There’s sneaky, there’s real sneaky, then there’s Ron Conway.
Conway, the tech-sector angel investor nicknamed “The Godfather of Silicon Valley,” a multi-millionaire, and sometimes Monopoly-man impersonator, managed to donate $50,000 in funding to sway San Francisco’s latest election, late public filings have revealed.
Independent expenditure campaigns (essentially election-related bank accounts that send a lot of annoying campaign mailers) not controlled by any candidate, but supporting district attorney candidate Suzy Loftus and Supervisor Vallie Brown, benefited from Conway’s largesse, public records revealed this week.
And in a fascinating yet irritating twist, Conway used a campaign finance loophole to ensure no one saw his involvement — and by involvement, I mean gobs and gobs of cash — until after everyone had voted.
Don’t like candidates supported by tech oligarchs? Too bad. No backsies!
Conway has been outta sight for at least a year, sitting out recent campaigns.
In the past, he’s sought to prop up officials who would cast votes or otherwise support politicians who would aid his investments, like Airbnb, for instance. Note, he doesn’t influence officials to aid companies, he helps officials win who are already inclined to do so.
Now, he’s back.
I reached out to him to ask why he’s decided to pop back into San Francisco politics, but my call went to voice mail. Fancy that.
His absence, I’d wager, is because he’s often regarded as a toxic influence on The City’s body politic. Posters with his face have adorned utility poles calling out his undue influence on San Francisco elections, as he has personally spent more money than just about any other recent donor to help the late Mayor Ed Lee, and now Mayor London Breed’s, favored candidates.
Brown and Loftus are benefiting somewhat from Conway’s deep pockets — but just how they did so is a master-class in hiding the money.
The two independent candidate committees — one for Loftus, another for Brown — spent their way into debt this last month. They paid for mailers to hit San Franciscans doorsteps and other advertising to support the candidates. In the meantime, the dollars they burned through far outweighed the dollars they had on hand.
They went into debt.
Meanwhile, a number of reporting deadlines — days when the public can peek into these campaign bank accounts with the latest numbers — sailed right by. So where was the money gonna come from? Well, we already know the answer, of course…
On November 4, the day before Election Day, Conway dropped $50,000 into Progress San Francisco (remember, the state campaign account). He was joined by Russell B. Flynn, a multi-millionaire real estate magnate who tried to gut California’s Costa Hawkins rental protections, who similarly donated $50,000. (That latter contribution may be especially troubling for those already concerned about Brown’s prior evictions of poor black tenants.
Then, also on November 4, Progress San Francisco donated to the independent committees supporting Loftus and Brown, to the tune of $25,000 and $10,000, respectively.
That donation triggered a law requiring the entire chain of events be reported — which they were, 24 hours later, on November 5.
Too late to matter.
“The sneaky way they brought their money into this shows how toxic they knew they are,” said Jon Golinger, co-author of the ballot measure Proposition F, which is seeking to shine more sunlight onto San Francisco’s election campaign spending.
He also speculates revelation of the funding “would’ve swung more votes away from Vallie Brown than for her, most likely,” an especially crucial concern as vote counts have seen Brown and her challenger, tenants advocate Dean Preston, stay within two hundred votes of each other.
It’s narrow as can be, and these shady funders hiding their dollars may have concealed a major factor in voters’ choice for supervisor, or district attorney for that matter.
It’s also an evolution of a tactic developed over the last few years, where Conway, anti-tenant groups like the Realtors Association, and other folks gunning to influence our elected officials would donate money to one group, which donated to another group, which then donated to another group, like nested Russian Matryoshka dolls.
This “gray money” tactic hid their paper-trail from anyone except really, really keyed in people like, you know, journalists, or other campaign managers.
Now they’ve added a new tactic — if entities run their bank accounts into the ground, they can get last-minute donations so even when journalists do unearth this chicanery, we can’t tell the public until after they’ve voted.
These tactics also give campaigns the ability to deny knowledge of any involvement — no matter how implausible.
When I asked Nicole Derse, the founding principal of 50+1 strategies and one of the most successful and experienced campaigners in San Francisco, why she ran her independent expenditure committee’s bank account into the red, she said simply “we were just waiting on checks.”
“We did not solicit any money from Mr. Conway,” she said.
But that money came in from Progress San Francisco, the state PAC, nonetheless, right?
“I have no idea who the donors to Progress are,” Derse replied.
And then I told her straight out — one of the most experienced and politically connected campaigners in all of San Francisco didn’t check the San Francisco Ethics Commission website to see who funded Progress San Francisco? Or was not otherwise aware of it?
Malarky! Horse-hockey! Tom-foolery!
I felt like Willie Brown just told me he’s never walked into Wilkes Bashford to buy a suit before.
“I’m serious, Joe,” she wrote in a text. “I’m not a fundraiser. I made two pieces of positive mail for Vallie and some digital ads.”
No way to prove her wrong. No way to know for sure. Fine. So be it.
So why would he agree to support the campaigns of Loftus and Brown, anyway? What would he like about their values?
Loftus’ campaign manager, Lauren Feuerborn, declined to comment since campaigns and independent expenditure committees are not supposed to coordinate. Leo Wallach, a campaign manager for Brown, said of Conway and Brown, “they’ve never met.”
He also said $10,000 is “not huge in the context of the overall spending in the race.”
That’s very true. But although the money is still concerning, the true issue is what Conway’s support means.
If Conway likes Loftus and Brown, what does that say about them?
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.