Money has become such an issue in San Francisco supervisor races that even the benefactors of deep-pocketed interests have tried to distance themselves from it.
Spending in support of two candidates in the District 1 and District 11 races has exceeded $1 million each heading into Election Day as tech and real estate interests are flooding money into the contests, according to the San Francisco Ethics Commission.
On Monday, the Ethics Commission reported that $1.06 million was spent against Richmond District supervisor candidate Sandra Lee Fewer in a nail-biter contest against her apparent fellow frontrunner Marjan Philhour.
“People are shocked about the money,” said Fewer, a school board member and a progressive frontrunner in the District 1 race. “It’s not just my campaign saying it. The general public is.”
Despite being the beneficiary, Philhour called the big money a distraction from the real issues facing the Richmond District and said that “our elected leaders should prioritize campaign finance reform.”
“It seems that everybody is playing by the rules, but those rules need to be looked at again,” Philhour said.
Philhour has received $336,000 in campaign contributions, which are capped at $500 per donor, as of Monday. She has also benefited from more than $700,000 in third-party spending, which has no limits, according to the Ethics Commission.
“Maybe in the future our campaigns won’t be so much like this,” she added, although it is unclear what legally could be done to curb the spending based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2010 that removed limits on third-party spending.
The total spending against Philhour has reached $450,000 in the contest, according to the Ethics Commission. Fewer’s campaign has received about $360,000 in contributions and some $74,000 in third-party spending benefiting her.
The amount of spending in the board contests is record-breaking.
In response, progressive allies like teachers and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment handed out signs this past weekend reading “Our City is Not For Sale,” as they argued the burgeoning amounts of tech and real estate money are resulting in policies not in line with the majority of what residents want.
The rally was emblematic of the political divide that has occurred in San Francisco since the rise of the tech boom in which Mayor Ed Lee helped usher in pro-tech policies.
In 2012, the District 1 race broke records when $970,000 was spent against then-incumbent Eric Mar by moderate challenger David Lee and spending from third-party groups, which funded negative political ads such as “Send Mar back to Mars.”
Lee has since become critical of third-party spending as he campaigns for the same District 1 seat this year, decrying the influence it has on politicians.
Meanwhile, in District 11, $1.05 million has been spent against progressive frontrunner Kimberly Alvarenga as of Monday. The spending is attributed to spending by her moderate challenger Ahsha Safai and third-party spending benefiting Safai in excess of $700,000.
But Alvarenga is not letting the money get her down.
“I feel in the bottom of my heart that money doesn’t buy elections all the time,” Alvarenga said. “Corporate interests have tried to buy elections in San Francisco for a while now.”
They tried in 2012 with Mar, she said, and again in November 2015 when Supervisor Aaron Peskin defeated his opponent, mayoral appointee and tech-backed Julie Christensen.
“Now they are trying here in District 11,” Alvarenga said. Her opponent, Safai, did not respond to a request for comment.
Andy Thornley is another District 1 candidate facing down the more than $1 million benefiting Philhour. There are 10 candidates in this race.
“That much money does depress me as a citizen,” Thornley said. “How does the next Andy, the next generation … how does he or she have a chance against a million or so dollars?”
On Monday afternoon, Thornley was hitting the neighborhood streets hanging up door hangers. He said there is so much campaign literature that he finds he’s “wedging” his pieces in between mailers.
“The ‘lit’ is ankle deep in the doorways,” Thornley said.