For years, Austin’s campaign fundraising rules banned City Council members from seeking donations during months-long stretches. But when the council returns on Thursday to cast its first official votes of 2017, it will operate in a different political world, where ongoing fundraising could be a reality.
Indeed, campaign finance records show that four council members have received donations since the November election under the more lenient, court-mandated rules resulting from former Council Member Don Zimmerman’s lawsuit against the city. And members have said little so far about plans to try to revive the old rules, which had allowed fundraising only in the six months before an election.
“I think the silence on this issue speaks very loudly,” said Mark Littlefield, a longtime political consultant. “Council is either OK with this new political fundraising landscape, or they’re just so unsure about what to do that they’re going to ignore it.”
District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, District 6’s Jimmy Flannigan and District 8’s Ellen Troxclair have all reported receiving campaign contributions that would have been barred under the old rules.
Flannigan raised more than $16,000 from more than 70 donations in the wake of his November victory over Zimmerman, an American-Statesman review of city records shows. Troxclair, who isn’t up for re-election until 2018, reported raising $2,000 from 10 donors, while Casar received five contributions worth a combined $295.
District 10’s Alison Alter reported receiving two $25 contributions the day after she defeated incumbent Sheri Gallo in the Dec. 13 runoff election.
“The voters expressed a pretty clear intent when they passed charter provisions limiting the campaign fundraising window,” Casar said, referring to the old rules approved by Austin voters in 1997 and revised in 2006. Casar’s campaign, he added, has either returned or is in the process of returning those donations.
Alter said her campaign also returned larger donations made after the election and that she has no plans to raise funds during the old “blackout” period.
“I’m uncomfortable with the idea of raising money now that I’m elected,” she said.
Troxclair and Flannigan said their fundraising is allowed by the rules.
“The legal advice that we were given is that there’s no longer a moratorium,” Troxclair said, noting that she has added a donate link to campaign emails she sends out, but wasn’t actively soliciting for donations. “I just want to follow whatever the rules are.”
Flannigan largely echoed Troxclair’s remarks.
“I’m continuing to operate a political team in the district, and we’re continuing to try to organize folks,” he said. “We are raising money within the parameters of the city’s rules and the judge’s ruling.”
Last July, federal District Judge Lee Yeakel tossed the old “blackout” period that had banned candidates for municipal government from raising money for their campaigns until six months before the election. That ruling came in Zimmerman’s 2015 lawsuit against the city, which alleged that rule, the city’s $350 limit on individual contributions and cap on donations from non-Austin residents violated his free speech rights.
“In my view, the city had no right to put those restrictions on us in the first place,” Zimmerman said Wednesday. “It’s ludicrous, asinine thinking; it’s got to be stopped at the court or the ballot box.”
Yeakel agreed with Zimmerman on the blackout, but allowed the city to keep its contribution caps. Zimmerman appealed that portion of the ruling.
“I’m not sure yet how (the end of the blackout period is) going to change things,” said Fred Lewis, a longtime civic activist and attorney. “I think there are advantages to moratoriums in that you don’t have elected officials chasing dollars while they’re making decisions or voting. It’s always a problem to be raising money while voting. It raises questions and cynicism, warranted or not.”
Both Littlefield and Lewis said they would like to see the City Council take another stab at the issue, perhaps trying to replace the overturned blackout period with a shorter one that could pass constitutional muster. Casar said he would back such a measure.