Paying for pols to play: 'Zombie candidates' created due to public financing

Phil Ting received $279,668 in taxpayer-funded financing for his mayoral candidacy, but as of Wednesday he only received 806 votes. That’s $347 per vote spent by San Francisco taxpayers to subsidize his failed campaign.

Click on the photo at right to see mayoral candidates who received funding, but few votes.

After the first mayoral race in which public financing was allocated, nine candidates were granted a total of $4.6 million in matching public funds. That’s $29.25 per ballot cast in the election, as of the latest tally Wednesday.

While public financing was intended to level the playing field between the have and the have-not candidates, it also has had the unintended consequence of keeping candidates in a race they had no chance of winning.

Ting had the fewest first-choice votes of the nine mayoral candidates who received public matching funds. The next-lowest vote-getter of the nine was venture capitalist Joanna Rees. She took in $491,405, and as of Wednesday had received 2,519 first-choice votes, or $195 per vote.

“I think that definitely shows that the public-financing system is broken,” said Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. “There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.” He added that a candidate receiving public funds should “have to prove you continue to have viability throughout the campaign.”

After the first test of public financing for the mayoral race, political analyst David Latterman said taxpayers “will have to decide if they got what they paid for. A lot of money got spent for not that many votes.”

Under the program, a candidate qualifies by raising $25,000 in $100 contributions from at least 250 residents of The City. The candidate can then receive up to $900,000 in matching funds and agrees to spend no more than $1.475 million. None of the nine candidates reached the maximum amount in this year’s mayoral race.

 If a candidate drops out of the race, they are required to pay back The City.

The weight of having to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars when a candidate realizes there is little chance of a successful win creates “zombie candidate” syndrome, according to political analysts. Candidates simply must carry on some sort of campaign or be locked into paying back money they already spent on early campaigning.

“We might be better served as a city if we didn’t have a number of candidates with a financial dagger hanging over their heads,” said lobbyist Alex Clemens, who suggested possibly distributing public dollars to candidates later in the campaign season.

Elsbernd suggested reforms that “significantly increase the qualification threshold” and decrease the four-to-one public money match for the first $100,000 raised by a candidate.

Ting said his campaign was beneficial to the race, and pointed to his website, Reset San Francisco, which, he said, is heavily trafficked and increased engagement and discussions of important issues.

“Would I have liked to have more votes? Absolutely,” Ting said. But, he said, public financing was not about how many votes you can receive. “I don’t think you can put a price on democracy,” Ting said. “[Public financing] is there to enhance democracy, enhance voices, increase the number of people who are part of the process.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

Bay Area NewsGovernment & PoliticsLocalPoliticsSF Mayoral Race

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