By now, just about everyone who follows political news has heard of Citizens United. Although they may not know much about the organization, they know that it was the plaintiff in the landmark campaign finance case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-to-4 decision on January 21, the Supreme Court struck down many of the major restraints on campaign spending in the 2001 McCain-Feingold bill opposed by conservatives (see story on cover). Most significantly, corporations and unions are now free to spend their money to support candidates for federal office for the first time in decades.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t know what the court was going to do,” said Dave Bossie, longtime activist and president of Citizens United, now in its 22nd year as a conservative grass-roots organization. “I was cautiously optimistic, as were most of the people who wanted to participate freely in the political process. Congress had set up unconstitutional barriers to that participation in McCain-Feingold, and the court, thankfully, struck most of them down.”
On this subject, Bossie speaks from the heart. Hillary: The Movie, a 2008 film produced and distributed by Citizens United, was targeted for legal extinction by the Federal Election Commission, whichsought to keep the film out of circulation on the grounds that Citizens United accepted money from corporations (which, as a 501-c-4 organization, it is permitted to do) and, therefore, the FEC claimed, Hillary: The Movie was an illegal corporate contribution.
The Supreme Court not only disagreed with the FEC but cast the entire issue of campaign finance in a fresh light. Bossie, to say the least, was delighted with the ruling. His hope now is that the remaining regulation from McCain-Feingold (the ban on “soft money” to party committees), as well as the three-decades-old limit on personal donations to candidates for federal office, will also be lifted in future court cases.
For all of the identification Dave Bossie and Citizens United have with the landmark court decision January 21, there is much more to both the man and the organization. Raised in a Democratic family, Bossie registered as a Republican on his 18th birthday in 1984 (“Ronald Reagan made me a Republican”) and volunteered for the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign that year. Most of Bossie’s life since has been spent on his two passions: conservative politics and firefighting. The Maryland native is a longtime volunteer fireman in his home state and called a firehouse home before he got married.
Bossie went on to work on Bob Dole’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, where he met another up-and-coming conservative firebrand named Floyd Brown. In 1995, Bossie became chief investigator for the House Government Affairs Committee and his work under then-Chairman Dan Burton (R.-Ind.) during the celebrated Whitewater investigation of the Clinton era made him perhaps the most-publicized congressional committee staffer since Roy Cohn served as counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R.-Wis.) four decades earlier.
After succeeding friend Brown as head of Citizens United in 2000, Bossie set out immediately to raise its profile within the conservative movement. Under his leadership, CU has produced 14 films, including a history of the United Nations (narrated by the late actor Ron Silver), a tribute to President Ronald Reagan, a penetrating study of the issue of illegal immigration, and Rediscovering God in America, produced with and featuring Newt and Callista Gingrich.
“And wait until you see what’s next!” Bossie told me. CU will soon be unveiling a tribute to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as Nine Days That Changed the World, a look back at Pope John Paul, II, Polish patriot Lech Walsea, and how the Polish labor movement known as Solidarity played a pivotal role in the downfall of communism.
Under Bossie, Citizens United has expanded to also comprise a foundation and a political action committee. With nearly 30 employees in its cramped Capitol Hill office, CU had a budget of more than $23 million in ’09.
At a time when a decidedly liberal administration is in power and the leaders in Congress are left-of-center Democrats, the case for an aggressive and forward-looking conservative movement is easily made. No matter what shape the ideological battles will take or who the major political players will be, Dave Bossie and Citizens United will certainly be heard from.
For more information, go to www.citizensunited.org