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Tech support: Third-party spending reaches historic high in SF supervisor races

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(S.F. Examiner Illustration)
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With a wave of political money flooding in from technology leaders, third-party spending has reached a historic high in the Board of Supervisors’ races this November.

Third-party spending in the six supervisor contests exceeded $1.8 million as of Wednesday with five days to go until the election, surpassing the record-setting $1.5 million spent in 2014.

The lion’s share of the total third-party spending in San Francisco’s board races benefits two moderate candidates, Marjan Philhour in District 1 and Ahsha Safai in District 11, who have benefited from nearly $700,000 apiece in districts with less than 44,000 registered voters each.

The record-breaking spending, also called independent expenditures, has recharged the debate of the influence of money in local elections.

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The influx of political spending also comes at a time when the technology industry has emerged as a significant force in politics throughout the nation, according to Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego.

“For a while, Silicon Valley was really this sleeping giant,” Kousser said. “Now, it’s waking up and spending lots of money on the local and national levels.”

David Lee, who teaches political science at San Francisco State University, is among the 10 candidates running in the District 1 race, where only two candidates are benefiting from third-party spending: Philhour and the progressive Sandra Lee Fewer.

“The question voters should ask is, ‘What are they getting for all this money they are spending in this election and what favors are they getting?’” Lee said. “What is all this money going to buy these people, these companies like Airbnb?”

Almost $693,873 in independent expenditures has benefited Philhour, including funding from Progress San Francisco, a political committee that has spent more than $1.3 million on local campaigns and election research since late August.

Progress SF is largely funded from real estate investors and tech companies like Facebook, LinkedIn and Airbnb, and is a major contributor to the third-party spending groups backing Philhour and Safai, like the Robert F. Kennedy Democratic Club and the local firefighters union political committee.

In comparison, third-party spending for Fewer totals about $67,000, which has come from groups such as the SEIU 1021, the largest city government employee labor union.

Specialized industries often pump big money into contested elections to gain influence when their self interests are at stake, according to Bob Stern, retired president of the Center for Governmental Studies. The result, he said, is distorted elections where “monied interests have more influence than grassroots.”

There is no shortage of monied interests in San Francisco, headquarters for tech companies like Airbnb and Twitter. Since 2011, the boom in tech and development has ignited a firestorm of political debates over policies impacting these industries. Earlier this year, for example, one progressive board member proposed a new tax on the tech industry.

Amid the highly charged political climate, tech investor Ron Conway, Mayor Ed Lee’s prominent backer, is mobilizing the tech sector through his tech advocacy group sf.citi. Conway’s sf.citi sent out a questionnaire asking board candidates policy questions, including whether they would support a 1.5 percent payroll tax on tech.

The increase in third-party spending may be a by-product of the limits of contribution amounts for candidates’ campaigns, which are capped at $500, to prevent donors from unduly influencing politicians. There is no contribution limit to third-party groups. Candidates cannot coordinate with these third-party spending groups.

Kousser, the UCSD professor, said, “The system that voters put in place to keep money from influencing politics, there’s been an end run around that system with this outside spending.”

Despite his criticisms of independent expenditures, when Lee ran against then-incumbent Supervisor Eric Mar in the District 1 race in 2012, Lee and third-party spending that backed him broke spending records at the time.

“I came to the realization there was some real problems with the system,” Lee said. “I had no idea the IEs were really out of control.”

Third-party spending in supervisor races stayed the same or gradually increased between 2008 and 2012 following a dramatic uptick from about $543,000 in 2006 to some $1.3 million in 2008, according to Ethics Commission records.

In 2002, independent expenditures were just under $262,000 in supervisor contests.

In 2014, when there were four contested supervisor races but none were contentious, independent expenditures totaled just $96,610, according to Ethics Commission records.

In comparison, in the politically charged District 3 contest between now-Supervisor Aaron Peskin and Julie Christensen last year generated more than $1 million in independent expenditures as the balance of the board’s power hung in the balance.

Peskin beat out Christensen, the mayor’s appointment to the District 3 seat, with 8,740 of the votes to Christensen’s 7,243, an outcome largely seen as a referendum on the pro-tech policies of the mayor and his backers like Conway, and created a progressive majority on the board.

In that race, Christensen benefited from $686,846 in third-party spending, while Peskin benefited from $350,413 in third-party spending.

On Wednesday, third-party spending backing Safai in the District 11 race just surpassed the amount Christensen benefited from with a total of $689,291 supporting Safai. His progressive challenger, Kimberly Alvarenga, is benefiting from about $159,000 in third-party spending.

Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, downplayed the significance of the influence of money in the local board races. He said while the spending can help raise name recognition, “that is rarely enough to win a competitive election. Endorsements are far more important.”

To what degree third-party spending impacts the races will likely remain an unsettled debate.

But they generally are increasing from election to election in political races across the nation, noted Stern, the retired president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

“These expenditures are effective, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing them,” Stern said.

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