SF mayor's race coming down to a fight over money and influence
Posted May 25, 2018 7:37 p.m. EDT
SAN FRANCISCO -- No issue has been bigger in the San Francisco mayor's race than money -- who's giving it, who's getting it, and how much is coming from donors operating independently of the candidates' campaigns.
More than the differences the four main candidates have over such areas as housing, homelessness, public transit -- differences that are mostly narrow -- London Breed, Jane Kim, Mark Leno and Angela Alioto have made the campaign largely about allegations of influence-buying, especially by the independent expenditure groups known as super PACS.
The question: How much do voters care? And do they care more about the influence that money might be buying more than they care to hear candidates talk about dirty streets, car break-ins, soaring rents and other issues?
``Some voters will care about it a lot, but for others, it's a distraction or an attempt to change the narrative of an election away from issues and policies and make it more about, 'Who do you trust?' '' said Jason McDaniel, an associate political science professor at San Francisco State University.
``Voters are very clear about what they care about in this election, and it's homelessness, affordability and getting the streets of the city clean,'' said John Whitehurst, a Democratic consultant who isn't involved with any of the candidates, but previously handled Leno's campaigns for the state Legislature. ``None of the voters I've talked to and none of the polls I've seen -- and I've seen a lot -- point to campaign finance as an important issue in this election. I don't believe anyone will be elected mayor based on proving who has the least amount of independent expenditure money spent on them.''
That's not stopping the candidates from firing away, mostly at Breed. In the most recent reporting period, from April 22 to May 19, she brought in $258,853 in contributions from individuals -- nearly twice as much as Kim, better than double Leno's total and more than 10 times as much as Alioto, according to reports filed with the city Ethics Commission.
But it's the super PAC money that is drawing the most attention. Outside groups that by law cannot coordinate their activities with a candidate -- but can spend as much as they like -- have now shelled out nearly $1 million on ads, mailers and other efforts to support Breed. That's compared with the $385,593 spent on behalf of Kim and $137,327 spent supporting Leno. No outside groups have been formed to support Alioto.
Additionally, outside groups have spent $179,133 attacking Kim and $101,891 opposing Leno, records filed with the Ethics Commission show.
Most of the outside money spent supporting Breed -- $658,149 of the $962,000 total -- has come from a committee formed by the San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 union. The committee has raised thousands from tech moguls including Evan Williams, a co-founder and former CEO of Twitter.
Kim's biggest outside benefactors include Service Employees International Union Local 1021 Candidate PAC, which has spent $218,980. A committee called San Francisco for All of Us, Supporting Mark Leno for Mayor has spent $54,575 on ads. Its chief donors are Equality California, a statewide LGBTQ-rights group that endorsed Leno's campaign in March, and United Here Local 2, a union representing hotel employees.
Kim and Leno have each benefited from $25,148 from the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee.
Campaign finance has been an issue in the race since the start. Back in January, Alioto sued Leno's campaign to block it from accessing hundreds of thousands of dollars in public financing money, which is provided to candidates to offset the costs of campaigning. A San Francisco judge ruled against her.
Alioto herself failed to qualify for the city's public financing program. She threatened to sue the city this month after a final appeal was denied, arguing that glitches in the Ethics Commission's computer system caused discrepancies in her paperwork.
On the day that Leno officially became a candidate, he challenged other contenders to ``publicly denounce, renounce and reject'' all super PAC money. Kim and Alioto signed the pledge but Breed did not.
In what's become a cornerstone of his campaign, Leno paints Breed's popularity with outside groups as evidence that she's controlled by monied special interests, particularly those of tech investor Ron Conway. Kim and Leno even put out a joint campaign ad warning voters that ``wealthy special interests are trying to buy this election.''
Breed has aggressively defended her independence. And her campaign has fired back, calling Leno and Kim hypocrites for benefiting from the thousands spent on their behalf by outside groups while criticizing Breed for doing the same thing. Claiming to reject the influence of outside spending doesn't stop the money from flowing, Breed's camp contends.
``Leno and Kim know that no candidate can control outside spending,'' Breed spokeswoman Tara Moriarty said. ``It's time they drop the hypocrisy and spend the final weeks of this campaign focusing on the critical issues.''
Leno's campaign spokeswoman Zoe Kleinfeld countered, ``We believe that housing and homelessness are two of the most important issues facing San Francisco. ... But we also believe that campaign funding matters, and we're taking that issue to voters.''
McDaniel, the San Francisco State professor, said focusing on spending by special interest groups could help drive votes to Leno and Kim by uniting the city's progressive factions around a common cause.
``No one disagrees that money in politics is a problem,'' McDaniel said. ``The message unites the different groups that Leno and Kim are trying to appeal to. Whether it will work or not is a whole other matter.''