Throughout his long political career, state Sen. Leland Yee has demonstrated a remarkable ability to not only play both sides of an issue, but to find third and fourth sides — and elicit their financial support. Yet, in what could well be his political swan song, Yee may have saved his best for last. He has all but certainly become the first candidate to capture a San Francisco Bay Guardian mayoral endorsement while receiving financial backing from PG&E, the company that launched a thousand fulminating Guardian editorials.
The paper's co-endorsement of Yee was jarring in the first place, considering it spent much of its write-up — and, in truth, the last 24 years — explaining why Yee is undeserving of support. Still, the Guardian concluded, "We're willing to take a chance on Leland Yee." That was just the sentiment expressed by the paper's longtime archenemy not long after. The utility company last month sent $15,000 to an independent expenditure committee propping up Yee — the state representative for the San Bruno neighborhood immolated by a PG&E gas line rupture.
The committee in question is known, alternatively, as "City Residents Supporting Leland Yee for Mayor 2011" and "City Residents Opposing Ed Lee for Mayor 2011" — meaning the final barrier of complexity between Russian novels and San Francisco campaign finance has been breached, as our local protagonists now also sport multiple names. PG&E's money paid for mailers trashing Lee — who had, earlier, been trashed by his opponents for gushing about PG&E's beneficence at a September photo op.
In one of the more nuanced political insults of this season, Lee spokesman Tony Winnicker said the Guardian-Yee-PG&E alignment "must have John Raker turning over in his grave." The Raker Act of 1913 stipulated that private profit could not be derived from the damming of Hetch Hetchy — and is the gospel of public power supporters.
Yet when Lee described PG&E as a "great company that gets it," his words had deeper meanings. Great companies hedge their bets. Great companies out-Yee Leland Yee. PG&E may not be a good company — but it is a great one.
PG&E invested plenty of money in political expenditures during the current political cycle, but in a manner that makes the funds' provenance difficult to track. Among other expenditures, PG&E gave $75,000 to the Committee on Jobs Government Reform Fund; $50,000 to the Coalition for a Safer California; $20,000 to the Chamber of Commerce's "San Francisco Forward"; $15,000 to the Golden Gate Restaurant Association Political Action Committee; and $10,000 to the Building Owners and Managers Association PAC.
These organizations then paid to boost frontrunner Lee — or gave funds to other general committees that did so. The Coalition for a Safer California put $20,000 into pro-Lee endeavors. Meanwhile, the Alliance For Jobs and Sustainable Growth spent tens of thousands of dollars canvassing for Lee. The Alliance was the recipient of $110,000 from the Committee on Jobs fund; $50,000 from the Building Owners' PAC; $27,000 from the Restaurant Association PAC; and $25,000 from San Francisco Forward. The dollar trail between Lee and PG&E is indirect — but it's hard to argue the mayor wasn't the company's preferred candidate.
The Guardian may have been willing to take a chance on Leland Yee. PG&E, however, did not leave things to chance.