The main proponent of a campaign to recruit appointed Mayor Ed Lee to run for a full term also is the head of a nonprofit organization that receives millions of dollars a year in city subsidies.
Gordon Chin, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, is the principal officer of Progress For All, a political action committee bent on convincing Lee to run. He said he has donated $250 of his own money to the campaign despite a 2006 law that prevents the heads of nonprofit organizations that receive city money from donating to political candidates.
Lee has authorized three grant agreements to the organization since his appointment in January, two through federal Community Development Block Grant funds and one from the SoMa Stabilization fund, according to Lee’s spokeswoman Christine Falvey. All three grants went through a competitive bidding process and were approved by citizen advisory committees and the Board of Supervisors.
All told, the Chinatown Community Development Center has received grants of about $2 million for several years in a row. That money has gone mostly to providing affordable housing and advocating for issues in the Chinatown area. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency also awarded it a one-time $8 million subsidy to replace housing demolished to make way for the Central Subway.
Despite taking in city money, Chin’s donation and participation in the Run, Ed, Run campaign appears to be legal because Progress For All is without a candidate. Lee has repeatedly said he will not run for mayor in November and he plays no part in the campaign.
And the law, meant to prevent pay-to-play politics, has been coming under increasing fire from the Ethics Commission. Multiple U.S. Supreme Court decisions have affirmed that laws that prevent campaign donations violate the First Amendment.
Also, many other candidates have accepted money in the past from members of nonprofit boards.
Chin said the Chinatown center has received "city funding in various contracts to perform very valuable services" in the 34 years of its existence. Chin also said he’s retiring as director in fall.
"The thought that [the center] would benefit from relationships I’ve made as an individual is absurd," said Chin, a longtime friend of Lee’s. "As a citizen of this country, I have the right to support any candidate I want."
But Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, said such laws are not uncommon and they have never been tested in court.
"The purpose of the law is to make sure political money isn’t being spent to influence the contract," Stern said. "Whether what’s going on here violates the spirit of the law or the letter of the law doesn’t much matter because the Ethics Commission has decided it won’t enforce it."
On the books
Contracts given to Chinatown Community Development Center:
$477.6 million: Total given to nonprofits last year
Source: City controller