Court upholds city law limiting mayoral donations

Chaka Fattah says he'll appeal ruling

Another critical issue in the Philadelphia mayor's race - whether the candidates will be able to solicit six-figure donations from unions, law firms, political-action committees and other wealthy donors - is headed for the state Supreme Court.

U. S. Rep. Chaka Fattah said last night he would appeal yesterday's ruling by Commonwealth Court. With just one judge dissenting, the court upheld a city ordinance that puts a $20,000 cap on contributions in this year's mayoral contest.

Rep. Fattah: Expedited decision eyed.

Fattah's attorney, Gregory Harvey, said he would ask the Supreme Court to expedite a decision, in hopes of removing the fundraising restrictions before the Democratic primary on May 15, just six weeks away.

"We cannot allow one candidate to buy the election while others toil under limits that curtail our ability to share our record of service to Philadelphians," Fattah said in a prepared statement.

The reference was to multimillionaire Tom Knox, who has vastly outspent the other candidates, using at least $5 million of his personal fortune to buy TV ads, fueling dramatic gains in the polls. There is no limit on a candidate spending his own money.

Of the five major Democratic candidates, Fattah is the only one who has yet to air a campaign ad. Under the city's new campaign finance rules, he was the least successful fundraiser last year, coming up with just $391,000 from 146 donors.

Zack Stalberg, executive director of the watchdog Committee of Seventy group, said he was disappointed that Fattah would appeal so close to the primary.

"I think it's a long-shot effort, given the decisive decision by the Commonwealth Court," Stalberg said. "But if Fattah somehow managed to prevail it would send the election into chaos," setting off "a mad race for cash."

Former City Councilman Michael Nutter, a mayoral rival who helped get the new campaign-finance rules through Council, also criticized Fattah's plans.

"The only way we're going to clean up the pay-to-play culture in this city is to have campaign contribution limits," Nutter said. "This is the wrong direction for the city, not the kind of leadership that Philadelphians are expecting."

The Supreme Court is already facing a lawsuit challenging the ballot spot of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city Democratic Party chairman.

Brady won the first round on a decision by a visiting judge from Wilkes-Barre, but Knox has appealed and Brady's lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to make a final ruling. The suit involves Brady's failing to list his city pension, and pension arrangements with the carpenters' union, on a financial disclosure form he filed with his nominating petitions.

Commonwealth Court heard arguments on the city's contribution limits last month, after a Common Pleas judge tossed out the limits in December and the city appealed.

Opposing the limits were Fattah and union leader John Dougherty, who flirted with running but did not enter the race. A spokesman said Dougherty will consider joining an appeal.

Commonwealth Court ruled that Philadelphia has the authority to create local legislation unless state law expressly forbids it. Therefore, the court said in its 6-1 ruling, the city has the constitutional right to set contribution limits.

"I'm really pleased that the Commonwealth Court has clearly and decisively upheld the city's authority to regulate campaign finance limits with respect to municipal elections," said City Solicitor Romulo Diaz. "I thought it was a strong home-rule statement."

The limits - enacted in 2003 and revised in 2005 - are set at $2,500 annually per individual and $10,000 per political action committee. But a "millionaire's amendment" doubles them if a candidate spends significant personal bucks into the race.

Since Knox is spending millions of his own fortune on the campaign, the limits in this race are doubled.

Commonwealth Court also ruled that Dougherty could not pursue a related claim in which he argued that Nutter had violated the city's resign-to-run provision. The court said the question was moot because Nutter stepped down from Council last July. *