A Quest for Election Transparency

A number of politicians took a stand this week to shine a light on the dark money funneled into local elections.

Signatures for ballot measures have been counted, candidacy deadlines have passed, and San Francisco is officially in election season. As happens twice a year, colorful signs are popping up in windows across the city, and mailboxes will soon overflow with political mailers. But this year, a dark shadow hangs over those running for office, and the media has taken notice. Instead of nitpicking over each candidate’s policy goals, the emphasis this season has been on money — who has it, where it’s coming from, and what strings are attached.

It’s something mayoral candidate Mark Leno called attention to weeks ago, when he asked his rivals to sign onto a Fair Campaign Promise, in which candidates would deny funds from super PACs — independent committees with a vested interest in one player, who may raise money from corporations, unions, or individuals to advocate for or against candidates.

Supervisor Jane Kim signed on, but Board of Supervisors President London Breed did not. Since then, Breed’s opponents have made a point to call out the fact that she receives money from tech billionaire Ron Conway (who’s funded smear campaigns in the past) at every available opportunity.

This week, Supervisor Aaron Peskin formally stepped into battle against this type of shadowy campaign money, with a legislative proposal that would demand the disclosure of anyone who’s donated more than $10,000 to a candidate, within 24 hours of the transaction. In addition, that donor would be lawfully required to list any investments over $10,000 they’ve made to businesses operating in S.F., to fully educate voters on their potential motives and ways in which they may be trying to influence candidates.

All advertisements would also have to include mention of the top three sources of funding by any committee who donated money toward it, so that smear campaigns would no longer be anonymous.

As an added kicker, the legislation would apply retroactively, to Jan. 1, 2018.

Peskin’s proposal directly affects Conway’s donations to Breed’s campaign, but he claims that’s not his motivation.

“This is not about Ron Conway or any other investor with handfuls of cash,” he said at a press event Tuesday. “Mr. Conway is a symptom of a much larger problem in San Francisco and in this country, and that is the Wall Street mentality that routinely puts profit over people.”

A slew of colleagues joined Peskin, including supervisors Hillary Ronen, Jeff Sheehy, and Sandra Lee Fewer. Even District Attorney George Gascón made a surprise appearance.

“One of the biggest complaints that I get is corruption in our electoral process,” he said. “Unfortunately, often what appears to be common sense to most is not necessarily a violation of the law.”

Gascón compared the struggle to see through hidden campaign funds in San Francisco to a national crisis. 

“The essence of democracy is transparency. Dark money has completely turned our democratic process upside down, at the national level, at the state level, and certainly here at the local level,” he said. 

This legislation, he said, would “bring light into this area.”

While every mayoral candidate was supposedly invited to the event, it was only Leno who showed up.

“The power and strength of one’s voice should not be dependent on the power and strength of someone’s checkbook,” he said. “Nothing could be more important when we’re talking about what direction the city will be moving in than making sure that without the influence of this extraordinary amount of new money in San Francisco, voters get to make an informed decision. It impacts directly the public policy-making that happens in this building.”

When asked why the legislation was being presented now, Ronen took the mic.

“We are at a crossroads in the city of San Francisco,” she explained. “The person who’s going to lead this city for perhaps the next decade will be decided on in June. There could not be a more pressing time … in terms of the amount of dark money that is spent to promote particular candidates. Most of the time, where that money is spent, that person wins.”

Peskin is no fool, and although this urgent legislation is a big move, it’s hard for any politician to oppose it without signaling to voters that they may be hiding something. As the first gatekeeper for moving this forward, Breed fell in this position, and smartly supported Peskin’s request to fast-track the bill past the normal 30-day waiting period before it’s sent to committee.

It will be heard in the city’s Budget and Finance Committee on Thursday, Feb. 15, by the Ethics Commission on Friday, Feb. 16, and could appear in front of the full Board of Supervisors for a vote as soon as Tuesday, Feb. 20. From there, it would fall to Mayor Mark Farrell to sign off on it. But Peskin has that covered, too.

“I have talked to the mayor of San Francisco, and he has agreed to sign it if we can get it on his desk,” Peskin said.

If all goes according to plan, and it seems like it’s going to, this speedily drafted legislation could be implemented in a matter of weeks, making all this campaign donation information available by April — the homestretch of candidates’ campaigns before June’s election.

In the meantime, we can only speculate on what will be uncovered.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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