Ed Lee didn’t seem worried about his chances of winning the mayoral race when he decided in August to forgo $900,000 from The City’s public campaign financing program.
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Eight weeks later, it has become clear why.
Nearly $800,000 intended to bolster the Lee campaign has been raised by independent groups, according to the latest Ethics Commission campaign finance filings, released Thursday.
The independent groups provide opportunities for politicos to pool money to either support or smear a candidate or cause. While they are legally prohibited from colluding with candidate campaigns, they can raise and spend money freely, without the $500 individual donation cap imposed on candidate contributions.
Independent spending for the other 10 serious candidates amounted to a combined $515,000, with about $400,000 of that money mostly poured into a series of attack mailers against Lee by a union-backed committee originally titled City Residents Supporting Leland Yee, but changed earlier this month to City Residents Opposing Ed Lee.
Local political consultants say the extra spending conflicts with the spirit of San Francisco’s public financing system, which is designed to level the political playing field.
“As long as people feel constrained by the contribution limits, they’re going to look for ways to help the candidates they support — beyond $500,” said consultant Jim Ross.
But Corey Cook, a University of San Francisco political science professor, said public financing has served part of its purpose in this year’s mayoral race by allowing more voices in the electoral process and providing them a chance to “run real campaigns.”
“It has elevated the number of voices in the election,” Cook said. “But that doesn’t ensure they aren’t shouted out by other voices.”