Supporters of San Francisco’s public campaign financing law wanted a leveling of the political playing field, but what they might not have considered was precisely how those taxpayer funds would be spent in the midst of a contentious race.
With public financing facing its first major test in this year’s mayoral race, television attack ads and scathing mailers have already been flying, with much of the vitriol likely yet to come. Mayor Ed Lee, the front-runner in the 16-person race and one of only two serious candidates who declined public financing, is taking issue with what his campaign has branded “taxpayer-funded attacks.”
Ethics Commission records show $3.6 million in public financing has already been passed out to candidates and $8 million total is expected to be spent in 2011, according to Executive Director John St. Croix.
Lee, who has no legal spending limit because he declined public dollars, has been the subject of two television attack ads from rival candidates in recent weeks, one from state Sen. Leland Yee and another from City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Both focused on Lee’s original promise not to seek permanent office when he was appointed in January, plus his ties to controversial San Francisco power brokers.
Lee’s campaign fired back at the TV attacks Friday with a counter-ad defending the mayor, plus a news release saying both Herrera and Yee are “wallowing in mud” with their “increasingly silly” attacks. The ad says Lee “believes in attacking problems, not people.”
“Ultimately, it’s up to voters to decide whether their tax dollars should be used to finance attack ads against Mayor Ed Lee, or anyone else running for office,” said Tony Winnicker, Lee’s campaign spokesman.
Jim Stearns and Matt Dorsey, spokesmen for Yee and Herrera respectively, both said voters have a right to know the facts about how Lee came to be a candidate. Dorsey said Lee should reconsider his “rose garden strategy” and answer tough questions.
“This is an election; it’s not a coronation. Voters get to decide, not power brokers,” Dorsey said. “Candidates may think it’s negative, but when it’s fact-based and fair, they owe it to voters to respond.”
While there are certain restrictions on the public money — such as not giving campaign workers bonuses or throwing post-victory parties — attack ads are allowed. Herrera spent $100,000 to run his ad for two weeks; Yee’s campaign spent $75,000 for a week of airtime.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, author of the legislation that ushered in public financing, said he is open to modifying the law.
“Lessons learned, there could be a good reason to reform the public financing law in a way that would dissuade usage toward negative campaigning,” Mirkarimi said.
Corey Cook, a University of San Francisco political science professor, warned against free speech restrictions becoming attached to public financing. He said that while voters may have distaste for negativity in politics, they often learn more from the negative ads than from vapid positive messages about a candidate.
“The negative ads most often turn out to be more substantive, instead of something like, ‘Vote for me, I love apple pie and motherhood,’” Cook said.