The billionaire's mayor - Page 2

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


Collectively, the camp that's gone to bat for Lee envisions a San Francisco that bears little resemblance to the future progressives have in mind. Where the left advocates more equitable taxation, halting luxury housing construction in favor of affordable residential projects, and creating a municipal bank to free up lending for small business, the mayor's moderate supporters emphasize propelling forward market-rate development, catering to tech and biotech firms with targeted tax breaks, giving streets a clean and sanitized feel to satisfy tourists, and encouraging more homeownership and less rental housing on the whole.

The rub is that in an evermore expensive city, certain populations — middle-class families, communities of color blunted by unemployment or foreclosure, and creative youth who are cash-poor but dreaming big, for instance — become vulnerable to being priced out. San Francisco is at a crossroads, and the direction it takes will be determined by this race.



On the day Lee was inaugurated as mayor, he told a room full of supporters gathered in City Hall's rotunda, "I was a progressive before progressive was a political faction in this town." On the campaign trail, Lee's cited his past work as an attorney for the Asian Law Caucus, describing how he fought to protect tenants and to promote equal opportunity in the San Francisco Fire Department. But that was decades ago — and these days, some heavyweights in Lee's corner are downright hostile to progressives.

And while Lee does have some progressive support, the bulk of the money behind his campaign comes from people who are on the other side of the political fence — and they clearly think he's going to listen to them.

Last fall, Conway — the billionaire angel investor who started an IE on Lee's behalf — told an audience at a business conference that it was time to "take San Francisco back" from progressives. At the time, a polarizing debate was raging over a proposed ordinance that would ban sitting or lying down on city sidewalks, with progressives condemning it as an inhumane anti-homeless measure and advocates trumpeting it as a tool for restoring "civility" to sidewalks. Conway loaned $20,000 to the campaign supporting the law, and the moderates claimed victory.

To improve Lee's chances of winning, Conway has tapped powerful Sacramento consultants to oversee television spots, polling, and other campaign efforts. The campaign's law firm, Nielson Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP, teamed up with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) last year to advance a stunningly expensive yet failed ballot initiative designed to crush municipal electricity programs posing a threat to PG&E's monopoly in Northern California.

Lee drew the ire of a mayoral opponent, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, for remarking that PG&E was "a company that gets it" during a media event; his ill-timed comment came on the heels of a scathing federal report detailing the utility's culpability for the tragic Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion.

Another consultant hired by Conway, Aaron McLear of The Ginsberg McLear Group, got his chops on Republican campaign trails, serving as communications director for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio, and later acting as press secretary to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reached by phone, McLear tried to play down the fact that he was a Republican operative hired by a Republican billionaire to try and influence San Francisco voters to elect Lee. "Yes, I am a registered Republican, but everything we're spending our money on is Democratic — we're trying to elect a Democrat in a Democrat town," he explained, noting that he was also working with Democratic consultant Brian Brokaw.

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