Why tech money wants to rule SF

There are billions of dollars at stake, depending on who gets elected Nov. 8

There’s a huge amount of money going into the campaign against the four measures that I call “Definitely Helps Limit the Mayor,” Props. D, H, L, and M.

And there’s a huge amount of money going to support the moderate candidates for supervisor.


And all of this reflects two critical issues: The big money that tech companies and investors are making – or could lose – through San Francisco’s regulatory process, and the very real possibility that the Board of Supes we elect Nov. 8 could chose the next mayor.

This is the first year that we’ve seen this level of money from the tech industry funneled through various front groups to local candidates and ballot campaigns – we’re talking millions of dollars. Tech is replacing developers and real-estate interests at the dominant money in the local game.

But to the donors, this is chump change – considering how much they stand to benefit (or how much is at risk) from the decisions that the board and the mayor make in the next couple of years.

Let’s look at Airbnb, which has put $100,000 into local campaigns this fall, and Ron Conway, who has put up almost as much.

Airbnb will probably try to go public in the next year or two. When that happens, the early investors (like Conway, who was one of the first in the door) and the current management stand to make billions of dollars.

If San Francisco strictly limits the company’s ability to turn housing into hotels, and other cities start to follow suit, then the IPO value could go way down. San Francisco is where the company started; San Francisco sets trends for cities all over. Billions at stake for just one company, based on who runs San Francisco.

It’s a huge financial windfall for Big Tech on the Peninsula to have the Google buses allowed to pick up and drop off workers in San Francisco neighborhoods. The thousands of people who ride those buses don’t miss any worktime commuting; they get to ride in comfort on wi-fi-equipped coaches – and several tech excs have said that they don’t worry too much about traffic, because their employees are working just as hard and effectively on the bus as they would be in the office.

Now add in Uber (again, ready to go public with an absurdly high market valuation that could shrink by billions if cities start regulating ride-shares like taxis). Think about the Twitter tax break and all of the trends that start here and spread – and you’re talking tens of billions of dollars.

Giving a million or two to make sure than nobody’s going to mess with the gravy train is a no-brainer.

Then we have the four measures that somewhat limit the power of the mayor, D, H, L and M.

Sean Parker, the first Facebook president who doesn’t live in San Francisco, can’t be that worried about whether the city has a public advocate or who oversees Muni. So why did he put $240,000 into a campaign to stop those props?

Easy: He doesn’t care about that sort of stuff, but he cares a lot about Mayor Lee being his friend.

Parker was one of the early partners in Founders Fund, which was also an early investor in Airbnb.

Why do Google, Instagram, Conway, Facebook, and Mark Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, care who is the supervisor from District 1, 9 or 11? None of those companies have offices in those districts. None of the rich execs live there. Why is it such a big deal to elect moderate-to-conservative candidates like Josh Arce and Ahsha Safai?

Let’s go back to the start: The next board could leave the industry alone – or enact what could be hugely expensive new regulations.

And I think this is even more important: These folks know that it’s entirely possible – I would say even likely – that Ed Lee will not finish his term as mayor. The Hill reports (thanks to SF Examiner for the heads-up) that Lee is on the short list as a member of Hillary Clinton’s cabinet, maybe as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He clearly isn’t having fun as mayor, and his popularity is so low that he can’t even endorse a candidate or a ballot measure in this election.

If he leaves, the Board of Sups will select his replacement – with six votes. That person will have almost three full years to build a base, cement an incumbency, raise money … and we may be stuck with him or her for another seven years.

When I first started writing about this a few months ago, a lot of people said I was nuts. Now: Mainstream reports that he could wind up in Washington.

And let me repeat in case you didn’t get the message: The people we put on the Board in five days may end up choosing the person who leads San Francisco until I’m old enough to collect Social Security.

And the tech industry knows that, and is pouring money into making sure that that person is, for their purposes, another Ed Lee.

Back to D, H, L and M.

I tell everyone who is willing to listen to me that you shouldn’t vote on these measures based on what you think about this mayor, who at the very most has three years left. Think about long-term policy.

The San Francisco City Charter creates a very powerful chief executive. The mayor oversees the City and County, and thus the budget of everything from the airport to the county hospital to the sheriff, public defender, and district attorney. In the rest of California, those are typically county functions, under a county board.

The mayor of SF can fill a vacancy in any elective office, including the DA, the sheriff, the treasurer … in other places, those are filled at the county level, not by any mayor.

The mayor appoints the majority or the entire membership of nearly every local commission. The mayor, unique I think to any similar office holder in the state, has the authority to unilaterally suspend from office any city or county elected official – in essence, to impeach anyone elected by the voters – for as long as it takes for the Ethics Commission and the Board of Supes to hold a trial and decide whether to remove that person from office.

The president of the United States doesn’t have that power. The governor of California doesn’t have that power.

The president doesn’t fill vacancies in Congress. The governor doesn’t fill vacancies in the state Legislature.

There are people who argue that it’s good to have one person in charge, and thus one person accountable. If the voters don’t know who to blame for city failures, and if elected officials can point fingers away from themselves, then ineffective or corrupt politicians can get away with doing a bad job.

But in an era when the defining issue of political life is the influence of big money, and when big money is a bigger factor in electing the mayor than in district supe races, there’s also an excellent argument that defusing the power of the chief executive and spreading that governing authority around makes sense.

Thus: D, H, L,and M.

Prop. D eliminates the power of the mayor to fill vacancies on the Board of Supes. Prop. H creates a public advocate. Prop. L gives the supes more authority over Muni. And Prop. M creates a commission to oversee the Mayor’s Office of Housing.

If all four win, the power of the mayor – not just this mayor, but future mayors – will be somewhat diminished.

The tech and real-estate industry that’s put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the No campaigns realizes this is bigger than Ed Lee. The money that wants to control this city wants centralized power, because the money that wants to control this city has an excellent record over the years controlling the person who has that power.

That’s why one of the mayor’s closest advisors, Tony Winnicker, took a leave from City Hall to run the No and DHLM campaigns. And it’s leading to some very bizarre ads.

One of the most interesting: A TV piece, accompanied by a mailer, featuring Alicia John-Baptiste, who is deputy director of SPUR. She says that “the last thing the city needs is another politician” with a “six-figure salary” and a staff.


In New York, the public advocate has a six-figure salary and a much bigger staff – and by pretty much every account, that office saves the city vastly more by exposing waste and fraud than it costs. That is often the case with effective public oversight agencies – they save more than they cost.

But here’s the fascinating twist: John-Baptiste, who is against “six-figure salaries,” worked for Muni as a manager before she went to SPUR, earning an average of $244,000 a year in salary and benefits.

Full disclosure: I do some freelance work for SEIU Local 1021, which represents city employees, very few of whom earn six-figure salaries. I have no problem paying city employees a living wage. I won’t even argue against six-figure salaries for public employees – some have the skills and experience to merit that pay.

But it’s a bit of a stretch for someone who made a very nice salary working for the city to denounce “six-figure salaries” for public officials.

Here’s what John-Bapitste told me:

I am not quibbling with what people get paid. I am quibbling with the structure of government that is being contemplated — in this case, a proposal to create one more elected position, along with supporting staff, that will have no responsibility to actually implement public services, but will instead be a full time critic of the people who do have implementation responsibility.  I don’t believe this would result in a stronger or more effective public sector.


Hmmm. Do we need a “full-time critic of the people who actually have implementation responsibility?” Given some of the “implementation” in the past few years under Mayor Lee, one could argue that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing – and in fact, what John-Baptiste says is a bad idea is the essence of the case for Prop. H.

(Oh, and if she wasn’t concerned about what the person gets paid, why the swipe at the “six figure salary?” That’s because it makes for good political hype, even coming from someone who clearly is not opposed to six-figure salaries.)

It’s also a bit odd to hear the arguments against Prop. D, which would mandate an election to fill vacancies on the Board of Supes. We hear that it’s expensive (democracy is expensive, get used to it). We are also told that it’s not a good idea to have a “caretaker” supervisor who can’t run for a full term – from the same mayor who promised when he took office that he would be a caretaker and would never run for a full term.

Another element to all of this: If D passes, there will be a special election to fill the seat of either Sup. Jane Kim (D6) or Sup. Scott Wiener (D8). Again, control of the board could be at stake. Would Lee still be around long enough that the new board, after that election would pick the next mayor? Of would he leave early in the spring if the moderate pro-real-estate, pro-tech folks get their majority back?

Keep this all in mind when you vote.



  1. How did you like the results of the elections? I am pretty satisfied myself. My money and volunteer time helped put good pro-housing candidates in office all over The City.

  2. It’s not Tech. It’s the Tech money and the millionaires seeking to buy and control City Hall by dumping cash into our local election. It’s the nihilistic attitude that you can buy anything.

  3. When the likes of monstro go low and dispatch the off topic Internet uglies, we go high. And that is how we win Tech cash infused elections. We stay on topic.

  4. Here, too, Monstro, you aren’t sticking to the specific topic in replying to the original comment. You can’t win an argument by changing its thrust.

  5. If you had read Chris12bb’s original comment, you’d know he was accusing the article’s author, Tim Redmond, of hating tech and young people. In turn, I was commenting on that. You’re off-topic.

  6. Because Regressives have failed our city by lining up with wealthy NIMBYs to block needed development. Everyone is sick of you, you are just to self-absorbed to realize this.

    Everyone knows San Francisco needs more housing, but the entitled home owner class won’t allow anything to be built. Your time has come and gone.

  7. Perhaps you should look at your own side, which is spray painting grafitti death threats to Tech Workers all over The Mission and throwing rocks and spraying tech shuttle buses with gunfire.

    I think your claims that DPW has been tagging people’s houses to be absurd. Show me some proof of your outrageous and unbelievable claim.

  8. If they don’t hate tech, whey do they attack tech shuttle buses and grafitti “Die Techie Scum” all over The Mission?

  9. Actually lots of people believe that, probably a majority. Your dwindling minority of old white men have had your final hurrah and you will be permanently driven from power in San Francisco in a couple of days.

    The YIMBYs have replaced the NIMBYs.

  10. It’s neither about loving tech nor hating tech, nor young people. It’s about outside influences that corrupt democracy. Don’t be so reductionist—it makes you look stupid.

  11. Oh please. No one seriously believes the canard that high end condos are going to help ordinary people stay in the city.

  12. Come on monstro. Any simpleton knows that individuals are limited to $500. But if you are a part of the DCCC slate, the sky’s the limit. Point being: why are millionaires, realtors, developers & Big Tech spending so much on our district supervisor races?

  13. You see that part labeled “individual contributions”? That is $100 and $200 donations from rank and file employees.

  14. So true. Any time somebody wants to build housing for high income people Tim and the rest come up with a Trump like name “Beast on Bryant, Monster in the Mission…” and do everything they can do kill it.

    Then the people who would have lived there instead bid up the price on existing stock. Tim and his friends then mount a similar tantrum.

    If only “they” would stay away from here!!!


  15. Rather it is inconveniently true that the lion’s share of the $$ being dumped into our local district supervisor races comes from “wealthy entitled home owning” Republicans like Peter Thiel, Ron Conway, DeeDee Wilsey, Travis Kalanick and the list goes on.

  16. It is true that London Breed has piles of cash from people who don’t now and never will live in D5 (like Ron Conway, SF Realtors Association and DeeDee Wilsey). It is also true that friends of Breed and city agencies like Rec&Park and DPW have been trying to intimidate folks who do not like or support Breed by citing them, tagging them and pressuring them into putting her signs in their windows. Why? Why won’t Breed just run on her record? Why all the strong arming and intimidation? Why the goon squad? And why the stalled Board of Supervisors vote on the Airbnb cap?

  17. They are struggling to stay in their homes because a generation of regressives have blocked construction of desperately needed new housing. Young people know that, which is they the Progressive movement is led by old white men like Tim.

  18. After mobilizing the nativist whites to attack the mostly Asian tech worker new comers by attacking them verbally, emotionally and physically, Ted is surprised that the rank and file tech workers have had enough and now engaging politically to create a San Francisco that works for them, not just wealthy entitled white home owning boomers.

  19. I think the idea of Ed Lee going to Washington as a cabinet-level official is a pipe dream. Even if he had the political chops or support that he needs, Lee has links to bribery suspects that a politicized FBI might use to discredit Clinton.

    That said, the article is otherwise correct in its assessment of why tech titans want a strong mayor and a conservative majority on the board of supervisors. If this happens, we should evaluate key votes by the new supervisors on a return on investment basis: how much did the tech titans get for what they invested.

  20. In San Francisco, their enjoyment is tempered by the fact that they’re struggling to stay in their homes, a struggle not helped by the techie gentrifiers.

  21. An mildly better Democratic vote than Weiner’s, in exchange for the mayoralty of San Francisco? I’d say that’s a very high price indeed.

  22. I can’t speak for them, the ones I know seem to be enjoying life as young people do. Also many young people in tech don’t make 120+k

  23. Supervisor Kim will do an amazing job in Sacramento. A small price to pay for the potential scenario you detailed.

  24. We get it you hate tech, and are too old to understand the motivations of the young. I believe if you met some young skilled knowledge workers your views about them may change. But unfortunately for you, you seem to listen to a generation that failed. Keep your head in the sand it plays into your faithful readers and does not challange

  25. As much as I’d like to see the progressives sweep every seat, it’s looking very iffy. Kim Alvarenga may lose to Asha Safai, because she refused the Greens’ offer to do a ranked choice with the man who’s frankly the best candidate in the race, Francisco Herrera. I guess holding down the Greens is more important than beating the conservatives. Good luck with that, then. And everyone seems to think Dean Preston has an uphill climb in D5, though he may surprise the punditocracy.

    I’m thinking D will pass. It just makes too much sense. But that still leaves the mayor time to crawl away into his next sinecure. So just one loss means the continuation of the tech stranglehold on room 200, if Jane Kim succeeds in advancing her career into Sacramento. Definitely something to think about.

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