They also contributed to a bitter and divisive rift among conservatives in the 23rd district, opening the door to a win by Democrat Bill Owens.
Now a new political group is forming, hoping to wield similar influence on the left. Brian Mann attended a rally in Saranac Lake on Friday afternoon and has our story.
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Mid-afternoon and bitter cold as a small group of people with signs march up and down across from town hall in Saranac Lake.
“You guys pick cold days to hold your rallies!” I say to Sue Abbot Jones, who looks down right frosty.
“Well, we could be doing this on Sunday I guess!” she says.
She’s holding up a sign that reads “McDonalds for President.” When I ask what it means, she laughs mischievously. But she says there’s a real message here.
“It just means really that corporations now are able to spend what they want. You’re going to get a corporate-sponsored president or any of the high officials. We’ve seen that already with the amount of money that they’ve spent.”
“Is that a bipartisan thing?” I ask. “Democrats as well as Republicans?”
“I think so,” Abbot Jones says, with a shrug. “It’s sad. I knew it when Obama was running. I was so for him, but I knew he couldn’t have spent all that money without corporate help.”
The purpose of this rally was to protest last year’s Supreme Court decision, known as the Citizens United case, which struck down limits on the amount of money that corporations and unions can spend on campaigns.
Corporations now share the same free speech protections under the Constitution previously enjoyed only by individuals.
On this day, the crowd here is small, but there is a similar rally in Malone and about twenty more people show up in Plattsburgh, according to the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.
Activist Phil Newton says the Citizens United decision should worry everyone.
“This is symbolic, this whole Supreme Court treating corporations as people,” Netwon argues. “It seemed like after 2008 people would realize the true nature of this problem, with corporate money corrupting so many aspects of the situation, both Republican and Democrat.”
These rallies were organized by a new group called the Progressive Coalition of Northern New York.
Co-founder Jeanne Norris, who lives in the Malone area, says the goal is to unify liberal activists in Clinton, Franklin and Essex Counties to focus on a wide variety of issues.
“We would like to see an increase in progressive thinking in this area even regarding jobs and helping the area move forward,” she says.
The North Country has long been seen as a more conservative region, but veteran activist Fred Balzac, from Jay, says he’s convinced that more liberals can be mobilized
“I’ve been up here since ‘92 with various groups and activities and it seems to me that there’s a lot of progressive energy in the North Country. Northern New York, the Adirondacks. It would be great to pull it all together and that’s one of the aims of the Progressive Coalition of Northern New York.
Balzac says he hopes the group will play a key role in the 2012 elections.
“We’re working across party lines. There are Democrats, there are members of the Working Families Party, the Green Party, there may be independents involved, it’s certainly open to Republicans. It’s very issues-oriented and we would certainly consider supporting candidates or opposing candidates in specific races.”
The tea party proved that this kind of grassroots effort can have a big impact, especially during party primaries. But Claire Touby from Saranac Lake, who organized this rally, said he doesn’t see tea party activists as the opposition.
“I don’t see the tea party is necessarily on the right,” Touby argues. “I think there are people who are fed up with the status quo for lots of different reasons. I think there’s a possibility that some of the tea party might go with us and work on some of this.”
So far, the new coalition says it has about 75 members across the region.