“At this very minute, lobbyists and lawyers are lining up by the thousands to push for new laws — laws that will help their rich and powerful clients get richer and more powerful.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren said this as the last Congress began, but she could have just as easily been talking about San Francisco City Hall. As the Board of Supervisors begins its fall legislative session this month, an army of registered lobbyists and lobbying firms are once again on the march from room to room to push the agendas of their corporate clients: Luxury condo developers, oil companies and 500 other corporations and wealthy special interests who seek — and usually receive — lucrative government contracts, juicy tax breaks and special exemptions from zoning and other laws from our city officials.
How many lobbyists are in those rooms to balance the scales on behalf of the senior citizen about to be evicted from her longtime home by a speculator, or the working family who needs affordable housing now, not another luxury condo tower only the elite can afford? How many lobbyists are on your payroll?
Lobbying may have its place, but the unchecked influence of massive amounts of money on public policy is inevitably corrosive, ultimately resulting in bad choices. Look no further than our waterfront for the Exhibit A of poor City Hall decisions: The 8 Washington luxury condo debacle.
After the 8 Washington developer paid well-connected lobbyists tens of thousands of dollars to pave the way, the Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors and mayor acted to raise waterfront height limits for a luxury condo tower on public land on The Embarcadero. But when 8 Washington was put to a vote of the constituents those officials are supposed to represent — we, the people — it was overwhelmingly rejected by two-thirds of voters from every corner of The City. Lobbyists may run the show at City Hall, but they have no sway on the streets of San Francisco.
However, lest we think City Hall learned anything from 8 Washington, take a look at what happened earlier this month with the proposed 75 Howard luxury condo tower along The Embarcadero. Yet another luxury condo developer, after paying lobbyists tens of thousands of dollars to schmooze privately with city officials, succeeded in persuading the Planning Commission to waive the existing height limit and zoning rules to let them build a 240-foot-high, Bay-blocking luxury condo tower — 100 feet taller than 8 Washington would have been — with zero on-site affordable housing.
When is enough, enough? While we may not be able to stop corporate money from buying influence in Congress or City Hall anytime soon, what the citizens of San Francisco can do is take the initiative to close the most egregious loopholes that allow lobbyists to maximize their influence by giving gifts and campaign contribution checks directly to the very city officials they lobby for favors.
According to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, lobbyists representing the Association of Realtors, luxury developers and other corporate clients have given or arranged more than $200,000 in contributions to the campaigns of Mayor Ed Lee and appointed District 3 Supervisor Julie Christensen, both of whom are seeking election in November.
Good government reform groups have called for closing the lobbyist gift and contribution loopholes for years. The State of California prohibits campaign contributions from state lobbyists and lobbying firms to state officials. Los Angeles does so on the local level. Why shouldn’t San Francisco close these lobbyist loopholes, too? The people seem ready. A poll of 569 San Francisco voters this spring by the firm Public Policy Polling found that 79 percent of voters would support a ballot measure to prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts or giving or arranging campaign contributions to city-elected officials, with only 12 percent opposed.
It’s time to let the voters decide. That’s why I’m volunteering to lead a drive to put a Lobbyist Loophole Initiative before San Francisco voters next year that would let the people evict the luxury condo lobbyists for a change. By restricting gifts and campaign contributions from lobbyists to the city officials they lobby, we can begin to push the influence of lobbyists out of “The People’s House” — San Francisco City Hall. If enough people support the effort, we will be able to collect the petition signatures necessary to put the Lobbyist Loophole Initiative before voters on the June 7, 2016 ballot. Visit the website, www.EvictTheLobbyists.com, to get more information or to join the fight.
As Sen. Warren wrote in her inspiring book, “A Fighting Chance”: “When you have no real power, go public — really public. The public is where the real power is.”
Yes, it is.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach. He managed the successful campaign to stop the 8 Washington project in 2013 and the 2014 passage of Prop. B, which requires any developer seeking to expand height limits along the waterfront to seek voter approval.