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Airbnb money turns SF Democrat blue into sickening green

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Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer protests Airbnb’s unregulated rentals on June 8, 2015, at Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco. (Natasha Dangond/Special to S.F. Examiner)


Democrats for sale! Democrats for sale!

Airbnb funneled more than $32,000 into the otherwise sleepy race for the Democratic County Central Committee, and Wednesday night that same body voted against a measure that would’ve called out Airbnb’s shady shenanigans.

The measure, authored by DCCC (Dee-Triple-Cee) member Meagan Levitan and co-sponsored by democratic heavyweights Sen. Dianne Feinstein and State Sen. Mark Leno, would’ve put the Democrats on record supporting legislation by Supervisor David Campos.

That legislation calls for Airbnb to delist from its website law-breaking homesharers who threaten housing throughout San Francisco.

Deep in the California State Building on Wednesday, the Democrats instead approved a strange, alternate-universe measure that weakened that support.

For funsies, I’ve dubbed this political maneuver the “Tom Hsieh Sway,” in honor of the democratic board member who deftly delivered Airbnb a win.

Snap your fingers. The first step in the Tom Hsieh Sway was to secure votes beforehand. Airbnb’s money conquers all.

The tech-hotel giant contributed $20,000 to a political committee to support Hsieh and his political allies on what they call the “Progress Slate” candidates running for DCCC this June. Airbnb contributed $2,500 to each of Hsieh’s allies on the committee: Zoe Dunning, Mary Jung, Rebecca Prozan, Alix Rosenthal and Leah Pimentel.

Gee-whiz, such a coinkydink the people taking money from Airbnb voted against a measure to call for its regulation.

And more up-to-date financial fillings are coming as I type this – I’ll have the newest eye-popping contributions in my Tuesday column (Preview: Google cares about the DCCC?!).

According to Levitan, the head of the Office of Short-Term Rentals — “Kevin Guy himself” — said 5,000 San Francisco Airbnb users will never register with the homesharing office to verify their legality.

Only Airbnb has the power to find and de-list all the bad actors at once, Levitan said. So the Democrats must make a stand and call for just that.

DCCC member Matt Dorsey, a rational democrat who works in the City Attorney’s Office (read: far from a fiery-lefty), said, “Right now, San Francisco has a terrible housing crisis. What we don’t have is a tourist accommodation crisis.”

And our $4,000 rents worsen when Airbnb possibly yanks 2,000 potential rental units off the market. The City’s vacancy level hovers around a scarce 8,000 or so units.

The second do-si-do in Tom Hsieh’s Sway was to propose an amendment that gutted any call for consequences for Airbnb in Levitan’s measure. It also added about 25 other companies — like VRBO and Home Away — to the measure’s language.

Hsieh argued his amendment strengthened the measure. “There’s a lot of platforms,” he said. “I’d like to help make this a more fair proposal.”

In reality, a resolution strongly condemning only the lead actor, Airbnb, carries heftier political weight. Words have power.

Hsieh’s moderate allies voted to approve his red-herring laden amendment. DCCC member Petra DeJesus stormed out of the room, infuriated.

Hsieh smiled. Calm. Poised. Genial.

Perhaps because the final move in the Tom Hsieh Sway was ingenious. Almost perverse.

He essentially changed the fundamental meaning of the Airbnb measure — weakening it, twisting it — forcing the very people who proposed it to vote against it.

Levitan saw the game for what it was.

“If you agree with it, support it. If you don’t, don’t,” she told Hsieh.

That was not to be. Levitan, and proxies of both Feinstein and Leno, each voted against the Bizarro version of their own measure. It was approved by Hsieh’s moderates and won.

Leno later told On Guard, “No industry should have such an outsize influence on the working of a democratic deliberation.”

He’s right. But few will know how corporate Airbnb money flooded our Democratic party, turning the beloved blue a sickening shade of green. That’s how you dance the Tom Hsieh Sway.

Boogie down, Democrats. Boogie down.

These DCCC members voted with Airbnb’s interests: Kat Anderson, Joshua Arce, Zoe Dunning, Bill Fazio, Tom Hsieh, Mary Jung, Trevor McNeil, Leah Pimentel, Rebecca Prozan, Alex Rosenthal, Francis Tsang, Scott Wiener and Marjan Philhour.

These DCCC members voted against the gutted, twisted, Airbnb measure: Petra DeJesus, Bevan Dufty, Matt Dorsey, Hene Kelley, Meagan Levitan, Rafael Mandelman, Eric Mar, Dianne Feinstein, Jackie Speier, Mark Leno and Phil Ting.

David Chiu abstained.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

Click here or scroll down to comment

  • dvtsea

    Author, you say yourself:

    The measure, authored by DCCC (Dee-Triple-Cee) member Meagan Levitan
    and co-sponsored by democratic heavyweights Sen. Dianne Feinstein and
    State Sen. Mark Leno, would’ve put the Democrats on record supporting
    legislation by Supervisor David Campos.

    You’ve got some of our better state & local dems there, including the venerable Mark Leno, but your headline misleads me into thinking the whole Dem party is selling out to Airbnb, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

    You should instead have the courage to call out a couple of the most questionable actors in your headline. The words you’ve chosen scold, with a righteous tone, throughout this article; throwing the Dem party under the bus “for clicks”, or whatever your reason, doesn’t show a comparable level of integrity on your part.

    All that said, I appreciate learning that Scott Weiner sided with airbnb. Something to think about come November…

  • dvtsea

    Rodriguez, you mentioned:

    “The measure, authored by…Meagan Levitan..co-sponsored by democratic heavyweights Sen. Dianne Feinstein and State Sen. Mark Leno, would’ve put the Democrats on record supporting legislation by Supervisor David Campos.”

    You’ve got some of our better state & local dems there, including the venerable Mark Leno, but your headline misleads me into thinking the whole Dem party is selling out to Airbnb, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

    You could instead have the courage to call out a couple of the most questionable actors in your headline. The words you’ve chosen scold, with such a righteous tone, throughout this article. -Throwing the Dem party under the bus “for clicks”, or whatever your reason, doesn’t show a corresponding level of integrity on your part.

    All that said, I appreciate learning that Scott Weiner sided with Airbnb. Something to think about come November…

  • jhayes362

    Thank you for reporting this and especially, for providing the vote tally. It’s been clear for some time that the DCCC is under the control of big money special interests. This provides a clear illustration of how it works and what it means.

  • cantwait2see

    Well I hate to the voice of reason when someone has a good rant going on, but this law that you speak of is actually poorly written and will most definitely lead to the city being sued and Airbnb winning. In case you are unaware there is a law that states that no internet company shall be liable for the information that a user publishes. Here is the relevant section (230):

    “(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

    (1) Treatment of publisher or speaker

    No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

    What this means is that the provider of an interactive computer service (Airbnb) shall not be liable for any information provided by another information content provider (the Airbnb user).

    This law has been litigated since its original inception and the courts have time and again stated that this is ironclad and that any attempts to circumvent this will be struck down as unlawful. If this provision was not included then we could have lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, any social media site, any comments section (like this one), and any number of other sites that allow people to make posts for information posted by their users. This would create a mess and would have such incredible legal ramifications that it may have the effect of shutting down large portions of the internet.

    While money may have changed hands and people made decisions that do not align with your sense of morality, the fact that this law was struck down means that the city has avoided an incredibly large and incredibly untenable lawsuit. And in the end that will end up saving the city a great deal of money, time, and embarrassment.

  • Bruce

    Was there any monies donated by the hotel lobby? Or is this just a one sided filled rant against airbnb. Sure money gets donated to legislation on BOTH sided. So what is the other half of the story? Or are you not about balanced reporting?

  • Joe A. W. Fitzgerald

    Technically, the vote of the democrats at the DCCC put the city’s Democratic Party on record as having a particular position so the headline (which I did not write, that is the province of editors, not columnists or reporters) reflects that.

    Also, headlines are by their nature not complex. They say one important takeaway, to tell a reader what a piece is about. It is the reader’s responsibility to then read the entire story, to ascertain for themselves what they’d like to know.

    Embodying an entire story’s many complexities is not the role of the headline.

  • Joe A. W. Fitzgerald

    I didn’t quite have the space to reflect that concern, as this was a piece for print, but what you mentioned as brought up at the DCCC meeting.

    Matt Dorsey, who works in the City Attorney’s Office, noted that if fear of litigation stopped people from taking stands or creating legislation, we would not have San Francisco universal heath care, nor would we have marriage equality laws – both of which faced heavy litigation.

    Just because someone may sue, doesn’t mean a good law shouldn’t be made, was his point.

  • gillis44

    Section 230 does not apply to Airbnb’s situation. Airbnb is taking a cut of a transaction which they know to be illegal and is handling the payment. Whether that happens on the Internet or not is irrelevant, it is covered by other laws that govern illegal commerce.

    The lawmakers in NYC understand this and are proposing similar legislation. Good luck, Airbnb, trying to win that battle–you will be playing with the big boys.

  • cantwait2see

    What this particular law stated was that the user who rents out their home, they must put on their profile page, their SF rental registration number. If the user did not do that, then Airbnb would be liable and need to pay a fine. That’s where section 230 comes into play, because the law states that the provider cannot be responsible for what a user posts.

  • cantwait2see

    First off Joe, thank you for responding. I really appreciate this opportunity to have this dialog.

    While I do have a concern that the city would put itself in a perilous situation if they did move forward with this law, my primary concern is the fall out that would likely occur if they won. As I mentioned, this type of change to section 230 of the CDA would open up many internet companies to litigation. And this would likely act as a break on new companies and change the focus of many that are already in existence.

    I do sympathize with your particular viewpoint, but I think that you are stumbling over yourself in an attempt to find a solution to this problem.

    I believe you are correct, just because someone may sue should not dissuade someone or some group to come up with a law to help those in need. However, in the two examples you provide, the laws surrounding those issues were murky, at best. Additions to the law were required to make those things work (Prop 8 notwithstanding, but that itself was a response to Gavin Newsom and his grandstanding). With this you are going directly against established law in a way that provides you with no alternative or relief.

    If you were to attempt to make changes to section 230 or campaign to make some exceptions, that would at least make some sense. The amount of time, money, and energy that would be expended on the near certain lawsuit could be better spent crafting legislation that could work within the bounds of section 230. It would simply take more effort on the part of the elected officials to have a greater understanding of the laws that govern all of us, as opposed to coming up with some feel good bills that put their names in the paper and placate those who keep them elected.

    As I mentioned above regarding Newsom and Prop 8, his speech concerning marriage equality was on its way and making good forward momentum. But then, during a speech after the CA Supreme Court decision, he preened for the camera and essentially mocked those who lost. Although Prop 8 was likely to occur, it may not have gotten as much traction as it did were it not for elected officials like him to essentially wag his finger at those who did not share his exact beliefs on this issue. I believe, and I may well be wrong, but if he had been gracious and congratulate those who won and let them know that this was a situation all about love and nothing more, Prop 8 would have lost and the battle for marriage equality would not have been so vitriolic.

    But we would rather elect people who enflame our passion, not only to pursue our dreams as we see it, but also tear down those who we see as the enemy.

    But back to Airbnb, painting those in charge of Airbnb and those who rent out their homes/apartments/condos as the living embodiment of a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Monty Burns does not bring those people to the table. If you have not heard the story of how Airbnb got started, I suggest you listen to an interview with the founder. It’s a great little story about a small idea becoming a huge success. But by writing about these people as though they split their time between swimming in a giant vault filled with gold, ala Scrooge McDuck, and twirling their mustaches, laughing maniacally while doing so only brings about bitterness and distrust. And when they feel as though that the other side has stopped listening, they go the easy route and give money to politicians.

    At the end of the day though, what this bill did was to bring a sledgehammer to pound down a nail. There are many problems that contribute to the housing situation in the Bay Area and while Airbnb plays a unique role in this issue, there are many other areas that require more immediate attention. These include things such as increasing housing along the peninsula, allowing for greater reform to SF’s building codes and regulations, expanding mass transit, and provide incentives for companies who have a certain amount of people who work from home. I say “and” because it will take multiple approaches in order to really make a dent to the price of living in the Bay. Of course, it is easy to say these things, it is quite another to actually get things done. But as a voice within the city, you are positioned well to bring up these issues to those in power and inform/update the rest of us on the situation. I hope I’m not coming off as too naive or idealistic, but so often when dealing with someone who is seen as causing a problem the first reaction is to call the other side evil and malicious. That only puts those people on the defensive and creates this unending barrage of one side being called selfish and mean spirited and the other side being called ineffectual whiners. No one sees themselves as the villain and saying they are will not cause them to suddenly see things your way.

    I’m sorry for going on so long, so I’ll just stop now. I guess I had a lot to say.

  • gillis44

    So if I’m running an online porn site that allows people to post their own videos, I can just play dumb when people post videos of minors? I don’t think so.

  • cantwait2see

    Yes you can. You will still be required to take it down and provide as much information to the police as possible. But if you were not involved in the upload or creation of the video, then you would not be criminally liable.

  • gillis44

    That makes sense. I still think this will be settled with laws that have nothing to do with the Internet. A Century 21 real estate agent can’t run around Manhattan renting out empty apartments for the weekend. That is against the law. And it is exactly what Airbnb is doing, since it is illegal to rent out an entire apartment in NYC for less than 30 days. Virtually all of the website’s Manhattan listings for entire apartments fall afoul of this law.

  • dvtsea

    Agreed, but is misleading a correct role? I still felt mislead by the headline, and think it would be likely for other readers to conclude same.

  • Ryan Blair

    That’s not always true. If your site is recognized as a haven for conducting that type of activity, you will likely be shut down

  • njudah

    You can make what the “DCCC” does irrelevant simply by throwing away the junk mailers they pump out during the election, and thinking for yourself. allowing a piece of paper to determine who to vote for in local matters is stupid, and allows for all sorts of shenanigans.

    better to burn their mailers and Not Look At their online ads.

  • Dr Fever

    Any reader who makes conclusions based on headlines – particularly headlines that make judgments – needs some remedial education on media communication . Let’s get over the advertising and focus on the story.

  • Guest

    Airbnb is a disaster to residents of SF on several fronts. Feinstein, Leno, and Newsome campaigned heavily to defeat the necessary controls that were defeated last election. It’s time to come back with another Prop and to educate voters the harm and quality of life issues involved with unlimited Airbnb. This is what you get with a one party system … Feinstein, Leno, and Newsome are primarily cronies and use the system for their own self serving purposes.

  • dvtsea

    Hilarious! (And wrong on so many levels…)