Money rules
Public financing for mayoral candidates tops the list of electoral reforms the Ethics Commission is pursuing

By Matthew Hirsch

With fall elections out of the way, the San Francisco Ethics Commission is moving quickly to tighten campaign finance laws ahead of the five supervisorial races slated for next year's ballot and Mayor Gavin Newsom's reelection campaign in 2007. The most significant change would extend public campaign financing from the Board of Supervisors to other local races, including the one for mayor.

The Ethics Commission will be looking specifically at Sup. Ross Mirkarimi's proposal to give mayoral candidates public financing and set a voluntary limit of about $1.4 million on their campaign spending. That's a fraction of what Newsom spent, $5.2 million, on his mayoral campaign, compared to the $800,000 former supervisor Matt Gonzalez spent running against him.

Ethics is set to vote on Mirkarimi's proposal in December before sending it back to the Board of Supervisors early next year. Other campaign finance changes under consideration include reserving unused public campaign funds for future elections and an attempt to limit the amount of money spent by campaign committees not controlled by candidates, known as independent expenditures.

The way campaign finance works now, any candidate for local office can agree to a voluntary spending limit, but only candidates for supervisor can access public campaign funds if they agree to a cap on spending. The public funding is key because it takes some pressure off candidates to seek out private donations and lets people who can't pull together big piles of cash compete in a pricey run for office.

"If it increases participation and it allows voters more choice in an election, then I think that's a good thing," Emi Gusukuma, chair of the ethics commission, told the Bay Guardian.

The biggest challenge facing public campaign finance, Gusukuma noted, is coming up with the money for a local campaign fund. It cost about $282,000 to help fund 9 candidates for supervisor in 2002 and about $758,000 for another 23 candidates to get public financing last year.

Proponents say if the city can't afford to extend public financing to all local races right away, it should concentrate first on the mayor's race.

"I think you have to look at which races are most important, and that's clearly the mayor's race," election reform activist Steven Hill, an author of Mirkarimi's public financing measure, told us. Campaigns for mayor are also typically the most costly, Hill noted.

Public financing for the mayor's race is estimated to cost $1.5 million per year. Overall, candidates could then receive up to $850,000 from the city, while raising no more than $525,000 on their own. Participating candidates would also be required to take part in at least three preelection debates.

Since public financing for supervisorial elections was approved by voters in 2000, about one third of the candidates have accepted public funds. Each candidate has gotten a little more than $30,000 on average.

Veteran campaign consultant Jim Stearns said progressive candidates don't need to match their opponents dollar for dollar; they just need enough to be competitive. In Sup. Jake McGoldrick's reelection campaign, which McGoldrick won despite having been heavily outspent, Stearns said public financing "made all the difference in the world."

But Eric Jaye, a political consultant who's gone up against Stearns several times – including in the recent assessor's race – told us he's concerned this effort is at least somewhat politically motivated. Jaye said he doesn't question Mirkarimi's motivation, and he agrees with the desire to reduce the cost of campaigns. But there's "a history of changing the rules of elections to gain a particular advantage," said Jaye, who ran Newsom's mayoral campaign.

Newsom raised the same issue when asked about spending limits in the mayor's race. "I imagine it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with good government," he quipped on election night, adding, "Hey, if you don't like the rules, change them."

Mirkarimi insisted his proposal has nothing to do with Newsom. But at the same time, he questioned why Newsom isn't already supporting public financing. "I would expect the mayor to be completely on board with this," Mirkarimi told us. "This is completely consistent with good government reform."