City Hall Hustle: It Will Be Mayor May Before you Know It

Plugging the holes in city's campaign finance ordinance

What's an average day for the Hustle like nowadays? Well, at work I'm constantly refreshing Talking Points Memo for the latest campaign news, before heading home and checking my mailbox for my $12 Obama shirt from MoveOn.Org, then plowing through Democracy Now!, Countdown With Keith Olber­mann, and The Rachel Maddow Show, while perusing the national blogosphere. In short, presidential politics have completely captured my attention – and I sincerely doubt I'm alone.

In an election year like this, who could be thinking of the 2009 mayoral race?

Well, a couple of folks are mulling it – and not just through the idle prism of will-they-or-won't-they chatter about potential candidates. By the rumor mill's latest count, in descending likelihood: That's probably Brewster McCracken, Lee Leffingwell, former Council Members Bill Spelman and Jackie Goodman, then wild cards Mike Levy and state Comptroller Carole Keeton McClellan "Grandma" Rylander Strayhorn.

Can you imagine all of them on one stage? (Strayhorn's surnames require their own League of Women Voters guide, at least.)

At this week's council meeting (Thursday, Sept. 25), an ordinance from Leffingwell and Mike Martinez amending local campaign finance arrives for third and final reading, generating an undeniable effect on the May election. "Whether you want to or not, you have to follow the city's finance laws or face the consequences," says Leffingwell.

It certainly could affect Strayhorn, should she decide she owes Austin another term as mayor. Her political action committee, Friends of Carole Keeton Strayhorn, has more than $100,000 in contributions, a formidable war chest for a local race. However, one of the new finance ordinance's manifold provisions prevents reuse of funds raised elsewhere for a city election. "Only city qualified funds can be used in a municipal election," says Martinez, calling the provision "long overdue." Asked if the specter of a Strayhorn run specifically figured in their rule-making, Martinez says, "It certainly was something that we talked about," but the goal was simply "to make sure we tightened up every loophole we could."

Another loophole – again, with demonstrable political repercussions – is independent personal expenditures. "Let's say Candidate X gets supported by Joe Blow citizen for $5,000," posits Martinez. During the last 10 days of campaigning, "we are going to require the [donor] disclose that within 24 hours." It's impossible not to harken back to the May 2008 campaign, during which co-sponsor Leffingwell was tarred with negative, misleading advertising bought by Jason Meeker supporter and local businessman Rick Culleton. (Culleton never disclosed how much he spent, but the print and TV ad-buys were estimated by one experienced consultant at about $40,000.) Another lesson is "defining the relationship between an independent expenditure PAC and a candidate's campaign," says Martinez. "In the last election cycle, a campaign consultant who was directly running the campaign of the candidate quit," says Martinez, referring to the shake-ups in the Meeker campaign, "and then went and ran an independent political action committee on behalf of the candidate they were working for and tried to claim there was no collusion. Well, how does the same individual technically not constitute collusion?" Martinez queries. "We had to clean that language up, because we saw some gross negligence. They literally were able to thumb their nose at city law."

The ordinance also provides penalties, with $500 fines and class C misdemeanors for each violation. Other ramifications include lowering reporting requirements of individual contributors and a prohibition on candidates receiving contributions in any city building (unless rented out for a campaign event). But putting the brakes on independent expenditures and specific purpose PACs – the parties that can dump the most money in a race – is a priority, as evidenced by broader limits on specific purpose PAC fundraising. "Right now, a candidate can only raise a maximum of $30,000 from ZIP codes outside the city of Austin. A specific purpose PAC can take as much money as they want, from anybody they want, from wherever they want," says Martinez. The new language would restrict PACs to the same limits as politicians: maximum $300 contribution per person, $600 from a couple's checking account, and $30,000 max from outside the city. "You don't get any advantage by getting out of the rules by forming a [specific purpose] PAC," says Leffingwell.

"I've always assumed I had not only a moral obligation to abide by the city's campaign laws but a legal obligation as well," Leffingwell says. "And it turns out there was no enforceability. ... This changes that."

November's close. But May's also a little sooner than you think.

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City Council, Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell, Election, Campaign Finance

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