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MAGA hats, Facebook ads: Politics mar nonpartisan St. Pete council race

The St. Petersburg City Council races are supposed to be nonpartisan. Partisan politics are leaking into the campaign anyway.

ST. PETERSBURG — In one flier, City Council member Ed Montanari, shown in black-and-white, wears an oversized, red, Donald Trump “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat off-kilter like a dunce cap, with some of the president’s more colorful tweets emblazoned in the background.

In another, a cartoon figure — presumably Montanari, as his name is plastered all over — wears a MAGA hat while struggling to lead an elephant, the official mascot of the Republican party. “The elephant in the room,” the ad says, is that “Montanari is actually a right-wing Trumper.” A third ad, with yet another picture of Montanari in a MAGA hat, describes the incumbent council member as “St. Pete’s Donald Trump.”

The Florida Democratic Party is running ads against incumbent City Council member Ed Montanari and on behalf of his challenger, Orlando Acosta. [ Campaign advertisement ]

On the flip side of all those ads, distributed by the Florida Democratic Party, District 3 challenger and Democrat Orlando Acosta stands draped in blue alongside the word “progressive.” Montanari, a registered Republican and the lone conservative voice on the council, said he voted for Trump in 2016, but didn’t campaign for him. He doesn’t own a MAGA hat, he said, and said the ads are “not fair.”

“It’s just disappointing that someone who has never shown up to a City Council meeting ... all he wants to do is spout negative things, a lot of which are made up about me,” Montanari said.

Acosta isn’t the only one to bring partisanship into the non-partisan City Council race.

Montanari published a Facebook ad that identified himself as a Republican. He said the language was a mistake and took it down. Acosta, who declined to answer questions by phone, wrote in an email that Montanari’s ad was “blatantly illegal," and said the Florida Democratic Party’s ads “simply fit Ed’s record and reflect Ed’s own advertising.”

With their invocations of national politics and party symbolism, the party’s mailers and door hangers and Montanari’s Facebook ad cast a partisan shadow over the District 3 race to a degree unseen in the other three city council races on the Nov. 5 city-wide ballot. It also may not all be legal.

Another Florida Democratic Party ad refers to Montanari as a "right wing Trumper." [ Campaign advertisements ]

Per the city’s charter, municipal elections are nonpartisan, and have been since the 1930s, according to University of South Florida St. Petersburg emeritus government professor Darryl Paulson. That’s when an anti-corruption reform movement swept cities across the country, a recoil against the influence of political machines. Reformists favored nonpartisan elections so the city would be governed on the basis of what’s best for the city, not for a particular political party, Paulson said.

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“It was also premised on the notion that most of the issues cities deal with are common sense issues, that don’t have political solutions, they have common sense solutions," the professor said.

It’s the state’s election code that actually define the rules regarding advertisements in nonpartisan elections:

“A political advertisement of a candidate running for nonpartisan office may not state the candidate’s political party affiliation,” the code says. “This section does not prohibit a political advertisement from stating the candidate’s partisan-related experience. A candidate for nonpartisan office is prohibited from campaigning based on party affiliation.”

That puts Montanari’s ad — which he said he took down after the Acosta campaign released a news release about it — in plain violation of the statute, said Tallahassee-based election lawyer Ron Meyer. Montanari said he saw a proof of the ad and requested the word “Republican” be changed to “conservative.” But the original version of the ad accidentally went live. He said he wasn’t sure how long it was up before his team removed it.

“My campaign, in my opinion, 99.9 percent is above board," he said. "Every T is crossed, every I is dotted. We made a mistake with one ad and when we found about it, we took the ad down. On the other hand, he’s running a negative campaign, trying to paint me as somebody I’m not, and it’s getting paid for by the Florida Democratic Party in a nonpartisan race.”

“It’s not the same,” he added.

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If Acosta had put out the Montanari attack ads himself, they likely also would not have been kosher, said Florida Democratic Party counsel Mark Herron. But Acosta said the ads were designed, paid for and distributed by the party. He acknowledged the party let his campaign know about the ads “as a courtesy.”

Political parties and committees have far more leeway than candidates in their advertising, even in nonpartisan elections, Meyer said.

“There’s that pesky old thing called the First Amendment, which mean parties and political committees and other organizations have certain rights,” he said. “Over the years, it has been made plain that political parties may do the same things in nonpartisan races that they may do in partisan races.”

This door hanger from the Florida Democratic Party on behalf of Orlando Acosta calls Montanari as a "St. Pete's Donald Trump." [ Campaign advertisements ]

But do those things belong in a nonpartisan local election?

“If one candidate is clearly representing democratic values and one candidate is clearly representing conservative or right wing values, we’re going to point that out," said Alex Morash, the Florida Democratic Party’s press secretary. "Voters have a right to know that.”

Paulson disagreed, and asserted it’s incumbent upon the candidate to prevent partisanship from entering at all.

“In theory, you can say the party did it," Paulson said. "But in reality, if the party is going to cheat on your behalf, then you’ve got to respond to that cheating.”

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Whether it works is a different issue.

The St. Petersburg council race is reminiscent of the 2017 mayoral election, when Democrat Mayor Rick Kriseman successfully leveraged partisan politics to defeat former Mayor Rick Baker, doing everything he could to tie the Republican Baker to Trump.

Paulson called that the height of partisanship in St. Petersburg city elections. Success for Acosta based on that strategy depends on voters finding the Florida Democratic Party’s ads believable.

“Voters aren’t going to believe them if they don’t have a ring of truth or an air of credibility to them,” said Paulson, who once served on the city’s charter review commission and led a now-defunct countywide commission on fair campaign practices.

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Former City Council member Karl Nurse, a Democrat, said this election is the first time he’s seen a party invest so much into mailers. But, he said, it’s no more partisan than the 2017 mayoral race. Or even the 2001 race, when Nurse ran himself.

That year, the Republican machine geared up for Baker, donating heavily to his campaign. Baker, who eventually won and served two terms, held a campaign event headlined by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, recalled Nurse, who served alongside Montanari for two years and donated to Acosta’s campaign.

“So I would say that was fairly partisan,” Nurse said.