Two days after the St. Petersburg City Council passed an ordinance limiting campaign contributions, which is expected to be legally challenged, Council Chair Darden Rice was still exulting.
A former president of the League of Women Voters in St. Pete, Rice was an early champion of the just passed measure that will set up limits on contributions to political action committees, essentially abolishing super PACs in local elections. It takes effect in January.
The measure is a direct rebuke to the 2010 SpeechNow.org v. FEC case from, which opened the door to super PACs by holding that the federal law limiting contributions to political committees to $5,000 per person each year did not apply to a political committee that promised to make only “independent expenditures.”
While some federal appellate circuits have followed the SpeechNow ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit — which has jurisdiction over federal cases in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia — has yet to rule on this question, nor has the U.S. Supreme Court or the Florida Supreme Court.
Attorneys for the city advised against the council approving the measure, arguing that the case will likely be challenged in court on First Amendment grounds and could lead up to $2 million or more in legal fees. But Rice said Saturday that the city’s taxpayers shouldn’t be fearful.
“We are setting up a foundation to raise the $2 million for potential prevailing party costs to offset this,” she said at a candidates forum held by the South St. Petersburg Democratic Club at the Sanderlin Center. “We have arranged to make some of the country’s top constitutional lawyers who have offered pro bono to work with us.”
There is currently a website called Defend Our Democracy where people can already begin to financially contribute to that legal defense fund. Rice says that believe that the ultimate costs needed to potentially pay for the legal defense of the ordnance will likely be lower than $2 million, but no matter.
“I would never put our city at risk for anything,” she said, while adding “the cost of inaction is too great.”
Barclay Harless and Brandi Gabbard are two Democrats running in the District 2 City Council race this fall. Both had been opposed to the ordinance because of the fear of the costs of a lawsuit, but Gabbard said that like current council members Steve Kornell and Amy Foster, the arguments she heard in favor the ordinance on Thursday convinced her to change her mind, though she says she’s still concerned about the potentially pricey legal fees that could ensue.
“Had I been sitting on that dais on Thursday, there was some very convincing and compelling arguments and I probably would have been swayed as well. “
Harless remains consistent in opposing the measure.
“I’m one hundred percent in favor of the ideas behind Save Our Democracy,” he said, before segueing into his previously declared vow not to form a political action committee himself. Harless also previously announced he would not have any outside group spend anything more than the $1,000 maximum level, and called on Gabbard to commit to the same pledge (she ignored his request).
Rice added that even though the process to pass the ordinance is now law in St. Pete, “this is by no means over,” contemplating the case potentially going all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court at some point in the future.
Later during the forum, each candidate answered questions on how they differ from their opponent.
Gabbard said that she was running with the viewpoint of a mother raising a child and was the voice of the “everyday person.”
“I’m not doing this for eventually running for statehouse or D.C. or anything like that. I am running to represent the voice of St. Petersburg and work hard for every resident of St. Petersburg,” she said.
“I am actually not looking to run for state office,” countered Harless. “I would never serve in Tallahassee unless I was paid for pain and suffering.”
He went on to say that the main difference between himself and Gabbard was the variety of jobs he’s had, referring to his work serving on nonprofits, working as an aide to then-state Representative Darryl Rouson and now in the banking industry.
Rice, who is running against 21-year-old Jerick Johnston (the only Democrat who did not participate), said she has the experience and insight “which I think is hard to top.”
Gina Driscoll, who is running against Republican Justin Bean in the District 6 race, said the difference between her and Bean was about values, referring to the fact that Bean is a “Trump Republican ” who attended the inauguration of “that person,” while she was meeting with Mayor Rick Kriseman and three other neighborhood association presidents on how to move the city forward.
“He was with his values, I was with mine,” she said (Bean has said that while he did attend the inauguration and he is a Republican, he did not vote for Trump and takes issue with him on several fronts).
The Bean campaign said later on Saturday that they were disappointed with Driscoll’s comments, saying that they lamented that resorted to a partisan attack against Bean instead of talking about the issues facing the city.
The four Democrats were asked at one point during the forum to identify three sources of news and information that they peruse daily.
For Driscoll, it was MSNBC, the Tampa Bay Times and SaintPetersBlog.
For Gabbard, it was SaintPetersBlog, The Hill and the Huffington Post.
Harless said it’s the Tampa Bay Times, Marketwatch.org, and The Economist.
And Rice said it was the Tampa Bay Times, The New York Times and NPR.