St. Pete tried to abolish super PACs. Jeff Brandes wants to end that.

The latest battle over preemption is in the Sunshine City, where a St. Petersburg legislator wants to undo City Council’s attempt to ban dark money.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, during a 2017 Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon discussion.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, during a 2017 Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon discussion. [ SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 4, 2020|Updated Feb. 4, 2020

A St. Petersburg ordinance that is serving as a national model for dark money reform would be preempted under a last-minute proposal attached to a Senate bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes on Monday.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, introduced the amendment to SB 1372, a bill he filed to update elections law sought by the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections. But instead of limiting his bill to the supervisors’ fixes, he used it to take aim at a 2017 ordinance passed by the St. Petersburg City Council that abolishes super PACs and prohibits spending by foreign-influenced corporations in city elections.

The Brandes amendment, which received bi-partisan support on a voice vote of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, would ban cities and counties from “adopting any limitation or restriction” on contributions to political committees or expenditures from political committees in city elections.

In 2017, the non-partisan St. Petersburg city council voted 6-2 to require corporations that spend money in city elections to certify that their ownership was not more than 5 percent controlled by foreign entities. The ordinance, the first of its kind in the nation, also imposed new limits on contributions to political action committees, essentially ending the influence of super PACs in local elections.

“Every person in the state has right to have a PC, even if you’re not elected you can have a PC,'' Brandes told the committee. “The question is, whether local municipalities should be able to prohibit those PC dollars which are statewide.”

Related: St. Petersburg council acts to limit big money in city elections

He said he was motivated by the desire for more transparency because contributors to local races were getting around the ban by giving money to political parties, which are allowed to shield donors by bundling their contributions and not disclosing them in local races.

"I want a very transparent, seamless process in the state of Florida,'' he said.

But, Brandes acknowledged, the ban would not address the current law that allows political parties to shield donors. "There’s more we can do to increase transparency using a PC process,'' he said.

Darden Rice, a former president of the League of Women Voters and the city council member who spearheaded the 2017 ordinance, said that while Brandes “seeks a cookie cutter” approach to the issue, “our local communities don’t think of ourselves as cookie cutters.”

She said the reform was intended to stave off the potential influence of dark money on local races in reaction to the Citizens United decision that opened the door to unfettered campaign contributions from often shadowy and untraceable sources.

“We saw the corrosive influence of big money in elections on the national level, the state level, even in judicial races and we saw this was eventually going to come to our local elections,’’ Rice said. “We didn’t want this danger to darken our door so that’s why St. Pete strongly supported this.”

Rice noted that the city has completed one election cycle without anyone challenging the ordinance “and without problems.” A mayoral election and four city council seats are now up in 2021 and, in January, the city of Seattle used the St. Petersburg ordinance as a model to implement its own restrictions on political committees.

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National reformers, such as Free Speech for People, helped to draft the St. Petersburg and Seattle ordinances and is hoping to use the measures to trigger a U.S. Supreme Court review and potentially challenge the 2010 Citizens United case.

Promoters say the ban is legally sound because federal election law already prohibits foreign individuals and foreign-based entities from making contributions in American elections.

“The Florida Legislature, by any measure, is controlled by special interests so you can see they are the last people to tell cities to try to prevent corruption in our own elections,’’ Rice said. “People like Jeff Brandes are going to have to explain why they went to so much trouble to undo a law that was important to more than a majority of the citizens of St. Petersburg.”

Sen. Jośe Javier Rodriquez, a Miami Democrat, was the only member to the committee to vote against the measure on a voice vote.

The amendment was attached to a SB 1372, a bill approved by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee that attempts to make it clear that poll workers can use a voter’s address to determine if they’re in the right precinct when it comes time to vote.

“People sometimes show up in the wrong precinct. We want to make sure you’re getting the right ballot at the right precinct,’’ Brandes said.

Related: Lawmakers block straw bans, in another move to limit local control

Under current law, when a voter presents his or her picture identification to the poll worker and the address matches the supervisor’s records, the voter may not be asked to provide additional information or to recite his or her home address. But the same law says that if the identification shows the voters is in the wrong polling place, the poll worker cannot ask about the address.

He said the change was sought by the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections and was not intended to add another hurdle to voting. Voters will still be allowed to update their address at the polls on election day, he said.

“We want to make sure you’re getting the right ballot at the right precinct, Brandes said.

Times reporter Josh Solomon contributed to this report.