Just in time for San Francisco’s election, a judge has put the kibosh on the city’s $500 campaign contribution ceiling. That sound you hear is Gavin Newsom applauding.
By Joe Eskenazi
If you’ve got strong feelings about the upcoming San Francisco election and gobs of cash, it just became infinitely easier for you to put your money where your mouth is.
In a late Thursday, Sept. 20 ruling, S.F. Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. White issued a preliminary injunction disallowing the city from enforcing the seven-year-old campaign contribution laws voted into existence via Measure O. When it comes to making a donation to an independent committee, there are now only two limitations remaining: How much ya got and how quick will it clear?
The injunction was the opening salvo of a lawsuit filed against the city by the pro-business Committee on Jobs and the Building Owners and Managers Association, which have, in the past, donated more than half a million dollars to Mayor Gavin Newsom and his pet campaigns; the S.F. Weekly first wrote about this suit back in July.
Chastened in its efforts to stave off the injunction, it’s unclear what the city will
do next. Deputy City Attorney Ann O’Leary told me that she will huddle with her colleagues this week and decide whether to appeal Judge White’s ruling, and also noted that there’s no talk of moving for a settlement at this time. But, whatever course the city takes, the situation won’t be resolved for months – meaning it is, once again, open season for massive soft money influxes to independent committees of the sort that marked the Willie Brown era.
(To clear up the jargon, “independent committees” such as the plaintiffs operate without the ostensible support of a candidate or the official backers of a ballot measure.)
So, it’s hard to see this as anything other than an unmitigated victory for the plaintiffs. From this day on, every cent the Committee on Jobs and other independent organizations collect can go directly into supporting or opposing a candidate or ballot measure via mailers, billboards, TV ads or God knows what else.
Thursday also turned into a sun-shiny day for Newsom, considering the generosity the plaintiffs have shown him in the past. Think of Newsom as a Top-25 college football team. It’s not enough to simply win games against lowlier opponents; A.P. voters are impressed by lopsided victories. So if Newsom has his eye on Sacramento several years hence – and let’s assume he does – a lackluster victory over Quintin Mecke et al. won’t impress anyone. He needs that 57-3 shellacking to sit in everyone’s mind.
Thanks to the preliminary injunction, it’s now far more likely. The mayor has complained that his guaranteed re-election has led to sluggish fund-raising and tepid support among district-walkers and sign-carriers. But now, expect tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to pour into the coffers of Newsom-friendly independent organizations unchecked by the $500 limit. With Newsom’s constituency, after all, it’s far easier to find 500 people to donate $10,000 than 10,000 people to donate $500.
And, if you’re a betting man or woman, put your money -- $500 or, fittingly, however much you like – on the preliminary injunction going permanent and San Francisco’s contribution limit vanishing, just like similar ordinances in San Jose and Oakland.
“I think we were successful because the law is very strong our way,” said Bruce Ericson, the plaintiffs’ litigator.
“I’d love to say it was brilliant advocacy. But the fact of the matter is we had strong precedents our way and the city didn’t.”