Monday, September 28, 2020
News + Politics Following the big tech and real estate money in...

Following the big tech and real estate money in D11 and D9

Hundreds of thousands from Big Tech and anti-labor developer pour in to support Safai and Arce



It’s getting more and more complicated to Follow the Money in San Francisco, particularly when so many campaigns are making so many misleading statements about their politics and their support.

Take, for example, District 11, where Ahsha Safai has the support of an immensely well funded group called “Protect SF,” which lists its major funding source as “San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798.”

Ahsha Safai is getting big-money support from the mayor's allies in the Big Tech and real-estate world
Ahsha Safai is getting big-money support from the mayor’s allies in the Big Tech and real-estate world

Firefighters might not be as popular as teachers and nurses in SF, but they still have a pretty positive image. The Fire Department has a history of racism and sexism, and it hasn’t exactly gone away, and for years, the union opposed measures that would lead to greater integration of the department. Local 798 is still mostly a conservative white-boys’ operation.

But firefighters don’t shoot people like the cops do; they save lives. So unlike the Police Officers Association, which is now pretty toxic, the firefighters have some influence. It doesn’t sound bad to be supported by the folks who run into burning buildings to rescue people and do emergency medical work.

But when you see the mailers and the TV ads (TV ads? In a district supervisorial race? We’re talking people with way, way too much money on their hands), you wouldn’t know that most of the money for Protect SF comes not from the firefighters but from a collection of big tech and real-estate interests including Airbnb and Facebook.

Here’s how it works.

Protect SF files a report with the San Francisco Ethics Commission. That report shows that, yes indeed, the Firefighters Union put $5,000 into the committee, which has as its only purpose electing Safai.

But the same reports show that a group called “Progress San Francisco” has put more than $300,000 into Protect SF.

Progress San Francisco isn’t registered as a campaign committee at the SF Ethics Commission; despite the name, it’s registered as a state Political Action Committee, so you have to go the Secretary of State’s Office to find out who is really behind it.

And here’s what you see:

Progress San Francisco has $200,000 from Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff. There’s $50,000 from Facebook. There’s $30,000 from Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram. There’s $20,000 from the “Committee to Expand the Middle Class,” which is entirely funded by Airbnb. There’s $50,000 from Evan Williams, the founder of Medium.

Then add in $25,000 from Ron Conway, who is the tech industry’s City Hall point man and a pal of Mayor Ed Lee, $50,000 from Google – and a whopping $250,000 from Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, and another $100,000 from Samuel Altman, Y Combinator’s president.

Yelp put up $25,000.

Then there’s the real-estate money. Robert Rosania, the head of Maximus Real Estate Partners, which has been trying to break the janitor’s union at Park Merced and wants to build the Monster in the Mission, put up $21,000.

Safai loves to tout his union connections – but this committee is funded in part by a guy who has the entire local labor community furious at him. Don’t the labor people who support Safai understand this?

It’s an independent expenditure committee, so Safai doesn’t control it. But campaign contributions mean something – they’re a signal that the real-estate and tech industry thinks Safai would be their guy at City Hall.


Oh, and Safai isn’t the only one who is getting big bucks from tech and real-estate. The Progress SF Committee just two weeks ago dropped $120,000 into San Franciscans for a City That Works, an independent committee devoted to electing Josh Arce in D9 and Marjan Philhour in D1.

Arce also likes to talk about his support from the Laborer’s Union, where he works and which has given him a bunch of money. But Rosania, the anti-labor developer, clearly thinks Arce would be just fine as a supervisor.

So does the tech industry.

And how is this Committee for a City That Works spending the money? Check out this utterly embarrassing piece that arrived at my house over the weekend.

Arce is running against Hillary Ronen, and is apparently trying to appeal to women. His piece lists testimonials from women in the district – but apparently those were all ghost written, and not that well, and the committee never hired a copy editor.

Arce's supporters are so passionate that they say blah blah
Arce’s supporters are so passionate that they say blah blah

From Chris Ellen Montgomery: “I admire the work he has accomplished (sic), working with neighbors to upgrade the park blah blah.”

Blah blah. That’s a lot to admire.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. […] As we reported earlier this week, the statewide political action committee called Progress San Francisco has dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into local IEs that are active in those districts. That money is coming almost entirely from tech industry leaders. The Ex suggests that some of this has to do with the Google bus issue – the city will soon be revisiting the deal that gave the tech companies the right to use city streets and park in Muni stops for luxury shuttles to take tech workers to jobs on the Peninsula (and by the way, driving up housing costs in SF). […]

  2. These independent expenditure committees are a pox on SF politics. They are supposed to operate independently of the candidates, although I doubt they really do, and they are not acting on the basis of civic pride. If Safai, Arce, or Philhour win that’s three votes for Progress San Francisco backers on the Board of Supervisors.

    That’s a lot of clout for a bunch of rich corporations and individuals compared to the puny $500 contributions the rest of us are allowed to contribute to supervisor races.

    Here’s a question: Would these three abstain when votes involving the interests of Progress San Francisco contributors come before the Board of Supervisors? Somehow, I doubt it.

    Nice catch, by the way, on the “blah blah” tribute in the Arce piece.

  3. chris12bb: your attempt to minimalize local voters’ growing and very real concern when it comes to the millions of outside dollars spent on our district elections and propositions is unsupported. Here is an excellent article with actual data showing the $$ spent on last year’s election–a record breaking total. These are unprecedented sums. Just think how far these millions would go to address our city’s issues with homelessness, or aging infrastructure and public works, or the elderly or our public schools. But it was wasted trying to buy elections. The many people I talk to on a daily basis are fed up.

  4. You lead with claiming what San Franciscans do and don’t like. As many of the residence of San Francisco are employed by these tech companies, I am not sure they would agree with much of what you are saying. It is not new that interests outside of San Francisco plow money into local elections.
    Chris Daly received a lot of money from lawyers in Marin. Peskin also received a lot of money from the North Bay, and now Jane Kim is taking money from interests outside of her district. Where is the outrage? I suspect because these are Tim’s friends and the money is not from the Tech industry (which is much maligned on this and other blogs, not sure persecuted is how I would describe it)
    I am a thoughtful San Franciscan and am pretty happy with London Breed my representative, of course I do not agree with all she represents, but I appreciate her hard work and believe she is has our interests at heart. I would not say the same for Campos and some other Supervisors, but that is a personal view.
    I will note these same thoughtful San Franciscans voted the Mayor in twice, and I am happy to be proven wrong but I for one do not know that Ed Lee is one of the most unpopular mayors (may be in your circles this is a fact).

  5. chris12bb: San Franciscans don’t like it when corporations and individuals who don’t live in these districts dump big $$$ into individual supervisor races; that is the main takeaway of this article. SF is unique in that we have representatives (aka supervisors) whom district residents elect to represent them @ City Hall. Thoughtful San Franciscans do not like it when outside forces try to buy these elected representatives. It is a known fact that Mayor Ed Lee has received hundreds of thousands of $$ from Airbnb, RonConway, Google, Twitter, DeeDee Wilsey et al. Lee is one of the most unpopular mayors in SF history. Your claims of unfounded Tech persecution are specious.

  6. I know you hate Tech companies, however they are an important part of our economy employing thousands in the Bay Area. Just like the SEIU pours thousands into local elections so do representatives of the Tech industry. But you appear to loath the Tech industry and its employees taking every opportunity to malign them.
    If you really want to do a balanced article (which of course you don’t) take a look at Jane Kim’s Senate race, where both Soda companies and PG&E are spending large sums to support her, in return for her support if she is elected. That is where the real story of big money and selling out is.

  7. Rosania’s political dealings show his real interests are in green-$-greed. The power play politically backing safai and acre show they are worried about losing in multiple districts.

  8. I think the point is that the major corporate funders of Protect SF hide behind an image of the good ol’ firefighters union, which is a minor funder—and not representative of the group’s real aims.

  9. It just seems like Tim is ok with unions contributing as long as it’s to candidates he supports.

  10. That mailer is definitely embarrassing, and I think your calling out tech and real estate money is fair game, but bashing firefighters simply for using their union to support a candidate makes you look kind of hypocritical.

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