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Partisan remarks allowed in races

When former labor lawyer Ed Helm ran for mayor last year, the first words of his stump speech were always, "I'm a progressive Democrat."

City Council Chairman Bill Foster didn't like it, because St. Petersburg's city elections are nonpartisan. Foster asked City Attorney John Wolfe to explore whether the council could pass a law punishing candidates who play to party interests.

The short answer: It can't.

Wolfe said a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits it from banning party affiliation from its election, even though the race is nonpartisan.

Foster and other council members said they were disappointed by the finding. They fear the city's races have changed forever.

"I think they already have," Foster said. "I think we just got a brief glimpse of things to come last year."

Although Helm was the most overt, several candidates during the previous election made no secret of their partisan leanings. Darden Rice, Kim Trombley and Eve Joy, who ran for the City Council, accepted guidance and contributions from members of the county Democratic executive committee.

Helm went a step further and threatened to expel two members of the county Democratic committee who were publicly backing Mayor Rick Baker, who is a Republican.

Foster said he thought blatant shows of partisanship violated the spirit of the city's charter.

"And I just wanted to know if a candidate goes against the charter, is there a way to sanction them?" Foster said. "I guess the answer is no."

Wolfe cited a 2002 case, Republican Party of Minnesota vs. White, where the Supreme Court ruled Minnesota's requirement that judges could not discuss political issues was unconstitutional.

Wolfe said any attempt to restrict a candidate from mentioning political party would violate freedom of speech.

"It's no different from a candidate saying he has the backing of the local union," Wolfe said.

Helm said he was pleased that the council agreed not to pursue the issue. "I'm glad they are educated on the Constitution," he said. "It's about time."

Helm said the idea of a nonpartisan race is a misnomer. During the campaign, he noted that Baker publicly supported Gov. Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush.

"Party leaders and activists from any party will tell you there is no such thing as a nonpartisan race," he said.

But council member John Bryan said he's afraid parties will play an increasingly large role in St. Petersburg politics.

"I'm really disappointed," Bryan said. "I like the idea of voting for the person, not the party."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnson@sppimes.com.

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