The billionaire's mayor

Mayor Ed Lee calls himself a progressive — but rich, powerful conservatives are funding his campaign


Billionaire Sean Parker, the former Facebook president who was portrayed by Justin Timberlake in the film The Social Network, threw a huge bash in late September for Spotify, the digital music platform he's invested in. The event was held at a Potrero Hill warehouse covered from top to bottom in graffiti to stand out for the occasion, its interior draped with massive, elegant curtains and adorned with chandeliers. The San Francisco Business Times called it "extraordinarily opulent," with top-shelf booze, pigs roasting on spits, piles of lobster and fresh sushi, and a crowd peppered with celebrities, tech professionals, and venture investors. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown made an appearance at the lavish event, donning a tux.

Parker and Brown have something in common: They're both supporting Mayor Ed Lee's bid for a full term in office. While campaign finance law prohibits donors from contributing more than $500 to a candidate running for office in San Francisco, the young tech investor donated $100,000 to an independent expenditure (IE) committee that's legally separate from his official campaign, called San Franciscans for Jobs and Good Government. Brown, meanwhile, has hosted fundraisers for the mayor and regularly advocates for Lee in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Parker is just one of several billionaires stepping up to support Lee's mayoral bid. While every mayoral candidate has to raise money, generous support for the interim mayor from the region's wealthiest figures has raised eyebrows, suggesting that the wealthy and powerful trust him to carry forward an agenda that benefits their interests. Businesspeople with financial stakes in city contracts, real-estate professionals involved in major development projects, and investors in San Francisco companies who stand to benefit from specialized tax breaks can all be found in the mix of Lee's donor base. Meanwhile, many of the backers who urged Lee to run before he became an official candidate have deep ties to Brown — and several are remembered for coming under the watchful eye of federal investigators when they served as city officials under his administration.

The IE Parker donated $100,000 to was launched by Ron Conway, a prominent tech investor and registered Republican whose net worth also stretches into the billions. Conway, who's dubbed "The Godfather of Silicon Valley" in a book documenting his meteoric rise, had sunk $151,000 into the committee as of Sept. 24.

Marc Benioff, billionaire CEO of, dropped another $50,000 into the hat. William H. Draper III, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who was appointed by Ronald Reagan to preside over the Export-Import Bank of the United States in the 1980s, also pitched in $1,000.

Lee is the city's first Chinese-American mayor, appointed unanimously by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in January 2011 after his predecessor, Mayor Gavin Newsom, ascended to the Lieutenant Governor post in Sacramento. In the months following his inauguration — when he was still presumed to be a caretaker mayor who would serve only until the end of Newsom's term — Lee earned praise from his City Hall colleagues for his inclusive style of governance, affable demeanor, and keen understanding of the nuts and bolts of city government stemming from his years of service as City Administrator. He won approval for crafting a city budget by incorporating input from multiple stakeholders, in sharp contrast with Newsom's tendency to shut out critics.

Lee gave assurances to colleagues and newspaper editors that he wouldn't run, but changed his mind in early August. Once he threw his hat into the ring, the honeymoon ended — and cash from venture capitalists, tech companies, global engineering firms, and high-end real estate outfits began pouring in.

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