Both potential electoral challengers to Mayor Mark Stodola are firing back this week against a city-backed lawsuit to stop them from raising money through exploratory committees. Warwick Sabin moved on Tuesday (here and here) to dismiss the city’s suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court. Sabin notes the Arkansas Ethics Commission already passed on intervening last year.
"The substance of state law is pretty straightforward that exploratory committees can be set up for any race at any level in the state in advance of having an actual campaign," Sabin told KUAR. "Tax payer funds are in essence being used to try to stop citizens from running for office, or exploring the opportunity to do so. I think it's pretty unprecedented, it's very unusual, and it really underscores...that we have entrenched people in leadership positions in our city that I think are impeding progress."
A city ordinance prevents mayoral candidates from raising campaign funds before June 1st – but doesn’t mention exploratory committees for all but formally declared candidates like Sabin and Frank Scott. It also calls for incumbents to release carryover funds from previous elections but Mayor Stodola still has $78,000 in his campaign war chest.
The Arkansas Times reports Scott filed a counter-claim against the city arguing a different angle than Sabin's legal team, that the June 1st fundraising window is an unconstitutional limit on free speech.
So far the exploratory committees are paying off with both candidates raising funds in excess of Stodola's held-over campaign funds. Sabin says there's no reason to stop despite closing Stodola's initial cash-on-hand advantage.
"They're not quite even. I'm facing a three-term incumbent with name recognition who can call in contributions on June 1st from people he raised money from in the past," says Sabin. "For there to be a really level playing field there ought to be the opportunity for everyone to campaign at the same time, raise money at the same."
UPDATE 2/22 6 a.m.: Mayor Stodola's office is declining to comment on the lawsuit though he did comment on the lawsuit when it was first announced several months ago. His office says it's a matter for the city attorney - who is in part employed and directed by the mayor and city board.
KUAR is interviewing Frank Scott, Jr. late Thursday morning. In a statement he didn't pull any punches when commenting on the mayor's involvement in - and recent silence on - the lawsuit.
"The Mayor is attempting to silence me and anyone else interested in engaging in the public debate over Little Rock’s future, including the city residents who joined our Frank Discussion in West Little Rock Tuesday night. I share the concerns that many have about the corrosive effect money can have on our politics, and I believe that the Little Rock Board of Directors had good intentions when it passed campaign finance reform in 1997. However, Mayor Stodola should not be allowed to carry over $80,000 in campaign contributions while prohibiting potential challengers from raising any money until 5 months before the election."