News and Culture Notebook
6:00 pm
Wed November 13, 2013

'Ben' of famed ice cream duo takes on campaign finance

Ben Cohen of the famous "Ben & Jerry's" ice cream brand finds the current relationship between money and political campaigns far from sweet. Cohen spoke with KETR briefly before his Tuesday evening engagement at Texas A&M University-Commerce and described his current focus on political activism.

 

Ben Cohen describes his work in grassroots efforts to influence campaign finance laws. (Mark Haslett/KETR)

Haslett: Ben and Jerry – the ice cream entrepreneurs turned philanthropists and activists – came to Commerce Tuesday evening for a speaking engagement at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen, both native New Yorkers, started their internationally famous ice cream business as a storefront operation in Burlington, Vermont in 1978. But for over a decade now, Ben and Jerry have been more involved with social causes than the ice cream that brought them success and notoriety. In 2000, the Ben and Jerry’s company was purchased by the Anglo-Dutch multinational corporation Unilever, one of the largest consumer goods companies in the world. Ben Cohen said that he opposed the purchase, but since the company was publicly held, he and others against the sale were unable to prevent it.

Cohen: So now Jerry and I are “co-founders.” We’re technically employed by the company. In our positions, we don’t have any authority and we don’t have any responsibility.

Haslett: Since stepping back from the ice cream business, the two have turned more to social causes. Greenfield has had more time to spend on philanthropy. He heads the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, which actually dates back to 1985. The foundation funds grassroots, constituent-led community organizations with operating budgets of less than $500,000. Cohen has been focusing on activism – specifically, the issue of campaign finance reform.

Cohen: My primary interest is getting money out of politics. And I have started an organization called the StampStampede.org. And we are helping to build the movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics by stamping messages on paper currency. And so you can go online to StampStampede.org and you can buy a rubber stamp at our cost and you just stamp all the money that you run into with things like “Not To Be Used for Bribing Politicians” or “Stamp Money Out of Politics.” It’s quite powerful, actually.

Haslett: Now was this a direct response to the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision?

Cohen: It’s part of that. There have been several Supreme Court decisions, but I think Citizens United was the final straw. Essentially, there had been previous Supreme Court decisions that said that money is free speech and corporations are people. We all know that’s not true. But the Supreme Court, at least by 5-4 decision, they decided that it was. And Citizens United said that well, if corporations are people and money is free speech, then corporations can spend as much money as they want influencing political elections.

Haslett: Cohen says that the situation with campaign finance rules now is very different – worse, in his view - from how it was before.

Cohen: I think, essentially, that today over 90 percent of the contributions that are made to politicians come from corporations and the .1 percent of the richest people in the country. And those corporations are not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts – they’re doing it so that the politicians pass laws that benefit the corporation at the expense of everybody else. Before that Citizens United ruling, it was not legal for corporations to be dumping all that money into elections.

Haslett: In other words, there was a cap.

Cohen: That’s correct.

Haslett: Cohen has also participated in Move to Amend, another organization motivated in part by opposition to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, commonly known simply as Citizens United. In the case, the nation’s high court ruled that political contributions by corporations, associations and labor unions are instances of free speech. As such, those contributions are protected by the First Amendment from restrictions or limits. For KETR News, this is Mark Haslett.