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The Mayor's Money Machine Runs Unopposed 

Wednesday, Sep 23 2015
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At about 5 p.m. last Friday, with a weekend heatwave about to descend and the streets clogged with office workers vying to bask in it, you could walk through the unlocked doors of a Van Ness Avenue office suite and find five young professionals sitting at their Macs.

At Mayor Ed Lee's reelection office, the feeling was that of waiting for something to happen. The cordial but bored-looking campaign workers were biding their time until the anticlimax of Election Day, when the foregone conclusion of a second term for Lee, who faces no serious opposition, at last becomes official.

It's been slow for the Lee campaign since June 9, when the filing deadline came and went without any legit politician signing up for the privilege of getting buried by San Francisco's nice guy mayor.

But if Lee's campaign office lacks the energy and constant noise of a determined political effort hanging in the balance, his campaign checkbook has been busy.

The contrast between now and 2011 is remarkable. Four years ago, Lee, still interim mayor, entered a hopelessly crowded field in the impossibly late month of August, became the immediate front-runner, and rolled to a decisive victory. (It's also striking to recall that 2011 was Lee's first campaign on any level.)

Then, 75 full-time staffers worked out of multiple offices to elect Lee, whose muscular slogan was, "Ed Lee Gets It Done."

Now, Lee has a single office, a skeleton crew of five staffers, and the singsong catchphrase: "Ed Lee: He's for me."

With practiced straight faces, Lee's staffers swear his reelection effort is taken seriously. "We're all working very hard," insists campaign manager Bill Barnes. "We're still a campaign." Their main objective is to to remind voters that a citywide election will, in fact, happen on Nov. 3. Other offices up for election this year, city attorney and treasurer, have no opposition at all — not even protest or token candidates — meaning the usual low voter turnout will be even lower.

One reason why potential challengers have stayed away is Lee's fundraising prowess.

In 2011, with individual contributions limited to $500, Lee raised $1.9 million in a little over three months. An independent campaign bankrolled by friends in the tech sector, which paid for a video featuring MC Hammer and former Giants closer Brian Wilson breakdancing, raised another $638,000.

By the end of this year's first reporting period on June 30, with the same $500 cap, Lee raised $1.4 million from thousands of donors — less money than last time, but still "remarkable," one veteran San Francisco political consultant observed, "because it does not seem like he tried that hard to raise the money."

Lee hasn't had to try hard to spend it, either. In the first six months of 2015, the campaign blew through $970,000, according to campaign finance records. With no opponent, no big-time media buys, and few Lee campaign signs around town, where'd all that money go?

Through June 30, the Lee campaign spent:

$46,645 on rent at the Van Ness office space (even the mayor has to pay market-rate rent);

$57,862 on food at fundraisers, including $11,500 at Twitter headquarters-adjacent Dirty Water;

$120,000 to the firm of Stefanie Roumeliotes, a fundraising specialist who sits on a city commission (add in law firm Hanson Bridgett's fees for its campaign treasurer services, and it cost Lee about $250,000 to raise $1.4 million);

$118,000 on MayorEdLee.com, which appears to be a relatively simple templated design (most of that cost, Barnes says, was from assembling and managing an email list);

$271,000 on campaign consultants, including $15,000 to the former firm of Enrique Pearce, the consultant charged with child pornography, and $122,860 to Hanson Bridgett to process and ensure the operation is legal (which it appears to be);

and $175,000 on campaign staffers (including $83,870 to Barnes; not bad for six months' work).

In all, the campaign spent $551,281.13 on staff and consultants through the end of June. Lee and his handlers stayed in the family to recruit staffers for this nearly $100,000-a-month machine — the greater Willie Brown family.

Communications consultant P.J. Johnston ($37,500), whose father served in the state Legislature when Brown was Assembly speaker, is Brown's former press secretary and handles spin duties for major developments like the Warriors' new arena (which Lee once called his "legacy project").

IT consultant Wayne Perry, whose firm was paid $10,000 to purchase the staffers' Macs, received laurels from Brown for his participation in the city's minority contracting program — and has received $3.5 million in taxpayer money in the form of city contracts since 2013, city financial records show, with another $2.4 million in future contracted work to come.

And Barnes, who entered city government when Brown hired the then-20-year-old to be his AIDS advisor in the 1990s, was poached from his $118,000 a year job as the No. 2 person in the City Administrator's Office — to which he'll return once the campaign is over — served as Lee's campaign manager in 2011.

"We have a pretty good team," says Barnes, who noted that Lee was able to plug in "pre-existing infrastructure" in order to get a campaign up and running in relative short order.

And in short order, Lee has indeed gotten it done — for them.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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