Tons of Super PAC Cash Enters Supervisor Races

An avalanche of Super PAC donations just disrupted November’s supervisor races, prompting ethics complaints unlikely to be resolved by Election Day.

District 6 candidates Matt Haney, Christine Johnson, and Sonja Trauss at a July 2018 debate. Photo by Kevin Hume

Everybody professes to hate the infiltration of outside money into politics, but even relatively low-level races are awash in corporate cash these days. Political action committees, or Super PACs, are allowed to make unlimited indirect donations, and one of them is exploiting the mess that is current U.S. campaign finance law by pumping six-figure sums into local supervisor contests.

While individual donors are held to a $500 maximum in San Francisco races, a $100,000 donation last week became the largest check this year to target candidates for supervisor.

That money came from an independent expenditure committee called Progress San Francisco, a longtime favorite of tech investor Ron Conway that has been working these loopholes for years.

The cash was funneled into a PAC called San Franciscans for Change, Supporting Johnson & Trauss for D6 Supervisor 2018. Despite that mention of their names, District 6 supervisor candidates Christine Johnson and Sonja Trauss cannot coordinate with them and have no legal say in what the PAC does or says. With less than six weeks until the election, the donation bolstered the hopes of those candidates’ one-two strategy in the ranked-choice contest.

Then, only days later, San Franciscans for Change, Supporting Johnson & Trauss for D6 Supervisor 2018 threw in another $50,000 contribution, dealing yet another blow for the campaign of the third candidate in the race, Matt Haney.

These massive donations go light years beyond the $500 donation limit candidates can receive directly — and consequently, they tend to raise flags. Like clockwork, a complaint has already been filed with the San Francisco Ethics Commission alleging that the PAC is illegally coordinating with the Trauss campaign. These ethics complaints go deep into the weeds of extremely complex election laws, so they are unlikely to be resolved before the Nov. 6 election.

“The idea that they would call themselves ‘San Franciscans for Change’ is cynical and ridiculous,” Haney tells SF Weekly. “This is not a grassroots movement for change. These are powerful people who want to protect their interests, they are the status quo.

“They donate to a state PAC, and then the state PAC donates to a local PAC,” he adds. “This is likely a small set of very wealthy, very powerful people who want to influence the election so they can have access for their own financial interests.”

Subsequent Ethics Commission filings revealed who they are. Yes, many of them are wealthy and powerful people, and they’re pumping a whole lot more of these unrestricted donations into other campaigns and measures.

The parent independent expenditure committee Progress San Francisco has in the past netted five-figure donations from Facebook, Google, and Airbnb. This particular filing revealed nearly a half a million dollars donated in one week to them, including $150,000 from socialite and frequent Republican donor Dede Wilsey, $25,000 from real-estate firm SST Investments, and $250,000 from the SEIU United Healthcare Workers West PAC.

That money didn’t all go to the PAC supporting Johnson and Trauss. Progress San Francisco also tipped $10,000 each to a statewide housing-assistance bond measure, and two local San Francisco ballot measures supporting an Embarcadero seawall earthquake safety bond and the reallocation of a hotel tax.

A separate filing from last Thursday showed that Progress San Francisco also donated $50,000 to a Super PAC called Safe & Clean Sunset Coalition, Supporting [Jessica] Ho for D4 Supervisor 2018. That’s more than Ho’s campaign has received in its direct donations, just as Johnson’s campaign has benefited from more outside PAC money than from direct contributions from constituents and donors.

“We are unaware of this expenditure and are focused on running a campaign based on the issues of the district,” Ho’s campaign director Christian Kropff tells SF Weekly. “Our campaign has no control over outside expenditures.”

That’s a common refrain among candidates whose names appear in these Super PACs’ names.

“The ‘I’ in ‘IE’ stands for independent,” Trauss says. “No candidates have control over what the IE’s do in their race. It is frustrating for voters to not know, when it comes to IEs, who is paying for it.”

These less-regulated outside donations have created a series of Ethics Commission complaints. But if you think it’s just Super PACs and moderate candidates, think again: A separate complaint has been filed against Haney’s campaign, and has initiated a preliminary investigative review by the commission. SF Weekly has been unable to confirm the exact nature of the complaint, despite repeated calls and emails to the Ethics Commission, but sources allege that Haney took an unreported non-cash donation of services from a text-messaging campaign consultant organization.

“If Matt has basically accepted a campaign contribution from a corporation, that’s very serious because that is illegal in San Francisco,” she says.

But the Trauss campaign also faces an ethics complaint that was filed Friday — albeit by Jon Golinger, the former mayoral campaign manager for Supervisor Jane Kim. It alleges that Trauss’ campaign coordinated with the San Franciscans for Change PAC by sharing the same treasurer, Shawnda Deane.

Deane was listed as Trauss’ campaign treasurer in filings as recent as Aug. 20, but a Sept. 14 filing shows Deane replaced with a new treasurer. That very same day, Deane was listed in a filing as the treasurer for San Franciscans for Change. 

“If you are on the inside of a campaign as a treasurer, campaign manager, or other senior staffer, you know too much about campaign strategy and finances to be able to truly be acting independently of the campaign for campaign finance purposes,” Golinger tells us.

He points to updated rules from the California Fair Political Practices Commission that broaden the definition of coordination to any work within a one-year period, or “beginning 12 months prior to the date of the primary or special election in which the candidate is on the ballot.”

Trauss dismisses the Deane coordination charges.

“She’s not our accountant anymore,” Trauss says, and notes the precedent of Sandra Lee Fewer’s 2016 campaign hiring a consultant who’d worked for a Big Soda Super PAC that same year. The Ethics Commission ultimately ruled that was not a campaign-finance violation.

San Franciscans for change also strongly denies the charge.

“To state the obvious there is no coordination between San Franciscans for Change and the exceptional candidates we are supporting,” says San Franciscans for Change principal officer Austin Hunter. “I’m proud to join Mayor London Breed in support of Christine Johnson and Sonja Trauss for Supervisor. They’re the change we need in District 6. This is a completely frivolous complaint from a Matt Haney fanboy who knows that Christine Johnson and Sonja Trauss will bring real change for District 6.”

These are extremely complex election laws, but are being used liberally between political rivals. Nevertheless, we cannot presume guilt until the Ethics Commission completes full investigations.

But we can see that unlimited Super PAC donations have leapfrogged the more-regulated, traditional monetary donations for some candidates in this year’s contests. These supersize donations are now even trickling down to small district supervisor races, and with several weeks to go, it’s likely more six-figure checks could be landing in the D6 race.

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