OPINION: Why political money should be a top issue in the mayor’s race

Hidden money seeks to control SF politics

Pay to Play belongs at the top of the issues in the mayor’s campaign if for no other reason the hundreds of thousands (soon to be a million plus) that pour into independent expenditure committees to elect or defeat candidates.

What do these big-money donors want, why do they think they can get it, and how will they get it?

Point one: the past is not prologue. Once, we could track the source of funds going to a candidate, and it could signal what the candidate didn’t say him or herself. Tobacco money, casino money, realtors, energy companies, and others were flashing signals.

Point two: officials now have many routes for money to play a role beyond direct contributions. Well-heeled backers pick up airfare, hotel and travel expenses for officials. Corporations banned from making campaign contributions instead give in response to a candidate’s request, often to pay for the official’s own project. In the past eight years or so, more than $22 million flowed at the request of the mayor, various supervisors and others. Often it came in checks for $1 million or more. Officials sometimes establish nonprofits, and the next mayor could pay for a big-time inaugural with that money.

Some officials and many donors don’t want you to be able to follow the money, or even for you to know if they are meeting with money men and women.

Contributors hide through a thicket of committees, sending money through one that then goes to another that in turn pays into a third or even a fourth. Ann Ravel, past chair of the FPPC, sued over that tactic when unnamed sources poured millions into a California ballot fight — but we couldn’t get to the first original before it flowed through back channels.

One group called Progress San Francisco has contributed more than $250,000 to other committees spending money on the SF election, and there are no signs it will stop anytime before the election. Because that group is registered with the state, not the city, it won’t release anything on its donors until next Thursday — with the elections just 10 days away.

So voters are already casting ballots – but don’t know who is paying for the online, television and other ads as well as mailers and other communication strategies that seek to sway our votes.

The questions remains: what do these donors want, how do they plan to get it, and why do they think they can get it.

Start with the easiest question: Why do they think they can get it?

In one example, the mayor and two supervisors invited lobbyists, contractors and others seeking city approvals to tell them they risked their approvals if they gave to the wrong candidate or didn’t give to the right one.

That happened in April 2015 when Aaron Peskin was seeking to unseat appointed supervisor Julie Christensen.

As the SF Public Press wrote, “The meeting, convened by the mayor, Supervisor London Breed and Supervisor Mark Farrell in an invitation marked “confidential,” was called to discuss “campaign priorities.”

Four days later, a marquee collection of Lee supporters, including lobbyists, developers and union representatives, assembled around a rectangle of tables pushed together in a 26th-floor conference room at the firm’s Market Street offices.”

A national leader in campaign reform, Maplight’s Dan Newman, summed up the episode (again in SF Public Press): “Newman described the effect of such coordination between candidates and financial supporters as a form of “bribery, even if it’s legal.” He added: “It’s an indication of a broken campaign system that gives favors for money.”

A City Attorney investigation was stymied after each of the participants refused to discuss the meeting with his investigators. An Ethics Commission investigation requested by Commissioner Quentin Kopp at its March 16, 2018 meeting was never scheduled by the commission’s chair or information submitted by Ethics staff. “I ask that staff begin investigation into all of such activities which I believe should be the subject of a special hearing by this commission, either in April or May. The people of San Francisco who will be voting on June 5 should have the benefit of the results of the investigation…” said Kopp at that meeting.

That helps answer why they think they can get it (and get away with it).

What they want is even simpler to answer. It can be found on the Ethics web site where lobbyists disclose their clients and what City decisions they seek.

Ron Conway’s lobbyist has been meeting with supervisors to talk about taxes and the business climate. The lobbyists are also meeting with officials to “ensure regulation does not inhibit innovation.”

Airbnb wants action on auto burglary efforts affecting its home sharer clients. The Building Owners and Managers Association wants to pitch its views on commercial tax increases in the ballot measure on housing and homelessness. Dozens of lobbyist contacts with local officials have been about building permits. PG&E is discussing Hunters Point and other issues. Lyft met about ride sharing policies.

The point is that what they want is not a piece of the city budget, not a hand out but a hand up. They want City Hall to adopt policies that let them operate for maximum profit with minimum regulation. It’s what one should expect, because that’s the reason they are in business.

But it reminds us that what political contributions hope to impact is not a direct benefit to a specific company as much as a broader set of actions that lets them thrive and grow for their maximum benefit.

There is no quarrel with that so long as it isn’t at the expense of the rest of us — for example, so long as keeping taxes low doesn’t mean increasing fees the rest of the public pays to use a public park, or to park in a garage or at a street meter, or to ride public transit, or to have garbage picked up. That’s where the hidden taxes are felt in nicks and cuts in your personal budget while their corporate budget are held harmless.

How will they get it and with what techniques?

One place to look is in the checks they write at the request of elected officials, often timed to when they are also seeking action from the same officials. California is virtually the only state that allows such a transactional relationship between elected officials and those seeking approvals from those officials. Elsewhere it is considered bribery.

Here are some examples:

Kilroy Realty contributed $500,000 on June 24, 2013 at Mayor Lee’s request. Six weeks later, on August 15, 2013, the City Planning Commission approved Kilroy’s request to add six stories to its building at 350 Mission Street. As the city moved forward with other elements of Kilroy’s requirements, Kilroy contributed a second $500,000 on January 31, 2014.

San Francisco Waterfront, sponsor of 8 Washington, contributed $10,000 on June 12, 2013.  During this period, signatures were gathered to put 8 Washington on the ballot, which qualified on July 12, 2013. During the election, Mayor Lee frequently appeared on behalf of San Francisco Waterfront in mailers and on television ads. Their measure lost overwhelmingly in November 2013.

Google contributed $6.8 million on June 13, 2014 to MTA for free Muni for two years for city school children. At the time Google was seeking city approval for a pilot program to allow Google to use city bus stops at minimal cost to transport its employees. Six weeks prior to that behest payment, on May 1, 2014, Google was sued over its use of city bus stops by a coalition of housing and community organizations.

Those are only a few examples. Others include Recology, PG&E, Lennar, AT&T, and 20 more — each with an ask at City Hall at the time they wrote checks.

That’s what is at issue in this election: a status quo that we can see rewards those with the most and requires those with the least (including middle-income residents) to pay the share that others aren’t paying.