Corporate lobbyists and big money dominate San Francisco politics today more than ever before. An army of hundreds of registered lobbyists for Airbnb, PG&E, Chevron and other big corporations and luxury developers roam the corridors of City Hall every day to secure sweetheart contracts, expedite building permits, get legal waivers and all sorts of other financial favors for their clients. San Francisco taxpayers and citizens pay the price.
Lobbyists are able to speak louder at City Hall than everyday San Franciscans because they have access to the most powerful megaphone of all: money. While other places years ago acted to prohibit lobbyists from giving campaign donations and unlimited gifts to the politicians they are lobbying for favors, these loopholes remain wide open in San Francisco. As a result, lobbyists either arranged or directly donated more than $395,000 in campaign contributions to candidates for San Francisco offices over the last year, including nearly $100,000 to candidates for supervisor and other offices in the current election.
In addition to the mountains of campaign cash, lobbyists regularly hand thousands more to City Hall politicians in the form of plane tickets, luxury hotel rooms and other gifts through the gaping “travel gifts loophole” that has allowed such gifts to continue flowing without limit. For example, despite San Francisco law generally limiting gifts from lobbyists to public officials to $25, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce — one of the most powerful lobbying groups in town — gave Board of Supervisors President London Breed $2,300 in gifts of plane tickets and travel costs to fly to New York City last summer.
Do you think lobbyists and their corporate clients are doling out that much cash out of the goodness of their hearts — or might they expect something in return?
Now for some good news: This November, San Francisco voters will finally have the chance to begin evicting the lobbyists from City Hall. Following a year of organizing and hard work by a good government reform coalition led by Friends of Ethics, Represent.Us, and Common Cause, the San Francisco Ethics Commission voted to place Proposition T on the November ballot. As the Ethics Commission wrote in the Voter Information Pamphlet, “Proposition T was placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the San Francisco Ethics Commission to eliminate any possible link between lobbyist campaign contributions and gifts and agency decisions which the lobbyist seeks to influence.” Prop. T prohibits lobbyists from giving or bundling campaign contributions to the city officials they are registered to lobby, bringing San Francisco into line with other jurisdictions. Prop. T also closes the travel gifts loophole for lobbyists by banning gifts from lobbyists to any city official, period.
Some might say cutting off the direct flow of cash from lobbyists to politicians is just one small step towards cleaning up San Francisco politics. They would be right. Many other big problems remain to be solved, such as ending political slush funds, passing strict pay-to-play rules and dramatically increasing the enforcement of the ethics laws on the books. But by passing Prop. T this November, voters can take one giant step toward reclaiming local politics from the big money forces that have dominated it for far too long.
Whatever the results of the many other important issues on the ballot, starting to clean house at City Hall will be one election night victory every San Franciscan can celebrate.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.