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Money Can't Buy You Votes 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2016
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A funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box last week. Ungodly, record-breaking sums of money were raised to buoy candidates for an obscure-yet-influential office — and on Election Day, that money promptly got its ass kicked.

Ninety-five percent of people you meet will not have heard of the Democratic County Central Committee, and of the five percent in the know, not everybody will be able to tell you what it is (an unpaid collection of Democratic Party insiders, activists, and elected officials) or what it does (meet once a month, endorse candidates or ballot measures, decide where to spend money, and register new voters, supposedly its core function).

But if you are involved in local politics — which includes being involved in real estate or business, because in San Francisco, politics and the flow of capital are never far apart — you know the DCCC well. And you really, really want your friends on it.

This year, campaign financiers poured $1.2 million into the DCCC races. Dozens and dozens of people ran for a total of 24 seats — 14 on the east side of the city, and 10 on the west. And the winners were not the ones with the most money, but the most-recognizable names.

Leading the pack on the west side was Angela Alioto, a former Board of Supervisors president who has been out of politics for more than a decade, but who still has one of the most identifiable last names in the city. Leading the east were supervisors Jane Kim and Scott Wiener, who were also on ballots as the two candidates for state Senate.

And none of those elected spent very much money on their DCCC campaigns. In fact, the biggest spenders mostly lost big.

On the west side, business owner Marjan Philhour raised $99,000 and earned 13,014 votes, good for fifteenth place. On the east, labor attorney Joshua Arce raised $90,000 and finished in 23rd place.

Supervisor Mark Farrell was an outlier, spending $130,000 mostly on anti-Donald Trump Facebook ads, but won a seat on the DCCC, in no small part because he's already on the Board of Supervisors and in the news.

In all, nearly every seat on the DCCC went to a current or former elected official whose name is already known, rather than well-funded lesser-knowns with endorsements from big-time elected officials.

"Name ID is one thing money can't fix," says political consultant Jim Ross. "$70,000 is a huge amount of money for this race, but to try to compete with decades of name ID, it's not enough money."

Who cares and why does this matter? For one, this represents a shift in the DCCC, which used to be dominated by grassroots activists and neighborhood leaders. Not anymore: The tone and direction of the Democratic Party is now being set by Democratic Party elected officials.

It also means that the next time there's a DCCC election, expect even more money. There are big money business concerns, such as contentious development projects, that go to the ballot in San Francisco.

"The stakes have definitely been raised in the DCCC," Ross says. And with no spending cap in DCCC races, there's no limit except the size of a checkbook, meaning the next big winners will likely be well-known and stupendously well-funded.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

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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