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Cleveland City Council doubles campaign finance contribution limits, some residents push back

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Cleveland's ordinance, proposed Thursday just days ahead of its passage, was vetted in Monday’s committee of the whole meeting ahead of the evening council meeting — the last of the body’s meetings before the summer recess.

Cleveland City Council quickly — and controversially — approved legislation Monday that doubled campaign finance contribution limits ahead of council elections in 2025.

Those caps jumped from $1,500 to $3,000 for individuals and from $3,000 to $6,000 for political action committees, groups often run by businesses, labor unions or ideological interests.

Council President Blaine Griffin said the increase is to accommodate inflated costs, as well as prepare for the loss of two of the city’s 17 wards in the upcoming redistricting process since some candidates will have to campaign over larger areas. Per the city’s charter, the once-in-a-decade redistricting process will come ahead of the 2025 election.

He also said it will allow candidates to tap into other sources aside from the Council Leadership Fund, a political action committee controlled by Griffin that some members of the public have criticized.

No other city in Cuyahoga County has limits on donations to council candidates, said a council spokesperson. In Akron, campaign finance limits cap at $750 to any council candidate and $1,000 to any at-large council member or mayoral candidate. In Columbus, the limit is set at more than $15,000.

Cleveland's ordinance, proposed Thursday just days ahead of its passage, was vetted in Monday’s committee of the whole meeting ahead of the evening council meeting — the last of the body’s meetings before the summer recess.

While some residents and council members criticized the quick turnaround, Griffin said he wanted to push the legislation through before council people spent the summer canvassing their neighborhoods.

Some Clevelanders, council members oppose the measure

Activists circulated a resident-authored letter over the weekend, garnering more than 200 signatures of those against the ordinance imploring council members to vote no.

The signees argued that the “rush to pass” the measure “undermines public trust.”

“This ordinance is only designed to pad the campaign coffers of sitting council members by increasing the power of the wealthy,” the letter said. “This ordinance will further muffle the voices of low income residents and increase those of developers and a host of business interests.”

Council Member Richard Starr fired back at the community activists in an email sent to Ideastream.

“Thanks so much for spending your precious time this past weekend organizing and getting folks to sign your Google Doc form regarding Ordinance No. 615-2024,” Starr wrote, criticizing the residents for what he suggested was insufficient activism on other issues like gun violence, food deserts and a “failing educational school system.”

“Yes, we do need to increase Cleveland City Council Contributions,” he wrote. “When it is time to run for office, it's a struggle for Black elected officials to raise money, and history has shown that.”

Other council members also dug in on “progressives” challenging the amendment.

“To these leftists and these progressives that are, sending out these emails: you brought this upon yourself by threatening the institution, threatening members of this body, threatening the mayor of the city of Cleveland,” said Council Member Mike Polensek.

Community organizer Molly Martin, who was one of the organizers behind a failed participatory budgeting ballot initiative last fall, said she has concerns over how the contribution limit hike will allow corporations to “buy” seats at the council table.

“We saw a deep alignment of this with the Issue 38 campaign of Cleveland needing more democracy, not more power to status quo politicians and wealthy developers and billionaires, who fund things like the Council Leadership Fund,” Martin said. “We see this legislation moving us in the wrong direction.”

Several council members, including Ward 12’s Rebecca Maurer, also spoke out against the measure.

“Money is power, and this opens the door for the type of big money that, frankly, has not been involved in city council politics up until now to come in the door and really start controlling races,” Maurer said.

Other no-votes included Ward 15's Jenny Spencer, who said there was not enough time to study the issue, and Charles Slife, who represents Ward 17.

Some council members said the measure did not go far enough proposing even higher limits — or none at all. Councilmember Joe Jones, who represents Ward 1, proposed an amendment to match council’s contribution limits to the mayor’s: $5,000 from individuals and $7,500 for PACs. The amendment was not adopted as part of the legislation.

“If anybody wants to actually lower the cost of entry, lower the barrier point for people to get involved in politics in Cleveland, then we should have more city council seats because the cost of a campaign is directly proportional to the number of voters in that district,” said Ward 13 Councilmember Kris Harsh, who voted in favor of the legislation. “If you want to actually make it cheaper to run for office in Cleveland, then we should stop downsizing Cleveland City Council and we should actually add some seats to it.”

The city will lose ward seats ahead of the next election due to population loss.

Griffin said this legislation struck the “sweet spot” and compromised between what various members of council wanted.

All members of City Council and Mayor Justin Bibb will be up for reelection in November 2025.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.