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Commentary by Michaela Payne, Bay News Rising staff reporter —
Incumbent Mayor Ed Lee has some competitors in the upcoming Nov. 3 elections, but not much competition.
Lee is running for a second term as San Francisco’s mayor, in addition to 10 months he spent finishing Gavin Newsom’s term before his own successful campaign in 2011.
One opponent is Francisco Herrera, a Mission resident and longtime human rights activist whose candidacy is endorsed by the San Francisco Green Party. His campaign is using the city’s general fund, through the Ethics Commission’s public financing program.
Amy Farah Weiss is running as YIMBY/Weiss, proclaiming her politics as “Yes in My Backyard.” Weiss’ background is in neighborhood activism, like organizing a community garden project in the Divisadero corridor.
And then there’s Stuart Schuffman. Also known as Broke-Ass Stuart, he identifies as a travel writer, TV host, poet and “Motherf**king Hustler.”
New to his list: candidate for San Francisco’s next mayor. To get on the ballot a candidate has to collect more than 11,000 signatures or pay $5,706.
Schuffman just announced the first part of his platform, but started with “No. 2.” Human feces on the streets is the subject of “Broke-Ass Stuart’s Goddamn Website’s” first animated campaign video.
He has more in mind than sullied sidewalks, though. “Homeless epidemic, housing crisis, streets with needles and poop on them,” he said. “Families being shaken out of their homes, 98-year-old ladies being evicted. These things are criminal.”
At first, he planned to write about his campaign in the San Francisco Examiner, to which he contributes a column each Thursday. The city’s ethics board put a stop to this, saying his plan would effectively be an endorsement from the paper. Schuffman was told that his plan was illegal — candidates can only take donations from individuals, not corporations.
None of the challengers has amassed more than a tiny fraction of the campaign bank Lee has. Schuffman to date has collected $870.
YIMBY/Weiss reported $9,006 with an average contribution of $100 per donor. Most were local residents, but some donors sent money from other cities or states.
Francisco Herrera reported a total budget of $8,909 in donations and supplements through the city’s public campaign financing system. The Ethics Commission matches local donations at a rate of two-for-one. $99 cash or $100 check from San Francisco voters becomes $298-$300. $50,000 raised becomes $150,000. Candidates like Herrera can accept donations up to the limit of $500, but the city matches only the first $100.
“I think it’s a good opportunity to be able to compete and create a budget to run your campaign…to develop a bit of a base and build on that,” Herrera said. “When people think of political campaigns they think you have to be a millionaire. But past campaigns like Matt Gonzales or Tom Ammiano’s write-in campaign prove you can do a lot with a shoestring budget.”
Most of Lee’s contributors gave $500, and some don’t even live in San Francisco, listing other Bay Area cities and even a few other states.
Schuffman acknowledges that his campaign will have to be creative with such a low budget. “My backers are not billionaires, my backers are people like you and me who can give five or ten bucks here and there,” Schuffman said.
Lee’s 2011 campaign has enjoyed financing primarily by one wealthy investor, Ron Conway, who has interests in a swath of tech companies based in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Conway donated $600,000 indirectly through independent expenditure committees on Lee’s behalf.
For November’s election, the city’s Ethics Commission reports that Lee’s campaign for a second term collected direct contributions of $1,102,815 from this January through June.
Billionaire couple Ron and Gayle Conway has also invested in tech, education and UCSF’s new medical facilities. Conway helped fund the controversial sit/lie ordinance of 2010, which passed with 54 percent of the vote. Wealth enables them to fund their pet political candidates and favorite local issues into vast advantage over competing candidates and issues, through promotional materials and visibility.
But contributors like the Conways aren’t entirely what drives local politics. The root of such donation disparity is the very structure of campaign financing, allowing huge gaps between candidates’s funding.
The San Francisco Chronicle has called this pattern “pay-to-play politics.”
“The system is totally broken,” Schuffman said. “Over $5,600 to get on the ballot, or 11,000 signatures. A lot of bureaucratic paperwork, and lot of laws around campaign finance — though a lot are put in place for good reason, to try to keep things equitable.”
Laws passed at the national level, like the Senate’s passing of Citizens United in January 2010, allow presidential candidates to receive unrestricted funds from independent expenditure committees.
The catch? Candidates and independent fundraising groups can’t work together. The trick? They’re all working toward the same goal — getting certain candidates elected — so despite working separately, the benefits funnel into the same place. Plus, not collaborating is hard to enforce. It’s comparable to people planning different parts of a birthday celebration. They both end up at the same party, enjoying the results together.
Lee and Conway are often photographed together at parties, grinning.
These same laws effectively trickle down to the local level. Mayoral candidates can benefit hugely from people or groups independently fundraising on their behalf. But only some mayoral candidates encounter this privilege — those who are connected to wealthy donors by supporting the same issues at City Hall.
Throughout his current term, Lee’s political stances tend to side with big business interests in the city: especially the tech industry where Conway made a fortune through investments. Google buses, Airbnb units, and Uber vs. taxis have been some of the issues in which Lee’s stances accommodated the corporations, while many San Francisco residents and other city government representatives raised hell in favor of working-class and middle-income interests.
In the case of Lee, his current campaign will inevitably involve his notoriety and ratings as incumbent mayor. This could benefit or harm his chances at winning the race.
For Broke-Ass Stuart, his existing fame as an entertainer may have similar good and bad effects.
Gaps between low- and high-budget candidates arise when each has something new to say, like letting people know their platform stances or reaching out to new audiences. Name recognition, in a marketing way, requires publishing that name over and over again until the public becomes familiar with it.
For these candidates, that publishing can come in the traditional forms like flyers, posters and buttons, or modern ways like website traffic and Facebook invitations to events. For Schuffman, promotion is through animated videos on his existing website and fundraising parties. Doing all this requires help, so low-budget candidates rely heavily on the generosity of volunteers.
Materials, websites and events cost money. The incumbent mayor’s campaign has greatly, vastly more.
“Mine is an unconventional campaign. I’m not rich, I’m not backed by millionaires (or billionaires), and I want to keep San Francisco what it has always been: a haven for everyone who doesn’t fit in anywhere else,” Schuffman published on his website. “I know…shocking.”
It may seem these differences between candidates can’t be helped. It makes sense that people with common interests support each other. And people like the Conways are allowed to spend their money as they wish.
But the disparities between campaign budgets aren’t just a result of deserves the most popularity. Broke-Ass Stuart and low-budget candidates like him raise most of their money in small increments. In contrast, large contributions like Conway’s toward Lee catapult him to a level of promotional ability that no other candidate can match.
Though each candidate’s merits may still be valued at the voting booths, such loose regulations cause problematic funding gaps between campaigners. While this doesn’t outright determine the elections like straight-up bribery would, it does speak volumes about values. In U.S. elections, and San Francisco no less, money seems to take precedence over merits.
Conway may have angelic intentions for the city’s future, but pouring fortunes into favorite candidates and favorite issues has proven to be just too effective for influencing local politics in his own favor, rather than allowing for a true majority rule. That’s eerily in line with the definition of plutocracy: government by the wealthy, according to Merriam Webster dictionary. The government here is intended to be functioning as a democracy instead.
Herrera laments the non-participation of many eligible voters as a big reason that pricey campaigns maintain the advantage that they do. People make more thoughtful decisions about candidates when they are educated about the issues and interested in getting involved
“130,000 San Franciscans voted in 2011, out of 600,000 residents. 450,000 are registered voters,” Herrera said. “We dig ourselves into a self-imposed tyrannical situation.”