Despite an opinion from city lawyers that it is unconstitutional, St. Petersburg City Council moved ahead this morning with an ordinance that would cap Super PAC donations and limit contributions from foreign interests in city campaigns; Council members voted 5-3 Thursday morning in a nonbinding recommendation to advance the campaign finance reform measure to public hearings.
John Bonifaz, the president of the group Free Speech For People, spoke in support of the ordinance. The city’s attorney warned that legal challenges could cost the city $2 million. But Free Speech For People promised pro bono legal help if needed.
City Council chair Darden Rice has been pushing the issue in order to clean up the money in local political campaigns.
Listen to the interview with Darden Rice:
“I am cautiously optimistic. I think we saw a positive vote today to move campaign finance reform and capping super PAC money in local elections. I think we saw this go one step further today. We’ve still got some answers to iron out and I think it’s important to remember that laws are as human as the people that make them and live by them and enforce them and this city and its past has had unconstitutional laws.
“We used to have laws that banned black people from crossing Central Avenue at night. We’ve had laws that tried to uphold segregation and the beaches and spa/pool. So, it’s our duty to look closely at the status of campaign finance laws and to declare that St. Pete wants to put a reasonable cap on super PAC money, you know, to $5,000.00. We have, in the room with us, people who work with national legal constitutional and election law scholars that say that doing this is constitutional. But, you know, it’s not a city staff person that says it’s constitutional. It’s not me that says it’s constitutional. We pass this law and the courts say whether or not it’s constitutional. I think it’s worth it to protect our local democracy and to keep our local elections from looking like the mess that national elections are.”
But, that could get really expensive for the city and Mr. Bonifaz told me that his group doesn’t have money to put up in an escrow fund or something, but, that he would defend it pro bono.
“Yes. We’ve looked at establishing a foundation to raise money to cover a prevailing party cost, but, obviously people want to wait until the ordinance actually passes. I mean, someone’s not going to give us money if we don’t pass the ordinance and if we don’t get challenged. So, once we pass the ordinance we can start doing the footwork to create the foundation to help cover the city’s interests. We have pro-bono work offered by the country’s top legal constitutional election law scholars. So, that’s pretty important.
“We’ve put a lot of thought into this and how we’ve brought it forward. I welcome the questions from my colleagues. I think we should tug at all the loose threads and make sure this is sound, but, I am extremely confident that this is the right direction to go in and that we should pursue this.”
And finally, a majority of your colleagues, 5-3 and the Mayor are going against what it sounds like the City Administrator is saying and what is certainly the region’s largest newspaper editorial board is saying and your city lawyers are saying and you went against that. Why?
“Because, the evidence is there. It’s in our face, how unlimited super PAC money putrefies and compromises elections. We’ve seen the mess in D.C. We’ve seen the mess in Tallahassee. I want to protect our local elections, here, in St. Petersburg.”
Dozens of supporters wearing red shirts packed the meeting room and an overflow room.
During a press conference before the meeting, Mayor Rick Kriseman said he would not veto the ordinance if it passes.
St. Petersburg City Council will also consider a related ordinance requiring full disclosure of PAC donors.
Video of the St. Petersburg “Committee of the Whole” is below (in 8 parts)