San Francisco’s $500 campaign contribution limit makes it tough for rich individuals and corporations to curry favor with local politicians, right? Well, not really. Actually, politicians can still tap wealthy interests for tens of thousands of dollars for their special events and pet projects, as long as they fill out a form called “Payments Made at the Behest of an Elected Officer” within 30 days.
Traditionally, those forms have been buried in the files of the Ethics Commission, but the agency recently put them online , a rare bit of user-friendly sunshine from this often-toothless watchdog body. A Guardian review of the forms shows it is almost exclusively the city’s most fiscally conservative elected officials who use this tactic, tapping a relatively small pool of downtown power brokers.
When Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier wanted to support a Bizworld Foundation event in December, she had Pacific Gas & Electric donate $5,000 on her behalf. Sup. Sean Elsbernd throws a big annual crab-feed fundraiser in February, with proceeds going to the Laguna Honda Foundation. The form for this year’s event isn’t in yet, but last year he got $5,000 each from all the top anti-progressive funders: Don Fisher, Dede Wilsey, Charles Schwab, Warren Hellman, Platinum Advisors, and the San Francisco Association of Realtors.
But far and away the biggest beneficiary of these kinds of corporate donations is Mayor Gavin Newsom, who submitted more than half the forms on file. For last year’s Sunday Streets events, he tapped the Hellman family for $30,000, Blue Shield for $10,000, his favorite developer Lennar for $10,000, and Lennar subcontractor CH2M Hill for $5,000. The year before, the top Sunday Streets donors (at $20,000 each) were California Pacific Medical Center (which is seeking city approval to build two new hospitals) and Catholic Healthcare West.
For his swearing-in events in 2008, Newsom tapped old family friends Gordon and Ann Getty for $30,000, the Fisher family for $20,000, and Charles Schwab, Dede Wilsey, and Marc Benioff for $15,000 each. And, of course, PG&E gave him $10,000.
When Treasurer Jose Cisneros was starting his Bank on San Francisco program in 2008, he had Wells Fargo donate $20,000. When Sup. Bevan Dufty wanted to create Mission High School scholarships in his name, he called his friends Denise and John York, owners of the 49ers, to cut a check for $19,000.
Only one official from the progressive side of the local political spectrum turned to these big donations for help, and that was then-Sup. Aaron Peskin in 2007, when he wanted to raise $84,000 to buy a Telegraph Hill property to turn into open space. His top donors were the Gerson Bakar Foundation for $34,000 and 1301 Sansome LLC for $15,000.
So if you want to find out how downtown corporations are supporting the politicians they favor, keep your eye on this valuable new online resource.