The fundraising rules in the Pittsburgh mayor's race are back to this: There are no rules.
An Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge voided the new contribution limits Wednesday covering the race this year, saying excess contributions by a former candidate triggered their suspension.
The ruling by Judge Joseph James means all the remaining candidates in the intriguing race could raise unbounded funds from rich individuals or political action committees over the next seven weeks, instead of being limited to just $2,000 or $4,000, respectively, under city law.
City Councilman Bill Peduto, while differing with the judge's ruling, said he expected donations in "five figures" by the end of Wednesday afternoon and would use his money to start television advertising within 10 days. He could lean on new funding from his ally Rich Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County executive, while other mayoral candidates could seek their own limitless giving.
"We played by the rules, the rules that were there. Other candidates in this race chose not to," Mr. Peduto said. "Now that the judge has made the decision that says there are no limits, now we'll campaign under those rules."
Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner said the campaign finance law, once championed by Mr. Peduto, "was poorly written. The judge said so, and it doesn't apply to this election." He said the court battle initiated by the councilman "was a distraction in this campaign, and that distraction is over."
Other Democrats seeking the party nod in the May 21 primary are state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and political newcomer A.J. Richardson of Sheraden.
Mr. Wheatley said he would abide by the decision and raise whatever he can, but would make approving a stronger campaign finance bill a top priority as mayor.
The judge's ruling came in a hearing on Mr. Peduto's request for an injunction barring Mr. Wagner from using some $350,000 collected during previous state campaigns. Judge James initially ruled that Mr. Wagner could not forward that money to his mayoral account since it was "in effect a donation" in excess of city law.
The Beechview man's lawyers then noted a since-withdrawn complaint Mr. Peduto lodged in February noting then-candidate Michael Lamb, the city controller, had violated the same law by putting $52,000 into his campaign. A "millionaire's exemption" proposed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in the 2009 law allowed candidates to give themselves up to $50,000 but waived the campaign limits for everyone if a candidate gave any more.
The judge ruled those contributions by Mr. Lamb -- the city controller who dropped from the race Monday and endorsed Mr. Wagner -- thereby triggered that exemption and contribution limits were waived. That final ruling was key for Mr. Wagner, who only launched his campaign in March after Mr. Ravenstahl dropped out and would have been at a steep financial disadvantage without his state funds and had to raise new money is a short period of time.
The court case provoked the sharpest words among the mayoral candidates in this ever-evolving race.
Mr. Peduto said Mr. Ravenstahl vetoed his preferred 2008 version of the finance law and vowed to reintroduce it.
"Mark my words, we will come back and we will pass campaign finance laws in this city to take the influence of big money out of running this town," the Point Breeze resident said. "It's the same old guard that's been running this city that wants these rules broken and changed, and back candidates that break those rules."
Mr. Fitzgerald kicked off Mr. Peduto's fundraising last year by giving the full amount allowed by law. Mr. Wagner said it "should worry the citizens of the city of Pittsburgh" that the executive could now pour unlimited funds into the Peduto campaign.
"There's no doubt he has had significant influence over Councilman Peduto. That's not the way governments should work and that's not the way campaigns should work," Mr. Wagner said.
First Published April 3, 2013 4:00 PM