Return of the Soft Money Orgy?

Political committees try to blow the lid off of the city's $500

Here's some simple San Francisco math: 2 organizations that have showered money upon Mayor Gavin Newsom's campaigns + 1 lawsuit aimed at killing the city's $500 contribution limit = many nervous good-government types.

The city currently limits donations to candidates or committees to just $500 (and $250 more for runoffs). Playing by these rules, the pro-business Committee on Jobs managed to hit up thousands of donors and pony up more than $500,000 for Newsom's signature Care Not Cash and Aggressive Panhandling measures in recent years.

Now, along with the Building Owners and Managers Association, the Committee on Jobs has taken a legal ax to the Lilliputian fund-raising ropes tying them down.

When the plaintiffs distribute political pamphlets or purchase billboards, they act as "Independent Committees" ostensibly without any direction from campaign officials. Limiting Independent Committees' fund-raising ability is tantamount to an attack on free speech, argues plaintiffs' attorney Fred Lowell.

Soft money foes, however, say the suit is an attempt to bring back San Francisco's bad ol' days when Willie Brown raked in so much cash it wouldn't have been worth his time to bend over and pick up a $100 bill.

That spigot was tightened in 2000, when voters approved contribution limits via Measure O. But in the preceding months, San Francisco had experienced a soft money orgy. Brown amassed nearly $5 million, including a $95,000 payment from developer SKS (astoundingly, their contested permits came through).

These memories give Charles Marsteller the willies. The former S.F. director of Common Cause says he believes that, sans ordinance, Independent Committees could become über-rich mudslingers, Swift Boating the mayor's opposition while he remains blithely above the fray.

Marsteller has elicited aid from the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, an advocate of fund-raising reform.

Still, even Marsteller has to admit this is an uphill battle. Contribution ordinances similar to San Francisco's suffered legal defeats last year in San Jose and Oakland. "History is on our side," said Lowell's colleague, litigator Marc Axelbaum. "The cases are all going our way. And they have been for years."

 
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