ST. PETERSBURG — The two City Council candidates running for the District 2 seat waded Thursday into the city's debate about curbing the influence of political money in elections.
Last week, the City Council voted 6-2 to cap at $5,000 a year the amount of money an individual can give to a political action committee and toughen the disclosure rules for donors. The new law is seen as a potential legal challenge to Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case that removed restrictions on how much outside groups can spend on elections.
That turned out to be the most contentious issue of Thursday's debate between candidates Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless in front of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.
Moderator Mitch Perry of Extensive Enterprises Media asked the candidates about their stance on the new law, which the city attorney's office has warned could expose the city to millions in legal costs trying to defend it.
"My opponent had raised a conversation about a commitment to not taking PAC funds," said Gabbard, 40, a real estate agent. "I want to be very clear that I myself don't have a PAC. I have not taken any contribution over the legal $1,000 limit because it's not legal to do so."
But she also said she was concerned about the legal ramifications of the ordinance.
"We have a lot of things to pay for in this city," she said. "The thought of us potentially having $2, $3, $4 million dollar lawsuits that come out of this, I don't see that as prudent to be (using) taxpayer dollars to fight a fight that has been lost in other communities."
Harless, 31, a Bank of the Ozarks manager, pointed to two recent pieces of mail endorsing Gabbard that were paid for by Realtors PAC.
"What's going on in Washington and Tallahassee is disgusting," he said. "The ordinance passed should be fully enforced and fully defended . . . I will not have a PAC and I will not have a PAC act on my behalf. I want to keep spending in check and not be beholden to anyone. It goes right to the integrity of government and it goes right to the independence of city council."
Gabbard did not let that comment slide.
"So I'm just not going to let the integrity thing go," she said. "I have integrity. I have incredible integrity . . . my real question would be, would we be having this conversation if my opponent knew he had organizations willing to support him, spread his message and help him and believe in him the same way organizations have done with me?"
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So far Harless has outraised his opponent. He had raised $58,780 as of the latest campaign filings from Oct. 6. Gabbard had raised $39,879. Gabbard listed one PAC donation, $500 from Suncoast Better Government Committee. That PAC's website said it is affiliated with state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater. Harless had no PAC donations. Both Gabbard and Harless are Democrats running in a nonpartisan race to replace outgoing council member Jim Kennedy.
Harless complained that the majority of Gabbard's campaign contributions come from Realtors.
"If you look at my donations, they come from across the spectrum of this community," he said. "They come from small business owners. They come from all kind of communities, LGBTQ communities. That's who I'm going to represent. That's who I'm going to work for."
Gabbard said support from Realtors did not compromise her integrity.
"I'm proud of their support," she said. "They're small business owners . . .we fight for so many issues, and I will never be ashamed of that. One thing I want to be super clear on is that my integrity will never be compromised based upon any contribution given to me. I do not feel beholden to anyone or anything."
Greg Wilson, a consultant who works with Gabbard's campaign, had a question for Harless.
"You're in a room of political animals and to just let you know I've been doing this for 35 years," he said. "Whenever I hear someone say I'm not going to accept PAC money, it's because it was not being offered in the first place . . . you waited until late to make that challenge. Do you see why that might seem a little disingenuous?"
Harless reiterated his position: "I think money in politics is a poisonous thing."
On a lighter note, Extensive Enterprises president and political blogger Peter Schorsch asked the candidates which pop culture figure they most identify with.
Gabbard said Phil Dunphy, the hapless real estate agent on the TV show Modern Family.
Harless said it was George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life.
Early voting starts Oct. 28. The election is Nov. 7.