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Romano: Can City Hall really change the world?

City Council vice chair Amy Foster is seen Saturday January 2, 2016 at City Hall in Downtown St. Petersburg.
Published Oct. 7, 2017

Good day to you, Justice Ginsburg.

You too, Chief Justice Roberts.

And particularly you, Justice Kennedy.

I realize getting an audience with the U.S. Supreme Court is rare, but I thought you should know the St. Petersburg City Council has put in a request for some indefinite date in the future.

Basically, the council has circumvented one of your landmark decisions. Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, to be exact. The council recently passed a campaign finance ordinance that stifles some of the unintended consequences of your 2010 decision in Citizens United.

The council fully expects the ordinance to be challenged in court. In some ways, that's the whole point. The feeling is that Citizens United has been so harmful to the country that it must be revisited to keep corporations and billionaires from controlling elections with outrageous campaign contributions. And so the council took a legal and financial risk by passing this ordinance.

Now, your first reaction might be to ask:

Why is this St. Petersburg's fight?

Good question.

• • •

It begins with an idyllic notion.

Three years ago, community activists encouraged the council to pass a non-binding resolution declaring money is not speech, and corporations are not people. Those were the buzz phrases that emerged out of the Citizens United decision that paved the way for corporations to donate freely to campaigns.

The resolution sounded nice, but it carried no weight. And so Rae Clair Johnson and Karen Lieberman of American Promise of Tampa Bay began formulating a plan for an actual campaign finance challenge.

They immediately found common ground with council members Karl Nurse, Darden Rice and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. Somewhere along the line, Free Speech for People, a legal advocacy group dedicated to overturning Citizens United, got involved with the St. Pete activists.

This is where things get a little complicated. The Free Speech folks made it clear they were looking for an avenue to bring the issue back to the Supreme Court. And that meant finding the right community.

St. Petersburg fit the bill perfectly. It had a largely progressive City Council. It had engaged residents. And it was heading toward a mayoral election with unprecedented amounts of money.

"There were strong factual reasons for St. Petersburg to do this,'' said John Bonifaz, an attorney with Free Speech for People. "But at the end of the day, it takes some leadership and courage, and that's what we saw today.''

What City Council member Ed Montanari saw was a national organization using St. Pete as a guinea pig to further its purposes.

"This organization has been shopping this ordinance around the country. They told us in previous workshops that they had gone to Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle,'' said Montanari, who joined with Jim Kennedy in voting against the ordinance. "They were just looking for a municipality to take this issue on and get it into the court system.''

Yet hours before the vote Thursday, there was still uncertainty.

• • •

You have to consider the risks.

The question is which risks?

City attorneys were telling council members that the ordinance would surely lead to a challenge. And if it made it to the Supreme Court, which seemed to be the whole point, the costs in legal fees could be as high as $2 million.

But what of the costs to democracy?

Polls consistently show Americans are not happy about what Citizens United has wrought, and there seems to be widespread support for campaign finance reforms. Whether it's the NRA, big pharma, George Soros or the Koch brothers, the sense is that elections are being hijacked by money.

Could a council member in St. Pete change all of that?

That was the pressure facing Amy Foster on Thursday. With Charlie Gerdes joining Nurse, Rice and Wheeler-Bowman in favor of the ordinance, one more vote was needed to clinch it.

Foster had begun the day planning to vote no and still had not changed her mind when they broke for lunch.

She ate quickly with other council members and then slipped out a back door at City Hall and took a solitary walk around downtown. She was clearly in favor of the idea of the ordinance, but Foster was troubled by the financial implications.

"Eventually, I decided the price was too high for us not to try to fix this,'' she said. "I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do, and I will never feel bad about voting my conscience. I just had to get out of my head for a moment and look into my heart.''

As it turns out, council member Steve Kornell also voted for the ordinance, despite voting against it a few months ago and seemingly implying the financial risk was too high just before the vote.

While acknowledging there is a risk, Rice says St. Pete will almost certainly avoid large legal bills. Free Speech for People has committed to providing legal counsel, and other organizations are certain to follow.

"We will be able to reasonably raise donations to offset costs,'' Rice said. "Now that we have passed the ordinance, it will be easier to build support around something that is real. And it will attract national attention.''

• • •

In some ways, the fight has just begun.

The ordinance has to be challenged in court (probable) and eventually make its way to the Supreme Court (possible) where the hope is that Justice Anthony Kennedy has had a change of heart since the original Citizens United ruling (iffy).

So did the City Council do the right thing?

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a former counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law and now teaches election law at Stetson University College of Law. She said the ramifications of Citizens United are hard to ignore, and legal challenges do not have to be viewed as a negative.

"Sometimes, you need courageous states or cities to be, as Justice (Louis) Brandeis said, the laboratories of democracy,'' Torres-Spelliscy said. "It's always tough being that first actor because you don't know what's going to rain down upon you. But if you don't have those kind of challenges, then the law can stagnate, and bad decisions are allowed to ossify.''

Truthfully, if I were on the council, I'm not sure I would have voted for the ordinance.

And yet, now that it's done, I have the strangest urge to applaud the six council members who did.

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