Money talks

The top 10 political donors in San Francisco

The economy's a mess, and the housing crisis, financial meltdown, and skyrocketing unemployment rates have left a lot of San Franciscans short of cash. But the flow of big downtown money into political campaigns hasn't slowed a bit.

In fact, a tally of all 2008 monetary and in-kind political contributions logged in the SF Ethics Commission Campaign Finance Database shows that even in the face of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, money spent on local political campaigns in the city swelled to a whopping $20.6 million. That grand total, which does not include loans or so-called "soft money" like independent expenditures, is higher than that of any previous year recorded in the Ethics database, which tracks campaign spending back to 1998.

A review of the entire database paints of picture of how influence money flows in San Francisco: Six of the top 10 donors over the past 10 years are big businesses and downtown organizations that promote the same conservative political agenda. The campaign cash often wound up in the same few political pots — a handful of supervisorial campaigns and some coordinated political action committees.

And despite spending ungodly sums of money, downtown lost more races than it won.

More than half the total money spent in 2008 came from one source: Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which plunked down $10.2 million last fall for the No on Proposition H campaign against the San Francisco Clean Energy Act. That November ballot measure, which lost under PG&E's barrage, would have paved the way for public power, initiating a process to make the city the primary provider of electric power in San Francisco with a goal of 50 percent clean-energy generation by 2017.

The powerful utility wasn't only the biggest spender last year — it claims the No. 1 slot on a list of all campaign contributions spanning from 1998 to 2008, which the Guardian compiled using Ethics data. PG&E dropped a juicy $14.7 million into local political campaigns over that period, beating out runner-up Clint Reilly by more than $10 million.

Below are brief introductions to the 10 biggest spenders, 1998-2008.

They've got the power. The colossal sums PG&E has forked over to influence ballot measures over the years puts the utility in a category all its own. SF isn't the only municipality where the company has poured millions into defeating a public power proposal. In 2006, when Yolo County put measures on the ballot to expand the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which would have edged PG&E out of the service area, the utility spent $11.3 million to try and keep it from happening.

Pay to the order of Clint Reilly. Reilly, the former political consultant, now runs a successful real estate company. While his name routinely comes up on the roster of campaign contributors, he owes his status as No. 2 to his 1999 campaign for SF mayor, into which he poured some $3.5 million of his own money. "Most of the money we give is for Democratic candidates or progressive politicians, or neighborhood-oriented issues," said Reilly, who also served as president of the board of Catholic Charities.

Committee on really high-paying jobs? Third in line is the Committee on Jobs, a political action committee that aims to influence local legislation affecting business interests. The PAC is bankrolled in part by the Charles Schwab Corporation, Gap, Inc., and Gap founder Don Fisher — all of whom surface on their own in our Top 30 list. With a grand total just shy of $3 million, the committee coughed up about $100,000 in campaign-related spending in 2008. Much of that funding went to similar political entities, including the SF Coalition for Responsible Growth, the SF Chamber of Commerce 21st Century Committee, and the SF Taxpayers Union PAC (see "Downtown's Slate," 10/15/2008).