St. Pete, let’s take a bite out of Citizens United

Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Brown

 

BY COUNCILMEMBER LISA WHEELER-BROWN AND KAREN LIEBERMAN

Money in politics—who doesn’t want to get money out of politics?  Too many good people do not run for office because it costs so much. Others become candidates only to be left in the dust because they don’t have enough money to run a decent campaign. Since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Citizens United, money has flooded our elections.

As a result, the average person does not feel that his or her needs are being met. This is no surprise because the U.S. Congress is, more than ever, made up of millionaires and is being bought and sold by billionaires. Amending the Constitution is one way to try to get money out of politics, and there is a movement in the country trying to do just that.

But the push for change can happen on a local level, too. There is an old expression: You can’t fight city hall. But, sometimes you can. Recently American Promise ~ Tampa Bay (AP~TB), a non-partisan organization, along with the League of Women Voters St. Pete (LWVSP) and other local groups, went to St. Pete City Hall to try to be a force for change.

On July 21st, Darden Rice, St. Pete City Council Vice-Chair, proposed a new ordinance—the first of its kind in the nation—that would establish limits on contributions to super PACs (a super PAC is separate from a conventional PAC in that it can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money). The Protect Our Democracy ordinance would abolish super PACs in St. Pete elections. It would also require corporations that spend $5,000 or more on St. Pete elections to certify they are not owned or controlled by foreign entities.

The ordinance was developed with input from Free Speech For People (FSFP), a national non-partisan, non-profit organization. FSFP is advising and representing the locals (gratis) with the assistance and advice of Prof. Laurence Tribe, who was President Obama’s constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School. Other experts in both constitutional and election law from around the country also had input and continue to assist.

If the ordinance is approved by the St. Pete City Council, it would mark the first time any city council has ever taken on super PAC and foreign corporate spending.  If the law is challenged in court, it could even make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the justices could decide to overturn the lower court decision that created super PACs, SpeechNow v. FEC, and could even issue a decision that takes a bite out of Citizens United itself.

City Hall was packed on the day the ordinance was introduced. Speakers expressed an assortment of ideas: Many spoke out against the National Rifle Association, the Koch Brothers, and ride-hailing service Uber (which is now five percent owned by the Saudi government), among others. However, throughout everything, there was one common thread: Get money out of our politics. Whether it is foreign money or super PACs—we don’t want money playing such a large part in our elections.

The St. Petersburg City Council voted six to one to consider the ordinance further. (There are eight members on the city council, but one councilmember left early, prior to the vote.)

The next time the Council will meet to discuss the ordinance is Thursday, Oct. 27 at 2 p.m. Known as a Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting, this hearing will allow the full City Council to discuss this issue, and lawyers from FSFP along with other election experts will be present. The public is invited to attend.

If you want more information on the ordinance, please write to Rae Claire Johnson of American Promise ~ Tampa Bay at Raeclaire@aol.com.

Lisa Wheeler-Brown is the District 7 St. Petersburg City Council member.  She was also a past president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA).

Karen Lieberman, Ph.D., is a retired college professor and current community activist in St. Pete. She also co-directs (with her family) The Leif Nissen Foundation, which supports local, national, and international social justice causes.

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