During the most expensive mayoral election ever, St. Petersburg City Council wants to limit PAC money
ST. PETERSBURG — In front of a large group of red-shirted campaign finance reform supporters, the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday started the ball rolling on an ordinance that would limit individual campaign contributions to $5,000 from political action committees.
The vote followed hours of impassioned debate and took place amidst what has already become the most expensive mayoral election in city history: incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and his challenger, former Mayor Rick Baker.
Together the two Ricks have smashed fundraising records by garnering a combined $1 million in donations — and the Aug. 29 primary is still two months away.
The measure, backed by a national campaign finance movement and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, was opposed by the city attorney’s office. They argued it was unconstitutional and would expose the city to millions in liabilities if defeated in the courts.
“They have shopped this ordinance around for at least a year to cities around this country,” Assistant City Attorney Joseph Patner said. “There is a reason they cannot get another city to pass this,
“Passing this is all risk in our opinion with no benefit.”
He suggested instead that the city craft an ordinance requiring full disclosure of the donors of PACs.
But City Council chairwoman Darden Rice, who introduced the measure a year ago, said the city had been on the wrong side of constitutional arguments in the past.
The city fought segregation, she said, which was legal and constitutional at the time.
“Laws are as human as the people that make them,” she said after the 5-3 vote. The ordinance will now undergo two public hearings and then come back for a final vote.
Council members Ed Montanari, Jim Kennedy and Steve Kornell voted against the proposal. Kennedy said he was uncomfortable with acting against the city attorneys’ legal advice. Montanari reminded his colleagues that they all had taken an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Kornell said he recognized the threat of unrestrained spending in local elections, but wasn’t convinced the ordinance was the right solution.
Council member Karl Nurse said Washington D.C. and Tallahassee are hopelessly in the thrall of big money. Change can only happen at the local level, he said.
“If we’re going to rescue democracy, we’re going to rescue it from the cities up,” Nurse said at an early morning rally on the steps of City Hall that drew more than 100 supporters of the ordinance, before council took up the measure.
Kriseman also spoke at the rally. He promised not to veto the measure.
Last week, when he filed his qualifying papers to run for re-election, the mayor said he still hadn’t made up his mind about the proposal.
He thanked advocates for their efforts at Thursday’s rally, but cautioned that the ordinance might prove costly to the city.
“I have long been supportive of getting big money and big business out of our elections,” the mayor told a cheering crowd. “But as mayor I do have to tell you I have some concerns about our city’s exposure on this issue and I would hope that if council does pass this ordinance that those who are encouraging us will create a fund to help us in our efforts.”
The issue quickly entered the mayoral battle: Baker issued a statement saying Kriseman was being hypocritical, a charge also leveled by mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement.
Baker pointed out that the Kriseman campaign recently celebrated raising $258,000 through his Sunrise PAC, which contains 10 contributions that would be banned if the ordinance becomes law.
“As soon as he has an opponent with equal fundraising ability, he wants to create an ordinance to change the rules in the middle of an election, dragging the taxpayers of St. Petersburg into a multi-million dollar supreme court battle their own lawyers have told them they will lose because it is unconstitutional,” Baker said in a statement. He added:
“Congress should take up campaign finance reform, not force the citizens of St. Petersburg to foot the bill again — as they already are now to pay for lawyers to defend Rick Kriseman’s sewer debacle.”
However, Baker’s own Seamless Florida PAC also contains 21 contributions that would violate the law if the ordinance were to stand.
That won’t be a concern in this election cycle. Rice said the ordinance wouldn’t affect the mayoral campaign, which could run through the Nov. 7 general election.
“That would be chaos,” she said.
If the current 5-vote majority holds and the ordinance is approved, it will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Council member Amy Foster could again be the wildcard in a 4-4 vote. She voted against allowing the Tampa Bay Rays to look for a new home in Hillsborough County, in 2014 — then voted for the deal in 2016. She voted Thursday to push the ordinance forward.
Foster said she was concerned about the timing of the ordinance when the city is about to finalize an consent order over its sewage discharges that comes with a $810,000 fine. Also weighing on her decision, she said, is the ongoing state investigation into the sewage crisis and the uncertainty of whether voters will approve another round of the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax in November.
“I take all those things very seriously,” she said.
The possibility of an expensive lawsuit was acknowledged by John Bonifaz, a constitutional attorney who co-founded Free Speech for People, a national advocacy group that seeks to reform the current political fundraising system.
Bonifaz promised council members that his group, which has the support of nationally prominent constitutional scholars like Harvard University professor Laurence Tribe, would provide free legal representation to defend the city in court.
The ordinance also would ban donations from companies that have more than 5-percent foreign ownership. This would target multinational companies, which Patner argued would infringe on the rights of American workers at those companies.
The measure now proceeds to two public hearings and a final council vote later this summer.