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Google bus issue reappears as ‘dark money’ from tech floods into supervisor races

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San Francisco City Hall. (Rachael Garner/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Tech and real estate leaders are spending big on two supervisor races in an attempt to strengthen their hold on San Francisco policy decisions ranging from tech shuttles to affordable housing.

Salesforce, Y Combinator and Maximus Real Estate — the latter is the developer behind the so-called “Monster in the Mission” — are among the more than two dozen contributors to Progress San Francisco, a political action committee that has received $1.2 million in funding as of Sept. 24.

Progress SF has given at least $695,000 to three political groups in San Francisco that are supporting both District 1 supervisor candidate Marjan Philhour and District 11 candidate Ahsha Safai with television ads, canvassing and campaign literature. Philhour and Safai are the perceived moderate frontrunners in those races.

Third-party spending, also known as independent expenditure, comes from outside groups that cannot coordinate with a candidate’s own campaign. While contributions to individual candidates are capped at $500 per donor, there are no limits on how much a donor can contribute to third-party groups.

The spending surge comes within weeks of rallying calls for “techies” to turn out the vote, such as from tech investor Ron Conway — Mayor Ed Lee’s prominent backer — and Laura Clark, the president of Grow San Francisco, which advocates for more housing.

“Early morning commuters need to know how the Supervisor race will impact their lives,” Clark wrote in an email blast to supporters of Grow SF. “Help reach techies near you!”

Clark is also a vice-president of the Robert F. Kennedy Democratic Club, one of the political groups that received $200,000 from tech and real estate contributors to Progress SF. The club is supporting the frontrunning moderate candidates in District 1 and District 11, and is the leading third-party spender in the former race.

Clark framed the November supervisor races as a struggle to save commuter tech shuttles — commonly called “Google bus” — which tenant groups have blamed for exacerbating rents and increasing evictions.

Whether San Francisco will continue to allow commuter shuttles to use Muni bus stops is expected to return to the Board of Supervisors for a vote within months after a lengthy debate last year resulted in a one-year extension of the program. At the time, some progressive supervisors suggested the shuttle buses no longer use city bus stops but instead take Muni to satellite boarding stops.

The board currently has a progressive majority, but that can change depending on the outcome of the November election. Of the six board races, these two races appear to give moderates the best chance to achieve a majority on the board — a majority that would likely support the current tech shuttle program.

Third-party spending totals $365,507 in support of Philhour, including $261,312 from the RFK club, and another $63,397 from the San Franciscans for a City that Works, two of the three groups to receive significant amounts of tech funding.

Progress SF has given $200,000 to the RFK and $195,000 to San Franciscans for a City that Works.

“Corporate interests are trying to buy this election, and there is a lot of dark money that is being generated,” said Fewer, whose campaign has been supported by $13,236 in third-party spending, mostly from SEIU 1021.

Progressive candidates are generally in favor of tougher regulations and policies on the tech sector, also pressuring developers into exceeding affordable requirements.

The third group, the San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, is largely funded by Progress SF and spent more than $309,330 to support Safai’s candidacy. Locals 798 received $300,000 from Progress SF. Third-party spending benefiting Safai totals $384,327.

Progress SF is for the most part funded by tech interests, including $200,000 from Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, $100,000 from Medium CEO Evan Williams and a combined $350,000 from Y Combinator President Sam Altman and investor Paul Graham. It also received $170,000 from Airbnb.

Real estate investors include Maximus CEO Robert Rosania, who put forth $21,000, and David Gruber from Gruber and Gruber Properties.

Progress SF received some of the contributions earlier this year in the lead up to the June election, when there was a battle between the progressives and moderates over the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. Conway gave $25,000 to Progress SF in May.

In addition to receiving funding from Progress SF, the RFK club received $20,000 from Dropbox Vice President Aditya Agarwal last Tuesday. The club spent $12,500 in third-party spending to support Safai.

Another $62,496 to support Safai’s campaign came from San Franciscans for a City that Works.

Some $74,685 of third-party spending has benefited the campaign of Safai’s main opponent, District 11 supervisor candidate Kimberly Alvarenga, mostly from the city workers’ largest labor union SEIU 1021.

Supervisor John Avalos, the termed-out District 11 supervisor who is actively supporting Alvarenga, said, “I’m not surprised that tech money is flooding into D-11 through back channels like the fire fighters [independent expenditures]. The tech bros are trying to elect Safai who has demonstrated to them that he will give them the tax breaks, subsidies and favorable business conditions that will profit them at the expense of the D-11 neighborhoods.”

Safai did not return calls for comment.

Third-party spending is nothing new in local politics, but it strikes to the heart of the concerns of the undue influence big money has on the democratic process.

Justin Jones, who founded the RFK club in February, said he was actively looking for funding partners, which included asking Vince Courtney, Jr. for support. Courtney is a longtime labor leader for local 261, the construction union, who is also an organizer of Progress SF.

“We’re thankful for the support of Progress San Francisco,” Jones said. “We’re thankful we can get our message out there.”

Jones defended the amount of spending, arguing that the soda industry and labor unions backing progressives are also spending large amounts on other candidates. “We’re not the outlier by far,” Jones said.

But third-party spending reported to date to the Ethics Commission shows no candidates are remotely close to benefiting from thirty-party spending as much as Safai and Philhour.

“That amount of money that they are able to pull out for the campaign has no comparison with other candidates like myself,” said Berta Hernandez, a District 11 candidate. “The difference of resources are amazing. There is no comparison. It’s not a fair fight. It’s never a fair fight in politics.”

Hernandez, a health worker and a self-described socialist, said those spending big in the race “want a vote at the Board of Supervisors.”

“That’s what’s at stake,” she said.

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