Column: Keep super PAC cash out of St. Petersburg elections

Tampa Bay Times
Published July 15, 2016

The consequences of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which opened the door for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence local, state and federal elections, continue to poison American democracy. Spending on all levels of elections has skyrocketed, and super PACs — organizations that allow wealthy funders to funnel unlimited amounts of money through outside spending groups — now threaten the integrity of even our local elections.

These problems have come to St. Petersburg's doorstep, and today we say No More. On Thursday, an ordinance will be introduced that strikes at the heart of Citizens United by abolishing super PACs and by prohibiting spending on St. Petersburg elections by foreign-influenced corporations.

Floridians have known about super PACs for a while. But these groups have nearly doubled in number since 2012, and, according to the Miami Herald, donations to "groups (that) enjoy no limits on individual donations," such as super PACs, "have skyrocketed" in recent years across Florida.

In Gainesville, wealthy donors use super PACs to spend big on races for the Gainesville City Commission and the Alachua County Commission, despite recently adopted contribution limits. In Brevard County, a candidate's mother was able to bypass the legal candidate contribution limit of $5,200 by giving $225,000 to a custom super PAC. A Cocoa Beach-based super PAC, the Space Coast Liberty Caucus, received hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a state senator in Rockledge. And in Miami-Dade County, dueling super PACs squared off in local judicial races, raising some $300,000.

This ordinance draws a line in the sand. It limits contributions to super PACs that spend money in St. Petersburg elections, making sure super PACs won't be able to bend the system to their self-interested political will. The majority of City Council previously passed on an attempt to cap individual campaign contributions at $500, believing that as long as people can donate to super PACs, an individual contribution cap doesn't do much to keep big money out of our elections. This ordinance addresses that concern head-on.

The second problem this ordinance tackles is the use of foreign corporate political money in American elections. Federal law currently prohibits foreign governments, foreign-based companies, and people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents from contributing or spending money in connection with any local, state, or federal election. But as a result of Citizens United, nothing stops foreign money from being laundered through U.S.-based corporations that, in turn, spend money to influence American elections.

This threat is real. Consider the examples of Austin, Texas, and Richmond, Calif. Two months ago, Uber teamed up with fellow ride-hailing service Lyft to drench Austin in $9 million worth of election spending in the hope of overturning a city law — one similar to what the St. Petersburg City Council has also discussed — that requires drivers to submit to fingerprint-based criminal background checks. Then, just weeks later, Uber disclosed an unprecedented $3.5 billion investment from the Saudi Arabian government, meaning that the Kingdom owns more than 5 percent of the company, along with a seat on its board of directors.

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Recall also, in 2014, Chevron spent over $3 million backing city council and mayoral candidates in Richmond, Calif., a city half the size of St. Petersburg. Chevron — a multinational corporation whose stock ownership changes by the minute — was at the time facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from the city over a refinery fire that caused more than 15,000 people to seek medical treatment.

That's why this ordinance requires corporations that spend money to influence St. Petersburg elections to certify that they are not foreign-influenced, i.e., that they are not in whole, or in significant part, owned by foreign nonpermanent residents, governments, or companies. This would keep Uber's Saudi money out of our city politics. We welcome immigration and foreign investment — we even welcome the innovations of the ride-sharing economy — but we do not welcome the possibility of huge sums of foreign money washing through our elections and influencing who sits at the table to form our laws.

St. Petersburg can take action to protect itself and can play a critical role in the struggle to reclaim our democracy nationwide. The next phase of that struggle begins Thursday night. I hope you will join us in this fight, and help us make history.

Darden Rice, left, is a past president of the St. Petersburg League of Women Voters and the current vice chair of the St. Petersburg City Council. Scott Greytak, right, is counsel for Free Speech For People, a D.C.-based advocacy group working to overturn Citizens United and challenge big money in politics.