Backroom brokers

Behind the carefully orchestrated downtown campaign to take over City Hall

It's not the invisible hand of Adam Smith tossing hate mail on your doorstep this fall like ugly confetti. It isn't a distinct and independent group of candidates and civic organizations that just happen to be saying the same things, either. There is a carefully orchestrated campaign going on to undermine the progressive agenda, block affordable housing and clean energy, and give Mayor Gavin Newsom a majority on the Board of Supervisors.

It's well funded; it's serious; it's based on lies — and it's a threat to rent control, sustainable environmental policies, universal health care, the city's living wage law, and the rest of the accomplishments and goals of the progressive majority on the board.

If that sounds overblown, listen to what the organizers of this campaign are saying themselves.

On Aug. 15, after progressives took control of the Democratic County Central Committee and installed Sup. Aaron Peskin as chair, John Keogan, the head of a year-old organization called the San Francisco Coalition for Responsible Growth, a pro-downtown group founded to counter the progressive movement, announced his intentions in a letter to allies.

"CRG are [sic] preparing for an all-out attack with other like-minded groups and now is our time to stand-up [sic] and be counted," Keogan wrote. He asked members to support "taking SF on a sharp turn to the right."

Those "other like-minded groups," according to campaign finance reports, are a Who's Who list of downtown-based organizations that have consistently fought to roll back tenant protections and slash government spending on social services: the Building Owners and Managers Association, the Committee on Jobs, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the Association of Realtors, the Chamber of Commerce, Plan C, and the Police Officers Association.

By law, political candidates can only raise and spend limited amounts of money. But organizations like BOMA, the Realtors, and Plan C can put as much cash as they want into supporting and opposing candidates — as long as the efforts are "independent."

But the orchestration of the attacks on supervisorial candidates Eric Mar, John Avalos, and David Chiu, and the support for their conservative rivals, Sue Lee, Ahsha Safai, and Joe Alioto, is so sophisticated it's impossible to believe that these groups and candidates aren't working together.

Between Sept. 9 and Oct. 20, public records show, the groups spent a combined $363,754 ($178,177 in District 1, $104,308 in D3, and $81,269 in D11) on independent expenditures attacking Avalos, Mar, and Chiu and supporting their opponents. They also spent $20,000 supporting Eva Royale in her long shot race for the solidly progressive District 9 seat.

The landlords and downtown aren't the only ones organizing. All that spending, and the threat of even more to come considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars these downtown groups still have in the bank, has served to unite tenant and labor groups in ways unseen in previous San Francisco elections.

"There's an unprecedented coalition between tenants and labor," labor activist Robert Haaland told us. "We're working together to defeat the landlord candidates, who are also anti-labor."

"We have a tremendous fear that the spending and progress on health care and social services will be rolled back," Tim Paulson, president of the San Francisco Labor Council, told us.