Mystery backers of Trauss, Johnson drop $100k into D6 race

A cool $100,000 just dropped like a thud into the hotly contested District 6 supervisors race, aimed squarely at taking out school board member and supervisor candidate Matt Haney.

Haney is running against candidates Christine Johnson, a former planning commissioner, and Sonja Trauss, the firebrand founder of BARF (Bay Area Renters Federation), to see who will represent the Tenderloin, South of Market, South Beach and other neighborhoods in this November’s election.

The fat wad of cash in question hit the newly formed independent expenditure committee — essentially a political bank account able to garner bottomless, any-size donations — called San Franciscans for Change, Supporting Johnson & Trauss for D6, Thursday.

But rumor has it, the funding is being marshalled by none other than Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who has his eyes set on becoming Board of Supervisors President, i.e. The Head Honcho With All The Power (and the biggest political headaches, but that’s another story). That would be quite a feat for the somewhat-freshman supervisor from District 11, which includes the Ingleside and other south-side neighborhoods.

Two sources on background confirmed Safai’s phone calls on behalf of the committees. They speculated Safai had a greater chance of eking out a vote from Johnson, who is aligned with Safai’s moderate Democrat allies, than from Haney, who is allied with progressive Democrats.

On the phone Thursday, Safai confirmed he made calls to donors support Johnson and Trauss, but stopped short of saying he directly asked those same donors to contribute to the expenditure committee for the D6 candidates.

When grilled on the matter, this was his answer:

“I am not involved in any (independent expenditure) activities. On a technicality, no I’m not. At the end of the day I am not involved. I can’t be, I’m not involved in that.”

But, he said, “I am involved in making calls to alert people to support candidates for this fall, that’s what I’m doing. I’m not talking to them about anything in particular.” When I asked if he directly asked deep-pocketed donors to donate to those committees, he said, “they obviously can make their own decisions on how they want to be involved after that.”

And as for the board presidency? “That’s the farthest thing from my mind,” he said.

The $100,000 is the shadiest kind of campaign cash because it’s difficult — if not virtually impossible — to track before the end of the election.

Let’s call it “gray money.”

Why gray money, and not “dark money?” Well dark money is a term used when donors are not disclosed, but gray money is a close cousin. Money is donated to one newly formed state Political Action Committee, because the donor-reporting laws are looser at the state level. That PAC then donates to another PAC, which donates to a local independent expenditure committee.

So when one of those flashy mailers hits your doorstep alleging “Haney Strangles Kittens! It’s True!” the donor name is something obscure like “Paid for by Progress San Francisco” instead of “Paid for by Ron Conway.”

And so it goes here with the fund against Haney.

This $100,000 in outside “gray money” to the San Francisco independent expenditure committee supporting Johnson and Trauss comes from Progress SF, a state Political Action Committee, which itself received a $35,000 donation from the Committee on Jobs Government Reform Fund, another state PAC, on June 5 this year. The Committee on Jobs Government Reform Fund has not yet reported any donors, leaving the trail cold.

“We’ve got the people, the labor council, the Democratic Party, and they’ve got a PAC with shady funding backed by unknown billionaires,” Haney told me. “It’s a bit cynical.”

However he did admit it’s a real reason for his campaign to “be concerned,” as “this group has a track record of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars” against progressive Democratic supervisor races. And in those small races, hundreds of thousands are a huge, bombastic amount.

Johnson, for her part, said that as a 14-year resident “I’m invested in improving District 6.” If other people want to “express themselves in this race I have no control over that,” she said. Notably, independent expenditure committees are barred from coordinating with candidates, but in that bargain they’re allowed to take donations of any size, while candidates are limited to $500 donations.

Though we don’t know the most recent donors to Progress SF, its donors from the last election cycle include the San Francisco Association of Realtors (yearslong opponents of renters rights) who contributed $15,000 in April, $150,000 from Y Combinator investor Paul Graham in May, and $10,000 from a group representing 49ers CEO Jed York also in May.

There’s also a whole rash of donations in the tens of thousands from attorneys, which I can only imagine are from big-moneyed folks trying to hide their donations. So why is this money all so tough to track?

The truth is, the moderates don’t want you to know where the money is coming from — because it’s embarrassing and, frankly, pretty gross.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

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