Campaign-Finance Limits Challenged

A city's spending cap may reach high court

How much should a seat on the Cincinnati city council cost?

In 1989, the average winning campaign shelled out $67,500. By 1995, that figure had increased by nearly 300 percent - to $197,500.

Alarmed by the skyrocketing cost of winning an election, politicians in Cincinnati decided to fight back. But what they did next has embroiled the city in a major constitutional showdown over campaign-finance reform that some are hoping will lead all the way to the US Supreme Court.

By a 5-to-4 vote, the council mandated that no candidate could spend more than $140,000, roughly three times a council member's salary, for a campaign.

Opponents of the local law say mandatory spending limits are an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights under a 1976 landmark US Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Valeo.

Perception of corruption

Supporters see the limits as the only fool-proof way to reduce the influence of wealthy special interests in the election process. That influence, they say, makes government appear corrupt.

The council majority has pledged to stand firm and wage the first direct challenge to the 1976 Supreme Court decision. They hope to clear the way for other local, state, and federal officials to adopt campaign spending limits.

Todd Portune, the city council member who sponsored the spending-limit measure, says the council knew from the start it had national implications. "I see this as a case that ultimately will find its way to the Supreme Court," Mr. Portune says.

But the case won't find its way to the Supreme Court if Christopher Finney has anything to say about it. Mr. Finney is a real estate attorney and former campaign manager for John Kruse, an unsuccessful candidate for city council in 1995.

Free-speech 'David'

Finney, on behalf of Mr. Kruse, filed suit to block the ordinance. In January, he persuaded a federal judge to declare the measure unconstitutional. End of Round 1.

Round 2 began last month, when Portune and his attorney, John Bonifaz of the Boston-based advocacy group National Voting Rights Institute, appealed the ruling to the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Oral arguments have not been scheduled, but the case is already attracting nationwide attention.

Attorneys general and other officials from 33 states plus Guam have filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the spending-limit ordinance. And the Justice Department is considering filing its own supporting brief.

On the other side it is still just Finney and Kruse, but not because they lack support. Finney says he prefers to be portrayed as a free-speech "David" battling the "Goliath" of reformers. With 21 years worth of Supreme Court precedent behind him, Finney says he's not worried.

At the heart of the case is the issue of whether the government can dictate to a candidate how much he or she may spend to win elected office.

First Amendment advocates adopt a free-market approach, saying candidates should be allowed to spend as much as they wish to communicate their political ideas. Some say that during a campaign, money equals speech and should not be regulated.

Campaign-finance reformers say excessive spending by some candidates can drown out the voices of others who have less money for expensive radio and television advertisements. They argue that the currency of an election campaign should be ideas rather than greenbacks.

Is money the problem?

The Constitution should protect free-speech rights for everyone, not just for those who have large campaign war chests to spend, Mr. Bonifaz says.

"There is a line of Supreme Court cases in which the court articulates that wealth can't be a determinate factor in the election process," Bonifaz says.

Finney doesn't believe money is the problem. "People with good ideas who work hard are going to be able to raise the money necessary to get their message out," he says.

Ultimately, Finney says, spending limits would protect incumbent politicians from challengers.

"What the incumbents want to do is take away the most powerful arrow in the non-incumbent's quiver, the big unknown: How much is my opponent going to spend against me?'' Finney says.

The result would be "bland candidates who are created by the established political powers rather than individuals with creative ideas," he says.

But Bonifaz says his argument in the Cincinnati case will document "how unlimited spending fueled a perception of corruption in the city of Cincinnati."

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