PAC it out: St. Pete's effort to curb outside spending in local races

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onsider the rainbow flag.

Every June since he’s taken office, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has raised it above City Hall ahead of St. Pete Pride weekend.

Had he not beaten the incumbent, conservative former mayor Bill Foster — had, say, right-wing political action committees banded together to pour hundreds of thousands into the race — that emblem of equality would not fly each year. The Tampa Bay Rays stalemate might have been needlessly prolonged. There might have been no wage theft ordinance — not one with teeth, anyway. And talk of civil citations as an alternative to arrest for small amounts of marijuana? No way.

But local officials and activists fear a coming onslaught of outside cash that could influence city-level elections the way it already has at the state and federal levels, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision.

Earlier this summer, St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Darden Rice proposed an ordinance that would limit Super PAC spending in local elections.

“To me, this is a poison pill to not have a hostile takeover of our local government,” said Rae Claire Johnson of American Promise Tampa Bay, one of the groups that brought the issue to the dais. “Because that’s where the biggest influence can be exerted for the least amount of money.”

It’s difficult to tell exactly how much Super PAC money — which can be delivered in unlimited amounts and spent in multiple ways — is influencing local elections.

“That’s really hard to say in part because getting data on local elections is just a bear,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an elections law expert at Stetson University College of Law and author of the recent book Corporate Citizens? An Argument for the Separation of Corporation and State. “While we have pretty good reporting at the federal level through the Federal Election Commission, and most states have reasonably good reporting, localities are sort of touch-and-go about what information is available.”

Some notable examples: Rideshare companies Uber and Lyft funded Super PACs to influence Austin city elections, hoping to get a referendum passed that would favor lax restrictions for the companies’ drivers (they were unsuccessful). Chevron, also unsuccessfully, attempted to sway a local election in Richmond, California.

“Unfortunately, most people get their news from the television, and they don’t realize that any ad that they see put forth by a PAC is put forth by a group of special interests trying to protect their position. It’s never for the benefit of the citizens,” Johnson said.

American Promise had originally hoped to get a similar measure on a statewide ballot via a petition drive, but that effort proved pricey. So they instead sought a local governing body they thought would be sympathetic to the cause.

It’s unclear whether Super PAC money is posed to hold sway locally — or whether an outside entity may try to help local and state Republicans challenge Kriseman in his likely reelection bid in 2017. But Johnson and others are concerned about rideshare companies putting their thumb on the scale should a proposed ordinance potentially impact their bottom line.

In July, St. Petersburg City Council moved forward on the drafting of an ordinance that would limit such spending while closing loopholes that allow foreign investors to funnel millions into entities that aim to influence local elections.

While there's no known super PAC spending at the local level currently, the measure's backers say they want to be proactive.

“I filed the anti-super PAC ordinance,” said Rice in an email, “because I think this problem is at our doorstep and I think it’s time to bolt the door. Local leaders have to step up on this problem. Big money threatens the integrity of any local election.”

One dissenter in the July 21 discussion was Councilman Ed Montanari, who said the ordinance would be a “test case” that would likely be vulnerable to legal challenges.

But that’s actually what proponents of the ordinance want, in a way.

While some cities have responded to Citizens United either by passing symbolic resolutions opposing it or, as Tallahassee did, moving to publicly funded city campaigns, no other city has gone this route yet.

“This may be the first one that is focused specifically on Super PACs,” Torres-Spelliscy said.

If enacted, the ordinance could draw a legal challenge, and Johnson is raising money to cover the cost of defending the ordinance in court. The fight could make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and whatever gets decided there could set nationwide precedent — and reverse some of the more controversial aspects of Citizens United (which the Court needs an actual case to do).

“The Supreme Court can’t just change its mind,” Torres-Spelliscy said. “It needs a case in which it can articulate what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. And so a challenge to some of these new ordinances would be an opportunity for the Court to revisit its thinking in Citizens United.”

Of course, what happens in November would have a profound impact on how that shakes out, given the ongoing vacancy on the bench in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. A President Clinton nominee would likely look very different from a President Trump nominee.

“Who knows? We could get Scalia’s intellectual doppelganger, and I think if that’s the case then a lot of these efforts are doomed, at least in the short term,” Torres-Spelliscy said.

Regardless of what happens in November, the proposal could at very least impact the course of local elections.

“We have lost our democracy and we need to fight to get it back, and local elections...are the only place that have not been totally corrupted yet,” Johnson said.

The discussion will continue in the coming months.

CL writer Colin O’Hara contributed to this report.

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