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Friday, July 10, 2009

S.F. Public Financing Subsidizes Machine Candidates

Posted By on Fri, Jul 10, 2009 at 6:30 AM

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Nine years ago San Francisco voters passed Proposition O, a reform measure that restricted soft-money in city elections and launched public financing for candidates running for the Board of Supervisors. The goal was to limit the influence of special interests, reduce the role of money in politics and give non-machine candidates a fighting chance in local elections.

Nearly a decade later, this is the reality: San Francisco elections are awash in soft money and public financing essentially functions as a subsidy to machine candidates backed by special interest groups. That's the conclusion I came to after reading a largely overlooked report on campaign spending in the 2008 supervisorial races published by the Ethics Commission.

The report found that third-party political action committees, which currently don't have to bother with pesky contribution limits like individual candidates do, spent $1.3 million in last year's supe races (see page 15 of the report). In 2006, third-party PACs only spent $543,000; in 2004, they spent only $251,000.

The primary reason for the spike in soft money is that the rules of the game changed prior to last year's election. A 2007 court ruling threw out donation limits on contributions to third-party PACs, a major component of Prop. O. That eliminated any chance of leveling the playing field between independent candidates and machine candidates -- the dream of Prop. O supporters.

So what we have left is a bastardized remnant of Prop. O. Now, candidates backed by public employee unions or downtown business interests enjoy a direct municipal subsidy thanks to public financing and an indirect subsidy from unregulated PACs. Consider these facts from the 2008 race:

• The non-incumbent candidates who won all accepted public assistance and had major institutional support from public employee unions or the local arm of the Democratic Party. Downtown-backed candidates who accepted public funds came in second in districts 1 and 11. No independent candidate in the three swing districts (1, 3, 11) placed better than third.

• The candidate receiving the most public funds, David Chiu ($123,445), was endorsed by the Democratic Party and backed by the San Francisco Labor Council, which includes the city's largest union, SEIU Local 1021. Not exactly someone hurting for resources. In addition to the $330,000 Chiu's own campaign spent (the most in the District 3 race), The Labor Council and the Democratic Party spent nearly $140,000 on Chiu's behalf, campaign finance records show. (Chiu won.)

• The candidate who received the second-highest amount of public funds, Asha Safai ($105,033), was backed by the mayor and downtown business committees. Safai came in second place in the District 11 race to John Avalos, a candidate supported by the Democratic Party and labor (which spent nearly $160,000 on Avalos' behalf). Avalos received $87,745 in public funds.

The Ethics Commission asked for feedback about how insiders thought the system worked. One of the more interesting responses relating to soft-money PACs was that "third parties had to spend because unqualified candidates got public funds." Of course, that prompts the question what, eh, qualifies as "unqualified." While the report doesn't offer any clarification, it's safe to assume that it means candidates not supported by the powers that be on the left or right.

Before the 2007 court ruling, you could reasonably argue that San Francisco's campaign finance rules had created a more level playing field in local politics. But as the 2008 election results demonstrate, without a check on soft money in city races, this just isn't the case anymore. Public financing in and of itself is not a sufficient equalizer.

So meet the new political system, same as the old one -- actually worse, considering large amounts of public funds are now involved: Special interests spend metric shitloads of money to: 1. Make sure their handpicked candidates win, and; 2. Squelch any chance of the people electing someone who may have good ideas, but doesn't have support of the big shots.

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Will Harper

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