Parties, Money and Municipal Elections

Parties, Money and Municipal Elections

Most cities in Florida hold nonpartisan elections to select their councilmembers/commissioners and, in many cases, mayors. Formally, what this means is that the candidates and their campaigns are not supposed to campaign as members of a political party. No R or D on the yard sign. No “I’m a proud Republican/Democrat” on the campaign literature.

Enforcement mechanisms typically are weak or nonexistent. But municipal custom often exercises considerable influence over the candidates. I haven’t done a study, but my impression is that candidates and their campaigns tend to play by the rules or reasonably close to them.

There’s often good reason for such behavior.

Part of the argument for nonpartisan municipal elections is that municipalities, as frontline public service providers, can and should focus on delivering the needed/desired services at the best price. It doesn’t matter whether the elected officials are Democrats or Republicans; the core work of cities, public service delivery, is something everyone wants accomplished. Clean water, safe streets, pleasant parks, and disposing effectively of the trash are what public opinion scholars call “valence issues.” We all agree about the goal. The only question is, who among the candidates is most likely to ensure the goal is reached?

What voters in municipal elections want to know is, who will make this work? What

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they don’t usually care about is, what do the candidates think about immigration reform, or the Affordable Care Act, or the Iran nuclear deal?

Consequently, the prudent municipal candidate steers clear of the party label in self-interest. Why complicate life by picking up and carrying the mantle of the state or national party when municipal voters don’t want to hear about that stuff anyway?

The same cannot be said of the party organizations themselves, however. And in an era of increasing independent expenditure on campaigns, it cannot be said of any number of individuals, corporations, unions, and others with a perceived stake in the outcome.

In the most recent municipal elections in Tampa, the reality of growing outside engagement in municipal elections was made manifest in the race for District 6, a seat that represents what generally is known as West Tampa. In the runoff especially, the Democratic Party of Florida acted independently to promote the candidacy of one candidate, while a shadowy group called Moving Tampa Forward spent thousands of dollars supporting the other.

I refer to Moving Tampa Forward as “shadowy” because the people behind it, both organizers and donors, were unknown to the voting public of Tampa until well after the runoff (and, mostly, remain unknown). It would appear that all of this was done in compliance with the letter of the state’s laws related to political action committees and disclosure requirements. But clearly, the spirit of disclosure has been ignored.

The campaign finance universe has been changing almost daily since a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court culminated in the Citizens United case. But the path we are on was set well before that case and involves much more than whether corporations are persons with First Amendment rights. The necessity of identifying a compelling state interest to justify any restriction on speech-through-spending has, to this point, severely constrained any new efforts to address the dislocations of the political process by large amounts of speech-cash.

When we’re talking presidential campaigns, gubernatorial campaigns and other high-profile battles, the extraordinary sums of money, stunning as they are, seem less troubling against the backdrop of the war chests incumbents build and challengers attempt to amass. At least most of the fighters in the arena are armed with millions.

But when we’re talking about citizens who love their cities, who have given of their time and talent over years to make their communities a little better, and who decide at some point to seek a seat on the council to continue that good work, even much more modest sums should give us pause. An individual or handful of individuals, corporations, or other organizations can drop thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, essentially without disclosure, to attack that good citizen or to promote someone who can be expected to deliver on unknown commitments if elected. And in those races, ten or fifteen or twenty thousand dollars might be an outsized thumb placed on the electoral scale.

The good news (from this vantage point anyway) in the Tampa City Council runoff is that the candidate who was attacked by the shadow group won. He had the overt and financially meaningful support of “his” party (which also should be somewhat troubling to us), but at least people knew where the money was coming from. And he beat back a campaign of independent expenditures that still, today, remains shrouded in the names of organizations with obscure roots and interests.

This time, money didn’t win. Often, it doesn’t.

But the potential for big, effectively secret outside money to distort our local democratic processes is only beginning to become evident. The more that potential is realized, the more trouble our cities will be in.