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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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ElectionsCampaign TrailCampaign Trail: Lots of ethics issues—and so far, low turnout

Campaign Trail: Lots of ethics issues—and so far, low turnout

Mahmood, Philhour hit with allegations that they are combining their campaigns for supe and for DCCC. And when will the progressive precincts vote?

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Everybody knows that Bilal Mahmood, Marjan Philhour, and Trevor Chander are running for the Democratic County Central Committee as a way to promote their campaigns for supervisor. They are also part of a slate that seeks to ensure they, and London Breed, get the party nod in the fall.

That’s all fine, and it’s been done before.

Charges against Bilal Mahmood show the tricky line between running two campaigns with different finance rules. Mahmood campaign photo

But it’s tricky, because the fundraising rules are very different. Candidates for supervisor can’t take money from corporations, and can only collect a maximum of $500 from any individual. They have to meet certain thresholds, including local small donations, to qualify for public funding.

The DCCC is technically a state-chartered organization, so none of those rules apply. That’s why, for example, Mahmood for DCCC has received $20,000 from Paul Buchheit, who works for Y Combinator, along with a guy who has encouraged death threats to local elected officials, and lives in Los Altos. Overall, his campaign for a relatively modest post on what is usually a low-profile panel has raised almost $200,000.

In theory, the campaign for supe and DCCC have to be completely separate. In practice, campaigns like to play fast and loose with the rules, and sometimes that comes back to haunt them.

The Labor and Working Families Slate has filed a complaint with the SF Ethics Commission alleging that Mahmood did the one thing he’s not allowed to do: Comingled the funds.

From the allegations:


The complaint asserts that Mahmood intentionally used the two committees to commit “an end-run around the contribution limits imposed by the Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance for the purpose of leveling the playing field among candidates for the same office.

Mahmood placed a headline on a mailer paid for by his DCCC campaign that reads “Bilal Mahmood for Supervisor,” estimating that this is an illegal donation of $10,000 to $15,000 from the DCCC campaign to the Supervisor campaign. In addition, the complaint asserts that Mahmood paid $137,5000 for digital advertising, paid for by the DCCC campaign but with each ad linking to a website with a prominent “Donate for Bilal for Supervisor” button at the top of the page, estimating that this is a $13,000 to $55,000 excessive contribution to the Supervisorial campaign. 

The same allegedly is going on with Philhour.

Marjan Philhour also has two campaigns going on.

A complaint filed with Ethics by the Harvey Milk Club notes:

1.Bill board located at 25th Avenue and Geary Blvd. which states “Paid for by Vote Marjan Philhour for DCCC Member 2024” and displays the QR code for Marjan Philhour for San Francisco Board of Supervisors. On February 23, 2024 , the disclosure on this billboard was changed to show payment of billboard by Marjan for Supervisor but visual message promotes “We must elect common sense leaders to the local Democratic Party. Vote for @SFDemsForChange on or before March 5

2. Videos emailed state “Paid and distributed through Vote Marjan Philhour for DCCC Member 2024” displays QR code for Marjan Philhour for San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

3. On February 15, 2024 an email sent out by the Board of Supervisors campaign urges voting for Marjan Philhour for San Francisco Democratic Central Committee “Democrats for Change slate” and lists disclosure as: “Paid for by Vote Marjan Philhour for Supervisor 2024 & Vote Marjan Philhour for DCCC Member 2024”.

4.The Marjan Philhour for San Francisco Board of Supervisors sent out an email on 2/10/2024 listing disclosure as “Paid for Vote by Marjan Philhour for Supervisor 2024 & Vote Marjan Philhour for DCCC Member 2024”

4. Marjan Philhour for San Francisco Board of Supervisors campaign headquarters located at 5052 Geary displays posters in front of building for Vote Marjan Philhour for DCCC Member 2024 and other Democratic County Central Committee candidates.

The complaint notes:

This is not an innocent mistake by a first-time, inexperienced candidate, lacking enough funds to hire a professional campaign who would be knowledgeable of both the letter and the spirit of the Campaign Finance Ordinance. Marjan Philhour ran for Board of Supervisors twice before, in 2016 and 2020, before and this current cycle 2024. She ran for Democratic Central Committee in 2016 as well as this current cycle 2024. She cannot credibly claim she did not know of the Code and Regulations.

Philhour says it’s all fine. Campaign lawyer Jim Sutton, who typically works for conservative candidates and causes, says it’s all fine.

Ethics will investigate both of these cases, but not before the March 5 primary and DCCC election. Still, the potential outcome is serious: If the campaigns are found in violation, it could jeopardize their ability to get public financing for the fall.

Of course, they may not care: I have now received four mailers for Chandler for DCCC, and depending where they went, we’re looking at more than $100,000 in spending—and Chandler for DCCC has only $6,000 in its account, according to records.

All of that spending is going through the “Edwin M. Lee Asian Pacific Democratic Club Voter Guide,” which is sponsored by Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, which is funded by billionaires who have their own agenda for the city.

That voter guide is an independent expenditure committee, which means it can raise unlimited money and spend it supporting or opposing any candidate.

That’s where the big-money politics will play out in the fall. Chandler, Mahmood and Philhour can raise whatever they can raise in $500 increments, but there will be millions of dollars in IE money backing them anyway.

People who are watching local politics are really nervous about the turnout numbers so far. It’s bleak: Only about 60,000 people have cast ballots, and a lot of them are from conservative areas. Turnout in the progressive precincts is lagging.

I see a couple of factors here, and frankly, one of them is Joe Biden.

I don’t see a whole lot of progressive voters who are excited about the incumbent president. In Michigan, a move to vote for uncommitted delegates got a fair amount of traction. Biden’s policies in Israel and Gaza have deeply offended a lot of the left; many of those voters may just stay home.

That will deeply damage progressive hopes lower on the ballot.

Meanwhile, Mayor London Breed and her allies have followed the very effective strategy of putting right-wing measures on the ballot to drive conservative turnout. A lot of Republicans have already voted—some who care about the presidential primary, but more who want more cops, more power for the cops, and drug testing for welfare recipients.

That, of course, hurts progressives in the DCCC race—but could also hurt the affordable housing bond that Breed is supporting.

It’s also supposed to rain on Tuesday, which is always bad news for turnout.

So this could be an election where the outcome is decided not by the most persuasive campaigns but by who shows up to cast ballots. We’ll know more in two days.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
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.

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