No contest saw a greater rush of money into San Francisco politics this year than the race for the District 1 Board of Supervisors seat. But results from that election suggest that money’s impact on local politics may not be as clear-cut as some imagine.
The way that triumphant Supervisor Eric Mar and his backers tell it, it was financial power versus people power — and the people triumphed decisively.
Supporters of District 1 challenger David Lee spent a record-setting sum nearing $1 million — or about $94 per vote cast — in their unsuccessful attempt to derail Mar’s political career.
Spending against Mar totaled $975,250, according to what was reported as of Monday to the Ethics Commission. That includes about $700,000 in soft money, the money spent by independent expenditure committees, a record-breaking total in a supervisorial race. The remainder was money raised by Lee in public financing and $500 campaign contributions.
The amount of soft money in District 1 far surpassed the amount seen in past board elections. In 2010, the total soft money spent in all four contested supervisorial races in 2010 totaled $1.3 million, with a then-record $312,586 spent to oppose current District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener.
A single political action committee spent more than that in the campaign against Mar.
The San Francisco Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth PAC, which represented the Chamber of Commerce, the Police Officers Association, and the condo-conversion advocates Plan C, and received large donations from technology investor Ron Conway, Basic American Foods Chairman George Hume, and real estate investor Thomas Coates, spent at least $317,000. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Association of Realtors spent more than $200,000.
But Lee campaign consultant Jim Ross said that soft money was not as helpful to Lee as one might imagine.
“While a lot of money was spent on the race by IEs, it was spent very poorly,” he said. By law, candidates cannot have any interaction with independent expenditure groups, and Lee found himself having to condemn some of their tactics.
Mar’s own campaign spending totaled $448,435, of which about $164,000 was soft money, mostly from labor unions representing workers such as teachers and nurses.
Mar’s camp, led by campaign manager Nicole Derse, capitalized politically on all the spending with mailers accusing outside forces of trying to buy the election. And a jubilant Mar slammed the deep-pocketed spenders during his victory speech.
“We’re going to show the big business groups that they cannot mess with our communities,” he crowed.
Mar said his campaign had 800 people walking the district beginning over the weekend leading up to Election Day.
He said he won thanks to a “grass-roots people-powered campaign that’s made up of the most diverse grass-roots collation I have ever seen in any district election.”
He credited tenant and environmental groups; the hotel workers union; the teachers union; the California Nurses Association; the National Union of Healthcare Workers; and SEIU Local 1021, the union representing the largest number of government employees.
It also certainly didn’t hurt to have the backing of Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak and Chinatown activist David Ho, known for his political organizing.