Amid the tidal wave of money pouring into this year’s school board and district attorney recall campaigns, one PAC, and one donor to that PAC, are having an outsized impact.
The political action committee known as Neighbors for a Better San Francisco is the largest single contributor to both campaigns, giving nearly half a million dollars to the recall of three school board members and nearly $1.8 million to the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Neighbors’ largest donor, by far, is William Oberndorf, who contributed more than $600,000 to the PAC in 2021. The San Francisco-based hedge fund manager and philanthropist is a major charter school proponent and gave more than $1 million to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s PAC in 2020.
Oberndorf and fewer than two dozen other individuals and corporations raised nearly $2.5 million for Neighbors for a Better San Francisco in 2021, according to filings with the California Secretary of State. In addition to Oberndorf, major donors include Shorenstein realty, venture capitalists Steven Merrill and Jason Moment and investment banker Paul Holden Spaht, Jr. The two recall campaigns account for the vast majority of the group’s spending.
The group’s $1.78 million contribution to the campaign to recall Boudin represents more than two-thirds of the $2.6 million pro-recall committees have raised so far in the lead up to the June 7 election, according to San Francisco Ethics Commission data. Neighbors’ contributions were funneled in part through third-party organizations, including Stop All Asian Hate and the Common Sense Voter Guide.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the recall is being driven by a dark money PAC that itself is funded by a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals,” said Julie Edwards, campaign manager for the effort to keep Boudin in office.
By receiving the majority of its money from the Neighbors PAC, the campaign to recall Boudin was able to shield the identity of its donors during the signature-gathering phase of the campaign, Edwards said. That’s because campaign committees require disclosures every two weeks, but PACs only provide disclosures twice a year. (Real Justice, a PAC supporting Boudin, has raised $130,000.)
Edwards said she believes the recall campaign would not have been able to afford the nearly $1 million it spent on paid signature gathering without contributions from the Neighbors PAC.
The campaign to recall Boudin did not respond to a request for comment.
In the last month, Neighbors has injected $458,000 into the campaign to recall school board members Alison Collins, Gabriela López, and Faauuga Moliga. At the beginning of January, The Examiner reported the pro-school board recall campaign had raised $1.1 million. That figure is now more than $1.8 million, according to the Ethics Commission. The school board recall election, along with the state Assembly primary, will be held on Feb. 15.
Neighbors for a Better San Francisco is described on its website as being “a civic-minded group of San Franciscans committed to improving public safety, public education, and quality of life for our city. We are dedicated to supporting and empowering pragmatic, responsible, and neighborhood-focused leaders and organizations.” The group did not respond to a request for comment.
Neighbors was also a major player in the 2020 local and state elections. The group raised and spent about $3 million that year, according to filings with the California Secretary of State, funding failed campaigns against Supervisor Dean Preston and his real estate tax, Proposition I.
The group also funded campaigns in favor of Proposition A (a city bond for parks, homelessness and drug treatment), Measure RR (the Caltrain funding measure) and California Proposition 16 (to reinstate affirmative action), among other ballot measures.
In 2020, crypto entrepreneur Chris Larsen was one of Neighbors’ largest donors, giving $300,000. However, he’s now fundraising against the group, contributing $100,000 in support of Boudin.
In 2021, Neighbors’ biggest donor was Oberndorf, whose $602,000 contribution, split evenly between cash and stocks, was more than twice as much as any other donor. That figure is on top of the $300,000 he contributed to Neighbors in 2020.
Oberndorf and his wife, Susan, have been major political donors for years, funding Republicans and Democrats. The couple has contributed nearly $8.5 million to state-level races and PACs since 2006, according to filings with the California Secretary of State, including more than $3.5 million to a pro-charter school PAC supporting Antonio Villaraigosa for governor in 2018.
At the federal level, Oberndorf’s giving skews Republican: In 2020 Oberndorf gave $1.5 million to McConnell’s GOP Leadership Fund. He has also contributed thousands directly to other Republicans in the House and Senate, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Oberndorf did not respond to a request for comment.