Lost in the hubbub of a heated election season headlined by a down to the wire governor’s race, voters in Tallahassee approved a first-of-its-kind municipal anti-corruption referendum intended to limit the influence of big moneyed special interests in local politics.
The new policy, backed 2 to 1 by city voters, amended Tallahassee’s charter to enact bold ethics and campaign finance reforms that supporters say is the beginning of a national grassroots campaign aimed at stopping “the legalized corruption that has come to define modern politics.”
Under the new rules, which have drawn scant media attention outside Tallahassee, city leaders must establish a tough ethics code within six months, and create an independent ethics board to assist the city commission in drafting the code, and then to administer and enforce it.
More notably, candidates for mayor and city commission may no longer accept campaign contributions in excess of $250 per election. And in a twist on public financing for political campaigns, registered voters who contribute to municipal candidates in Tallahassee are eligible to receive a refund from the city equal to the amount of their contributions, up to a maximum of $25.
If successful, the strategy would empower small donors to dilute the undue influence of big money donors.
“This will encourage the common, ordinary citizen to be involved in the election process,” said Peter Butzin, the chairman of Common Cause Florida. “We need to take back local government one local governmental institution at a time.”
Butzin estimated refunds from the city’s general revenues would cost about $200,000 in an election cycle based on the city’s population of about 185,000. “It’s a system we think will be free of any corruption or administrative problems relating to fraud because it will be super easy to administer,” Butzin said.
Pushing to pass the referendum was an unusual coalition of reform-minded conservatives, including tea party groups, and more liberal, good-government interests like Common Cause and the Tallahassee League of Women Voters. Represent.us, a non-partisan, nonprofit based in Northampton, Massachusetts that’s looking to pass similar measures in cities and states across the country, brought them together.
“Tallahassee was our proving ground,” said Represent.us Director Josh Silver. “We got a huge amount of support, but not from the major political parties and that’s because these political parties are entrenched and both are routinely selling out their values to special interest donors.”
Silver, who zeroed in on Tallahassee with the help of Integrity Florida Executive Director Dan Krassner, said his side won without buying a dime’s worth of political advertising.
“We didn’t pay for a single ad,” he said. “People care about democracy, but they get fired up about corruption.”
The vote was a victory for Citizens for Ethics Reform, the local coalition that collected more than 20,000 signatures over the summer to get the anti-corruption measure on the November ballot – more than twice the required number.
One of those who rang doorbells was Anita Davis, a former Leon County commissioner and ex-president of the Tallahassee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“I had very few people that said no. They wanted to know how they could help,” said Davis, a co-chair of Citizens for Ethics Reform.
“We are now the model for the nation,” said the coalition’s other co-chair Catherine Baer, who also chairs The Tea Party Network. “The diversity of our partnership contributed to the success of it. Opponents had a hard time painting it far right or far left.”
Supporters say local action is needed due to the failure of Congress and state legislatures to address the threat to democracy posed by modern corruption schemes.
“America’s anti-corruption laws are dangerously out of date. With so many perfectly legal ways to exchange money in return for favorable treatment from politicians, “quid-pro-quo” bribery has become obsolete. Our broken system requires the people to buy access to their own government — This is the new face of corruption in the United States,” says the Represent.us web site.
Tallahassee sought to block a vote on the anti-corruption referendum as the movement gained steam over the summer.
In August, Tallahassee City Attorney Lewis Shelley sued Citizens for Ethics Reform complaining that the ballot language was “unclear.” But Leon County Chief Judge Charles A. Francis disagreed, and city commissioners later approved putting the matter on the ballot.
Josh Silver, of Represent.us, said the referendum vote is not vulnerable to legal challenge. A Washington lawyer who specializes in campaign finance law agreed.
“The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision had a huge impact on state races, but only deals with independent expenditures, not contributions. Similarly, last year’s McCutcheon decision did away with aggregate limits on contributions to all candidates, but didn’t outlaw limits to a single candidate,” said the attorney, who declined to be named.
Represent.us has a diverse board of advisors whose political affiliations range from progressive to conservative.
They include Theodore Roosevelt IV, an investment banker and great-grandson of the former president; Richard Painter, an ethics advisor to President George W. Bush; Douglas E. Schoen, Democratic campaign strategist; Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and Tom Whitmore, of DC Tea Party Patriots.
Silver said Represent.us is surveying the country in search of a dozen more cities where the Tallahassee model might be applied in the next two years. The ultimate goal: to get Congress to pass the American Anti-Corruption Act, which among its numerous provisions would prohibit members of Congress from raising funds from the interests they regulate or from acting to benefit those who spend heavily to influence their elections.
“Tallahassee voters have spoken out that they are tired of the corrupting influence of money in politics and they want a better way forward,” said Integrity Florida’s Dan Krassner, who is also a spokesman for Citizens for Ethics Reform. “This anti-corruption victory proves that conservatives and progressives can and will unite behind bold reforms.”