SF politico who authored vape ban takes money from JUUL lobbyist, returns it after media call

Supervisor Shamann Walton made national news after he proverbially smoked e-cigarette company JUUL, passing a vape ban in San Francisco under the auspices of protecting children.

But JUUL’s closest allies also lined Walton’s pockets the month after JUUL’s own measure to repeal that vape ban was defeated, public records reveal.

On this last New Year’s Eve, JUUL’s lobbyists in San Francisco, New Deal Advisers, contributed $5,000 to Walton’s campaign for the San Francisco Democratic Party board, a little-known elected body that exists in counties across the country to help the Democratic Party mobilize voters and set party-wide policies.

This is after City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Walton’s erstwhile ally in authoring the vape ban, said lobbyists and consultants working for JUUL took “blood money” by working for the company, as it has been accused of explicitly targeting children with its advertising.

Walton did give that money back, I should note, but only after this columnist called him to ask if he felt it was right to accept it in the first place.

The donation also arguably circumvents a 2016 ballot measure that bans elected officials from taking funding from entities that lobby them. But the Ethics Commission told me they have no jurisdiction to limit contributions to the Democratic Party, which is a state entity. So taking money for that election from a lobbyist is effectively taking advantage of a loophole.

At first, Walton argued that he had no problem accepting money from New Deal Advisers, JUUL’s main lobbyist.

“I am anti-JUUL,” he told me last Friday night. But, “there are several people we work with where we’re not always on the same page on all issues.”

That would be Chris Gruwell, CEO of New Deal Advisers, that Walton was referring to. Gruwell also represents the Teamsters Union, and Walton noted, “we are both very pro-labor.”

About three hours later, Walton sent me a text message saying he would give Gruwell the money back, adding it’s the “right thing to do.”

On the issue of whether it is right or wrong to accept money from lobbyists for JUUL, perhaps one little-known tidbit is that many lobbyists in San Francisco actually turned down a chance to represent JUUL, citing Walton’s same reasons for crafting the vape ban in the first place: The federal government has identified an “epidemic” of vaping among teenagers that far out-strips traditional cigarette usage.

They showed some damn moral backbone.

I’ve spoken to children younger than 13 at my own alma mater — Marina Middle School, on Chestnut Street — who saw their friends succumb to vaping addictions. This is real.

The donation certainly upset Beatrice Cardenas-Duncan, a co-chair of Shape Up SF, a collaborative that aims to reduce chronic disease in San Francisco. A long-time rabble-rouser in San Francisco, she also is a proud grandmother and great-grandmother and said she opposed vaping to protect the young teenagers in her family.

Also, as a mixed-ethnicity Mexican and black woman, her communities are particularly targeted by JUUL, she said.

Walton “shouldn’t have taken it from the get-go, period,” Cardenas-Duncan said of the campaign donation, even if it was later returned. “I work on labor issues as well, but this is more important to me. You and I can have differences of opinion, but when we are really committed to fighting JUUL in communities of color, this is a very close issue for us.”

(It’s also here I’ll note that Dominic Fracassa from the San Francisco Chronicle has, rightly, been digging on this for a week on Twitter. The filings were out for weeks before that, too.)

The donations also skirt around a local San Francisco Democratic Party policy enacted in 2016 to not accept donations over $500. State law governs Democratic Party board donations, which are effectively unlimited. San Francisco politicians in local races could not accept donations topping $500.

While non-binding, most city Democrats are adhering to the Democratic Party campaign contribution limit voluntarily.

But not all. In addition to Walton, Supervisor Hillary Ronen, former supervisor (and current Bernie Sanders campaign coordinator in California) Jane Kim, and Abra Castle are all candidates running for the Democratic Party who took in donations that busted that $500 amount.

Kim did not return a request for comment, and Ronen said she would not return the money, which constituted a $1,000 donation from attorney Scott Handleman.

Walton was by far the largest beneficiary of oversized donations, however, with contributions totaling $3,000 from Outer Sunset Holdings, Inc., and $3,000 from BCSF, Inc., the nonprofit owner of Barbary Coast cannabis, who counts political consultant David Ho as one of its co-owners.

Ho, it should be noted, also was a major campaign consultant for JUUL’s ballot measure to overturn Walton’s vape ban.

Todd David, who is the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, but was speaking as an individual who managed the campaign for San Francisco’s soda tax in 2014, told me sarcastically, “I’m shocked” by the flagrant disregard to the Democratic Party’s stated principles.

“I’m not the least bit surprised. Are we shocked that the progressives are hypocrites? I’m not,” he said.

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

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Supervisor Shamann Walton speaks during a news conference about a proposed vaping ban before a hearing on the proposal at City Hall on Friday, June 7, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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