The allure of campaign cash is hard for many politicians to resist, but two mayoral candidates in San Francisco flipped that script: London Breed and Jane Kim both voted to approve a pledge that anyone running for the local Democratic Party board would limit contributions to their campaigns to $500 apiece.
It’s a noble promise, but one neither candidate kept.
A review of Breed and Kim’s campaign finance records shows both accepted campaign contributions as high as $10,000 from entities seeking to influence the politicians.
And the two candidates kept those campaign finance committees open, providing a potential source of outside funds as they both race to the June 2018 mayoral election.
For years, running for the Democratic County Central Committee was a loophole to campaign finance laws to well-known to San Francisco political insiders. Most candidates — for supervisor, mayor and more — are limited to $500 contributions, but a supervisor could run for the Democratic Party board, known as the DCCC, and accept contributions of any size.
Supervisors and mayoral candidates are also barred from taking campaign funds from particular parties, like corporations, for instance.
But corporations’ big bucks flow freely in DCCC accounts, which face none of those restrictions. And any candidate could run simultaneously for DCCC and another office.
“It is like a slush fund, because there are no rules” in DCCC campaigns, said Larry Bush, founder of the Friends of Ethics group.
So Breed and Kim, both members of the DCCC, voted in September 2016 to impose a $500 limit to that slush fund.
Mayoral candidates Angela Alioto and Mark Leno also sat on the Democratic Party board. Alioto abstained from the $500 campaign contribution limit vote, and Leno was appointed automatically to the board as a California state Senator; he has no DCCC finance committee.
Former Supervisor David Campos was voted in as chair of the DCCC after a slate of progressive Democrats won DCCC seats in June. Campos said closing that campaign finance loophole was the progressives’ top priority.
“It’s one of the first acts that we took,” Campos said.
But now, it seems, Breed and Kim broke that promise.
Breed’s DCCC campaign contributions include $1,000 from developers at the Emerald Fund (with more than 37 developments in the Bay Area), $5,000 from Willie Brown’s attorney Steven Kay and $20,000 from the tech company Salesforce.
Notably, Brown voiced major support for Breed’s mayoral candidacy in a recent San Francisco Chronicle column.
Those contributions all came after Breed voted to approve the resolution to limit campaign donations to DCCC candidates to $500.
And one of Breed’s large contributions — $5,000 from Laborers’ Local 261 — came the very day after Breed voted to approve the $500 limit measure at the DCCC.
The same can be said of Kim, though her contributions number far fewer than Breed’s. In December 2016, Kim accepted a $4,200 contribution from Eric Tao, CEO of AGI Company, a real estate development firm. Notably, Tao served on an eight-member advisory committee for Kim and Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s Proposition C from June 2016, which proposed boosting the requirements for affordable housing built in new developments.
Kim also accepted $5,000 from developer Boston Properties in February 2017 and $1,000 in March 2017 from The Green Cross medical cannabis dispensary just two weeks after City Hall announced it would create an Office of Cannabis.
Perhaps most troubling, many of Breed’s and some of Kim’s contributions came in 2017 — even though both ran to be on the DCCC in 2016. (Campaign finance records for the DCCC were only available through June 2017. In two weeks, the candidates are required to report their finances through December.)
— Jane Kim (@JaneKim) April 6, 2017
Both candidates’ campaigns were over. Done. Finito. So why were they still raising money in 2017?
Well, it seems, the two candidates had the urge to splurge.
Government Conduct Code bars candidates for one race from spending on other offices — i.e., money in a DCCC account should only be used for a DCCC campaign.
Breed’s spending in particular seemed to flout that law.
Breed spent $7,000 from her DCCC campaign finance account on a San Francisco Pride parade float in 2017, for instance. Breed’s mayoral campaign strategist Maggie Muir told me in a statement, “Acting Mayor Breed’s expenditures from her DCCC account are all related to her service as a DCCC member.” That’s hard to take seriously when a banner held in front of her float, in the largest font possible, read: SUPERVISOR LONDON BREED DISTRICT 5.
What an incredible time at the Pride Parade yesterday! Thank you everyone who marched with us! pic.twitter.com/wygcCbgAYf
— London Breed (@LondonBreed) June 26, 2017
When I texted Muir a photo of the Pride float asking for further explanation, she did not respond.
The Acting Mayor also took 32 Lyft rides between Jan.4, 2017 and June 25, 2017 — all paid for with her DCCC account, which were often marked as “errands.”
Breed and her staff also spent $732.91 in DCCC funding on flights to Vancouver, B.C., which she wrote in her report to the Ethics Commission was for a “safe consumption services tour.” Breed tweeted a photo of her tour of a safe injection site in Vancouver on April 6.
That same week, Breed introduced legislation at the Board of Supervisors for San Francisco to explore safe injection sites.
GOOD MORNING, VANCOUVER! On a fact finding mission today touring safe injection services to help inform our SF safe injection task force. pic.twitter.com/6ecwP01ra1
— London Breed (@LondonBreed) April 6, 2017
I’m no attorney, but it sure seems like she spent money meant for her DCCC campaign to conduct research for her role on the Board of Supervisors.
Kim’s expenditures also raise eyebrows. Kim accepted more than $12,000 worth of “in-kind” contributions — meaning not cash, but services or goods — from Future Beverage, Inc. and prominent designer Ken Fulk, for what is described in Kim’s finance records as a fundraiser.
But no records of funds raised from that party exist, and Willie Brown described Kim’s bash with Fulk in his column as a “birthday party” where she was “working the room” with potential endorsers for future office.
— Gail Gilman (@gailgilmanSF) July 16, 2017
In a statement, Kim’s campaign spokesperson Julie Edwards said, “Last July, Jane held a friend-raiser and volunteer appreciation event to thank those who had helped on her DCCC campaign.”
A “friend-raiser?” That language wasn’t on Kim’s campaign records, at all.
LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the Ethics Commission, does not speak directly about potential ethics violations. But speaking generally, she told me, “When candidates have separate [campaign finance] committees that can spend on their behalf for name recognition at the same time they’re running for another office, you have an additional bucket of money that could potentially be used to assist in ways that can help your campaign.
“It can be a blurry line, a very blurry line for voters,” she said.
I can already hear the groaning from San Franciscans: Aren’t these just examples of politicians acting like politicians? Well, yes, but if we can tamp down this behavior, we should. It seems Ethics Commissioner Quentin Kopp is fired up to do just that.
Kopp told me that though these seemingly shady shenanigans by Breed and Kim may fall into a legal gray area, he will investigate tightening ethics laws to bar such future actions. It may not be in time for this mayoral election, but perhaps it’ll scale back the funny money in the future.
“It’s a trick on voters, and often it’s a trick on contributors,” Kopp said.
Campos also said he believes the DCCC should tackle tightening loopholes allowing spending campaign contributions from one race to another.
“The law already requires that,” Campos said. And, he added, even if candidates operate within the letter of the law, they still “need to comply with the spirit of following ethical norms and ethical standards.”
And though the dollar amounts discussed may not seem significant, as long as those DCCC campaign committees remain open, tech mogul Ron Conway or the soda industry — pick your poison — could drop $100,000 in Breed or Kim’s accounts tomorrow, tilting The City’s electorate with the power of their purse.
Both candidates should close their campaign committees immediately in a show of good faith to San Francisco.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.