Former San Diego City Council candidate Phil Thalheimer has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of San Diego alleging the city’s campaign finance rules violate his constitutional rights to free speech.

Thalheimer, who lost to District 1 Councilwoman Sherri Lightner last year, is joined in the suit by the local Republican Party, a building and contracting political action committee, a conservative political organization and a prominent pollster.

The argument, laid out in a 68-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in San Diego on Monday, is that the city’s rules against contributing to prospective candidates more than a year away from an election violate the free speech rights of candidates, city residents and third-party organizations.

In the complaint, Thalheimer states that he plans to run for the District 1 seat again or a possible new ninth council district in 2012, but cannot begin fundraising. Others in the suit — Associated Builders & Contractors PAC, the Lincoln Club, the Republican Party and pollster John Nienstedt — argue that they would like to make contributions now, but campaign finance rules unconstitutionally limit their ability to do so.

The lead counsel in the lawsuit is Indiana lawyer James Bopp Jr., who is general counsel for an organization that challenges campaign finance rules across the country.

“For what it’s worth, from the commission’s perspective those limits are important toward preventing corruption,” said Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city’s Ethics Commission whose commissioners also are named in the suit.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the city’s rules unconstitutional.

Clarification: Fulhorst called me to emphasize that in our interview we were discussing multiple aspects of Thalheimer’s lawsuit. Her quotation refers to the city’s contribution limits from individual and third-party donors, not the amount of time before an election that someone is allowed to contribute.


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