The largest political contribution an individual can give to a candidate in the San Francisco mayor’s race is $500. But if you’re Ron Conway or a Twitter billionaire, a $500 check is barely a drop in the bucket of your efforts to manipulate the city’s ‘pay to play’ politics.
Last week, tech billionaire Ron Conway’s wife made headlines for her major donations to independent expenditure committees that support candidate London Breed. But the Conways are not the only tech mogul disrupting campaign contributions in a big way:
SF Weekly has learned that former Twitter CEO and Medium co-founder Evan Williams gave $100,000 last week to independent expenditure committees supporting Sup. London Breed’s mayoral campaign. That’s in addition to the $200,000 Ron Conway’s wife Gayle just contributed to a Breed Super PAC, much of it spent on a controversial attack ad claiming that rival Jane Kim “protected the abuser” in her 2012 vote to reinstate Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.
Wealthy donors can support their candidate of choice with way more than $500 through independent expenditure committees, commonly called Super PACs. These committees cannot coordinate with the campaigns, and they’re often behind the dirtiest attack ads. While Mark Leno and Kim have undoubtedly benefited from outside expenditures, the $300,000 that tech titans Gayle Conway and Ev Williams dropped in just two days last week is more outside expenditure money than both Kim and Leno have received in the entire campaign combined.
These unusually large and similarly-timed contributions — all reported on April 24 and 25, right at a deadline for reporting contributions to the race — offer a new perspective on Big Tech’s big-money donor strategy in the final month of this mayoral race.
Last week’s tech mogul contributions showed an even stronger support of Sup. Breed last week than anticipated. Ron Conway’s wife Gayle gave $200,000 to a group called San Franciscans Against Domestic Violence, Opposing Jane Kim for Mayor 2018. Twitter billionaire Ev Williams split a combined $100,000 between two expenditure committees, San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 PAC and It’s Our Time, SF Women Supporting London Breed for Mayor 2018.
(Women who’ve been harassed online may see some irony in a Twitter co-founder’s newfound “It’s Our Time, SF Women” religion.)
Ron Conway claimed in March that he’d be sitting out this mayor’s race, and his name technically appears only once in mayoral contribution filings, on one those little $500 personal donations to Breed’s campaign.
But Ron Conway can blow a dog whistle that makes other tech billionaires (and presumably, his wife) write huge checks to the Super PACs of Conway’s choice. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Friday that Conway sent an April 10 email to his associates recommending they donate to a PAC called Progress San Francisco.
And sure enough, the latest Progress San Francisco filing shows an $80,000 donation from Benchmark Capital partner Matthew Cohler, $25,000 from Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom, and another $20,000 from Twitch CEO Emmett Shear, among many other sizable tech donations.
Progress San Francisco was also active in the 2016 election cycle, pulling eye-popping donations from Airbnb ($270,000) Facebook ($150,000), Salesforce ($125,000) and LinkedIn co-founder and CEO Reid Hoffman ($50,000), according to that year’s filings.
Don’t be surprised to see those companies and their top executives making similar Super PAC splurges in the final month of the mayor’s race. Right now, Progress San Francisco is still sitting on most of their $142,000 war chest, having given just $40,000 to the pro-Breed firefighters PAC.
Breed’s campaign points out that Jane Kim has benefited from Super PAC money, and Sen. Leno has received more than $2 million in Super PAC money over his 20 years as a a politician. “Jane Kim is the beneficiary of $190,000 in SuperPAC money. And now Mark has joined in, with his own SuperPAC – even after all his clean pledge bluster on the campaign trail,” Breed spokesperson Tara Moriarty said in a statement. “Given his long history with SuperPAC’s, the ‘pledge’ was hypocritical of Leno to begin with.”
Kim’s campaign is bolstered by a $190,000 contribution from Service Employees International Union Local 1021, a union for government, non-profit, and healthcare workers that has spent that sum primarily on pro-Kim web and TV ads. Leno’s campaign has received a smaller bump in the form of a $6,400 expenditure from Tenants and Communities United, and $2,460 of pro-Leno billboard and web ads paid for by the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club.
From the get-go, Leno made a point of stating that he wants this outside money kept out of the race. And the campaign stresses that the Alice B. Toklas Club has made similar modest investments in every city election going back generations, with their legacy voter guides that some people do rely on to navigate the always-lengthy San Francisco ballot.
“Alice B. Toklas Club is not a Super PAC. It is an LGBTQ Democratic club,” Mark Leno for Mayor spokesperson Zoe Kleinfeld tells SF Weekly. “One of its many functions is to elevate endorsed candidates.”
If last week’s attack ad against Jane Kim is any indication, expect to hear plenty more pious political hay made of how Sup. Kim “defended a domestic abuser” and betrayed women’s trust. Ron Conway’s longtime pet project has been attacking progressive supervisors who voted to keep Ross Mirkarimi in place as Sheriff six years ago. The Conways poured $100,000 into a 2015 PAC that ran graphic ads against State Senate candidate David Campos for his Mirkarimi vote, and contributed heavily to a similar 2012 ad campaign calling out then-District 5 Supervisor Christina Olague for the same vote. (Olague was defeated by none other than London Breed.)
The PAC ads attacking Jane Kim for her Mirkarimi vote may have fizzled, pulled from YouTube just hours after being posted amid negative blowback. But the tech industry loves to practice A/B testing, so they’ll probably tinker until they find a more effective line of attack.
And attack they will, as last week saw more outside PAC money thrown into the race than any previous week of the whole campaign. Expect more of the same as the election approaches, as Ron Conway’s tech industry allies have been given their marching orders.