- This Week
Tech mogul Ron Conway is trying to buy San Francisco politics and sell his pro-business agenda
Ron Conway has spent more in the last two elections than any other San Franciscan.
It was Twitter's threat to leave San Francisco in early 2011, which newly appointed Mayor Lee countered with a multi-million-dollar exemption from the city's payroll tax — followed by a repeal of the city's tax on stock options — that first attracted Conway and his wealth to city politics as Lee's biggest benefactor.
Conway formed the independent expenditure group San Franciscans for Jobs and Good Government to back Lee and undermine his challengers, seeding it with $100,000 and urging fellow tech titans including Benioff and Sean Parker, founder of Napster and an early Facebook backer, to do the same (see "The billionaire's mayor," 10/18/11).
Beyond just money, Conway tapped his connections to back Lee, filling a re-mix video of MC Hammer's "2Legit2Quit" promoting Lee with members of his Rontourage, including local sports stars Ronnie Lott and Brian Wilson, former Mayor Willie Brown, Twitter CEO Biz Stone, and Google exec Marissa Mayer — all performing their parts on the roof of Conway's Pacific Heights home during a party he threw for them.
Emboldened by Lee's decisive victory and the mayor's apparently willingness to move Conway's agenda of propping up tech companies, Conway upped the ante this year.
RAISING THE STAKES
After successfully pushing last year's measure exempting Twitter and other mid-Market businesses from paying taxes on new hires, Conway this year supported broadening out those tax cuts through an overhaul of the business tax that voters approved as Prop. E this year.
The measure initially pitted Conway and the technology companies against more traditional businesses, at least in terms of which companies would see tax hikes and which would get the cuts. With large payrolls and low revenue streams until they take off, tech companies stood to gain the most from the measure.
Some technology companies could see their business taxes decrease by 25 percent, while large real estate firms could see theirs increase by a similar amount. The San Francisco Controller's Office estimated "information" companies saw their share of city tax revenues drop from 8 percent to 6 percent under the change, while "Finance, Insurance, Real Estate" rose from 23 percent to 28 percent.
In October, Reuters reporter Gerry Shih reported on an heated exchange during a closed-door meeting at City Hall in April, where Conway reportedly cut off SF Chamber of Commerce leaders, telling them they "need to get on board" with backing the tax overhaul because "the tech industry is producing all the jobs in this city."
That may not be entirely true, but Conway and his tech allies are certainly acting as if they are indispensable to both the business community and the city's political landscape. The next month, on May 11, Conway donated $49,000 to the newly formed Mayor Ed Lee for San Francisco Committee.
And that was just the beginning of spendy year for Conway, from the $275,000 he spent to help pass Prop. E to the $69,000 that he and his wife Gayle contributed to San Francisco Women For Accountability to go after Olague for defying Lee by supporting efforts to have Prop. E bring in some extra revenue, creating CleanPowerSF, and the reinstating Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.
Now, Conway has pledged to fund the campaign to recall Mirkarimi, continuing his efforts to support Lee and undermine progressives into the new year.
Whether the Conway-funded attack on Olague was about power, payback, domestic violence, or something else is difficult to say for sure. But his formation earlier this year of San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation (sf.citi) made clear his politics and agenda in a strange video it made.