over. The WAMEND coalition, of which Public Citizen is a member, is exploring the possibility of a statewide ballot initiative. The coalition almost certainly will bring up a state resolution in future years. Local organizers also are working on passing local resolutions and ballot initiatives, which are critical for building political support.

Luckily, most states do not have a Citizens United board member at the head of a major party. We are continuing to push forward with allies in Delaware, Illinois, New Hampshire and Oregon. Excellent campaign finance reform efforts are moving in Vermont and New York among other states.

Join the effort to overturn Citizens United and related cases by signing the petition at www.DemocracyIsForPeople.org.