Ethics chief says "Run, Ed, Run" must register honestly

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As the pseudo-campaign to convince Mayor Ed Lee to change his mind and run for mayor prepares to open a campaign office tomorrow morning – an event with all the trappings of a real campaign but without the candidate or the regulatory controls – the Ethics Commission is asking it to re-register in a less deceptive way.

As the Examiner reported this morning, Progress for All, the group behind the Run, Ed, Run campaign – which has set up a website, bought advertising, and printed and circulated campaign materials around the sole purpose of promoting a mayoral campaign – registered as a political action committee (one not subject to campaign contribution limits or other controls) even though Ethics Director John St. Croix said it is clearly formed around a primary purpose.

Today, St. Croix tells the Guardian that he has asked Progress for All to re-register as a committee formed around the specific purpose of promoting Lee for mayor, but that “I don't know that they responded completely in the affirmative.” Guardian calls to the group's main contract Gordon Chin, who also runs the Chinatown Community Development Center, were not returned.

Despite statements to the Examiner by Progress for All campaign consultant Enrique Pearce that this campaign isn't unprecedented (he cited the 1999 mayoral write-in campaign of Tom Ammiano, who was a willing participant in the effort and formed a campaign committee), St. Croix said it is unprecedented and his office is figuring out how to regulate it.

“There aren't regulations specifically designed for a scenario like his,” he told us. “They can't operate in the absence of regulations.”

Right now, while Progress for All lists five co-chairs of the committee, the public has no way of knowing who's funding the group, how much individual donors have given, or how much is being spent to make the campaign appear to have popular support. That will become more clear at the end of July when the semi-annual campaign finance reports are due, and St. Croix said his office plans to “carefully examine” those filings in order to decide how to proceed.

The group's current filings list its purpose as “general civic education and public affairs,” but St. Croix said the public has a right to know that it has actually formed around a single candidate. While the courts have struck down fundraising limits for committees like this, the group's website seems to limit contributions to the maximum individual contribution of $500, apparently acknowledging that there are potential legal problems with its current approach.

Lee has repeatedly said that he doesn't want to run for mayor and has not encouraged this effort, but he has done little to discourage the efforts by a group led by his closest political allies, so he could be sullied by group's tactics if he eventually decides to run. St. Croix says that if Lee runs and his campaign has any overlap with the current efforts, it will raised troubling issues of whether there has been any collusion between the two campaigns, which is illegal.

Despite the concerns expressed by Ethics, the agency doesn't have a great track record of being tough with powerful campaign finance violators, as a Grand Jury report released this week argues. For example, although the Guardian and Bay Citizen each reported back in October about an independent expenditure (partially funded by Willie Brown) on behalf of Jane Kim's supervisorial campaign that was done through Pearce's Left Coast Communications, which was Kim's campaign consultant, that apparently illegal action was never followed up by the Ethics Commission. St. Croix has said he can't comment on that incident, and he responded to the grand jury report by noting that its recommendations were mild even though "the report itself uses some fighting words," and he said he was preparing a formal response.

Although some activists have argued that those expressing concerns about this stealth campaign are somehow being undemocratic, the reality is that Progress for All is the only mayoral campaign not playing by the rules. And there are rules that govern elections, rules set up precisely so the public knows who's really behind the campaign propaganda.

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