After four hours of debate, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to become a pioneer in local campaign finance reform Thursday and likely invited a legal challenge that could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
A measure championed by City Council chairwoman Darden Rice and supported by Mayor Rick Kriseman, currently locked in what has become by far the most expensive race in the city’s history, would limit individual political action committee contributions to $5,000 and ban donations from companies that are more than 5 percent foreign owned.
The 6-2 vote, with council members Jim Kennedy and Ed Montanari voting no, was a moment of high drama with Rice and council member Charlie Gerdes personally imploring their colleague, Amy Foster, to set aside her concerns about enforcement and join them.
Foster did, saying she was persuaded by Gerdes’ argument that voters would enforce the ordinance by rejecting candidates that flaunted the ordinance and its meager $500 fine.
After the vote, red-clad supporters, many of them members of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area, which provided consistently large, vocal crowds at more than 16 months of committee meetings, erupted in cheers and applause. The league’s president, Julie Kessel and the group’s point person on the issue, Karen Lieberman, collapsed into a tearful hug with John Bonifaz, a constitutional attorney.
“This is a historic vote. It’s a model law for the nation,” Bonifaz told reporters after the vote. He said legal challenges to the ordinance, which city attorneys argued violates the free speech provisions of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, may end up being litigated in the nation’s highest court.
“It’s possible it could go there,” said Bonifaz, who is founder of Free Speech for People, an advocacy group for campaign finance reform.
The group picked St. Petersburg, in part, Bonifaz said, because Florida is part of the 11th District U.S Court of Appeals, which has been silent on the issue. Also, the recent infusion of PAC money into the mayor’s race and strong grassroots support made the Sunshine City an attractive battlefield, he said.
Rice said the debate between Bonifaz and the city’s chief litigator, Joseph Patner, was one of the finest moments she’s witnessed in her four years on the council.
Patner argued that case law is clear that the measure would violated the Constitution and subject the city, and employees who try to enforce it, with expensive lawsuits. The possible cost to the city? 2 million dollars, Patner said, basing his estimate on other campaign finance reform attempts that had been overturned in costly legal action.
But Rice told her colleagues repeatedly: “Sometimes, the status quo is wrong.”
After the vote, a relieved Rice said she was confident that the ordinance would ultimately prevail.
“I said a long time ago, ‘This is the hill I’m going to die on.’ Today, I live,” she said.
Kriseman said at rally earlier Thursday that he looked forward to ridding future elections of big money. He has raised nearly $1 million for his reelection. His opponent, former mayor Rick Baker, has raised about $1.2 million. That total dwarfs all previous mayoral contests. Baker has said he opposed the ordinance.
The ordinance, accompanied by a companion measure that requires greater disclosure information from donors, will take effect in January. The current mayoral and council races won’t be affected.