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Friday, September 30, 2005 | The city of San Diego will begin defending its campaign contribution policies in federal court against a politically conservative business group that is seeking to allow businesses and individuals to pool money when independently spending in the city’s elections.
The Lincoln Club of San Diego is suing the city over campaign finance restrictions that prohibit businesses from combining money for campaign expenditures and that cap the per-person amount a group of individuals may spend independent from a candidate’s campaign committee. Under city elections law, a single individual or a single business may spend unlimited sums of money independently.
Chris Niemeyer, executive director for the local Lincoln Club, argues that the city’s campaign finance restrictions unconstitutionally limit free expression.
“A big corporation can do one thing, a wealthy individual can do one thing, but once you mix the groups it’s not allowed,” Niemeyer said. “We are fighting to change this old archaic law.”
Niemeyer points to the example that an independently funded billboard advertisement for a City Council candidate costing $10,000 can be financed three different ways: a lone individual who expends $10,000, a business that spends $10,000 itself, or a group of people – such as a labor union – where at least 40 people give a maximum of $250 each.
He said it was unfair that a group of businesses or less than 40 people would be prohibited from splitting the cost of that same billboard.
Donald Shanahan, the deputy city attorney assigned to the case, said that the courts have upheld that restrictions like the city of San Diego’s do not impact a person’s freedoms to speak or assemble, as the club alleges.
“It’s not the members that are speaking, it’s the Lincoln Club that is speaking,” Shanahan said. “Speech by proxy is not direct political speech.”
Individuals can give up to $300 to campaigns for candidates vying for citywide office, such as mayor or city attorney, and $250 per City Council candidate per each election cycle.
He recommends that if a group of individuals, such as the Lincoln Club, wants to spend more money on a candidate, that it go out and recruit more members.
Niemeyer said that it is much easier for labor unions to spend large amounts of money because they require mandatory membership, whereas groups like his depend on voluntary contributions.
Bob Fellmeth, a public interest law professor at University of San Diego School of Law, said that corporations spend their shareholders’ money on campaigns without their consent.
“These people give their money to a corporation for an investment return, whereas members of a union can opt out of using their money for political actions,” said Fellmeth, who authored a ballot initiative in 1988 to use public money to match campaign donations. “A shareholder can’t do that.”
City Councilman Scott Peters said that he supports raising the per-person contribution limits, but expressed support for the ban against pooling.
“No one interest group should be overly influential,” Peters said. “I don’t want to see groups aggregating money to get around the campaign contribution limit.”
James Sutton, a San Francisco attorney representing the Lincoln Club, said that the stigma of not knowing who is behind so-called “special interest groups” is that their membership isn’t properly disclosed. Limiting persons’ or businesses’ right to assemble a group to pool their donations is the wrong way of approaching that issue.
“This concern can be addressed through stricter disclosure laws,” Sutton said.
The case will be heard before Judge Larry Burns at 10:30 a.m. on Monday.
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