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Local players retain influence under St. Petersburg’s campaign finance rules

While the city’s rules keep out corporate money from city elections, candidates can still draw large sums from local donors.
City Council member and mayoral candidate Darden Rice, who championed the city's 2017 campaign finance ordinance, has still managed to raise a large sum of money for her political committee, Friends of Darden Rice.
City Council member and mayoral candidate Darden Rice, who championed the city's 2017 campaign finance ordinance, has still managed to raise a large sum of money for her political committee, Friends of Darden Rice. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 24
Updated Feb. 24

ST. PETERSBURG — The goal of St. Petersburg’s 2017 campaign finance ordinance was to keep the city from becoming a place like Austin, Tx.

Not because residents of the Sunshine City were afraid of barbecue or blues or tech, but because of Uber and Lyft.

Those companies spent more than $8 million on a 2016 referendum targeting regulations Austin had imposed on ridesharing apps. A year later, Darden Rice led the St. Petersburg City Council to pass an ordinance to guard against a similar attempted corporate takeover of local affairs.

Although the ordinance sets disclosure requirements and spending limits to thwart the multi-million dollar campaign bankrolled by deep-pocketed brands, it did nothing to prohibit the long-running practice of local players — some who do regular business before the city — asserting outsized influence in city elections.

Now that Rice is running for mayor, what the 2017 ordinance did and didn’t do is taking center stage in her race against Ken Welch, the former Pinellas County commissioner.

Rice’s political committee, Friends of Darden Rice, has raised more than $250,000 for her mayoral bid since it began fundraising in 2019. Her committee has raised tens of thousands from people and companies who have business before the city — which is completely legal under the rules. She defends her ordinance, saying it will have a noticeable effect on the fundraising and spending in this year’s mayoral race, as compared to both the 2017 race between Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker — the most expensive in the city’s history — and high-dollar campaigns across the bay in Tampa.

“I’m always going to do what’s right for the people of St. Petersburg,” Rice said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s why I fought so hard to pass campaign finance reform — to keep big money and foreign influence out of our local elections. People who support my campaign know they’re investing in the future of our city and that nobody will get special treatment in my administration.”

She told the Times in an interview that she “worked very hard” for the ordinance, was “proud of it,” and that “I have been in compliance of it and the spirit of it the whole time.”

Welch’s campaign, however, is calling attention to Rice contributions while drawing contrasts with the ordinance Rice championed. Adam Smith, an adviser for Welch’s campaign, said it’s “rich for Darden to tout herself as a campaign finance reformer when she’s always been hyper aggressive about raising money from special interests wanting her vote.

“She’s making a joke out of her own ordinance that she said would cap donors at $5,000,” Smith added. “Voters know hypocrisy when they see it.”

Yet the 2017 ordinance doesn’t prohibit the money Rice is raising for her mayoral campaign through her political committee.

The city’s ordinance sets a $5,000 limit per calendar year donated by a single individual or entity that committees can spend on political or electioneering ads. It was written that way to avoid conflict with the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United.

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While navigating the limitations imposed by the ordinance, Friends of Darden Rice’s four top donors have together contributed almost a quarter of the money committee has raised. Some of them have contracts with the city.

In 2019, the committee accepted $5,000 from Johnathan Stanton and $5,000 from his company, Lema Construction and Developers. Lema wrote another $5,000 check last month. And another company owned by Stanton, Florida Amex Corporation, gave $5,000 in 2020.

Stanton has been awarded several city contracts. In 2014, according to Council minutes, Lema won a $1.2 million dollar bid to build restrooms at the North Shore Aquatic Complex and a $950,000 bid to renovate Twin Brooks Golf Course. In 2017, Lema won a $3.4 million bid to build a new fire station in Fossil Park. In 2019, the company won a $4.4 million bid for work at Albert Whitted Airport.

Stanton did not reply to requests for comment made through email and a phone message at Lema.

St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards, whose Big 3 Entertainment operates the city-owned Mahaffey Theater, and New York supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, whose Red Apple Group is building a multi-use development on the 400 block of Central Avenue, both gave $5,000 to Friends of Darden Rice personally in 2019 and through companies in 2020.

“You know that the city can’t preclude contributions from businesses,” Rice said. “We tried, that’s the challenge with Citizens United. The law allows contributions from business. And it’s a fairly standard practice.”

Edwards said he donated to Rice because he feels she’s done well on City Council and deserves a chance to run the city.

Catsimatidis said he wants a pro-business progressive in office, and may even cut similar checks to Welch.

“I just want good management,” he said. “I like them both.”

He added that he gave twice through two different entities because “probably nobody remembered we gave the other one.”

In 2019, Rice has also accepted $5,000 each from Democratic donor and philanthropist Joann Nestor and Realty Consulting; Nestor and her husband, John Nestor, are list as president and vice president of the company on state business records. Last month, Joann and John Nestor also both made $5,000 contributions.

Joann Nestor could not be reached for comment.

Welch’s political committee, Pelican PAC, which has raised $86,000, also received a $5,000 contribution last month from someone with business before the city: the late Vincent Jackson, the former Tampa Bay Bucs wide receiver who was majority owner of the Callaloo Group, which operates the city-owned Manhattan Casino. Jackson was found dead last week.

Pelican PAC also received a $5,000 contribution last month from Charlie Crist for Congress.

Rice said her fundraising success is actually a mark in favor of her ordinance.

“I’ve shown that you can still be competitive and raise money with these limits,” she said.