District 6 sleaze

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EDITORIAL The fall campaign season has only begun, and already the District 6 race is getting really ugly. A downtown-funded operation, hiding behind anonymous mailers and front groups, is spending gobs of money to smear Sup. Chris Daly, and thanks to the city's campaign-spending laws, Daly's ability to fight back is limited. The whole mess points to a real problem in the way so-called independent-expenditure committees are regulated, and the supervisors and the Ethics Commission should take up the issue immediately.
Daly, who's represented the district for almost six years, has offended a lot of people — including some of the city's richest and most powerful interest groups. They tried to unseat him four years ago with no success, but this time around they have more money and a slimy, secretive strategy that appears to expose a loophole in local law.
The first salvo landed a few weeks ago: a slick, 22-page mailer called "The Case Against Chris Daly" that attacks him on almost every front. The hit piece is unsigned, so the people who received it have no way of knowing exactly who's behind the message. And there's no requirement that the sponsors register with the city's Ethics Commission and reveal their source of financing.
It's pretty clear, though, who produced and paid for the piece. The money is going through a group called Citizens for Reform Leadership #1, which was set up by downtown elections lawyer Jim Sutton, organized by SFSOS, and funded in large part by Republican kingmaker and the Gap founder Don Fisher. (Sutton has also established Citizens for Reform Leadership committees two through six, indicating that there's more of this to come.)
The way San Francisco's campaign-spending limits work, no candidate for supervisor can spend more than $83,000 — unless one of the other candidates breaks that cap. Then all rules are off. But that cap doesn't apply to whoever put out the 22-page hit piece — in part because we don't even know legally who it was. That means the SFSOS-Fisher crew can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars hammering away at Daly — and he can't spend more than $83,000 fighting back.
The candidate who benefits most from this sewer money is Rob Black, a former aide to Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier who has the backing of Mayor Gavin Newsom and is by any account Daly's most serious challenger. Black told us he has no direct connection to the hit squad — but he stopped short of promising not to engage in negative campaigning himself. And he's certainly not going around town denouncing the anti-Daly sleaze.
That should change now. If Black wants to be seen as anything other than a pawn of Fisher, he should put out a formal statement calling on SFSOS and its allies to back off, quit the anonymous name-calling, and either come clean or stay out of District 6. So should every other candidate in the race. (The hotly contested District 5 battle two years ago was remarkably clean, in part because all of the candidates agreed not to accept this sort of nonsense.)
The Ethics Commission should launch a full investigation of this anonymous campaigning with the aim of exposing the forces behind it — and if the city's current law doesn't allow a ban on secret hit pieces, the supervisors should amend it today. Meanwhile, the commission ought to lift the expenditure limit for District 6; it's not optimal, but in this case it's only fair. SFBG