S.F. Campaign Measure Could Aid Dark Horses

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One of 2 election reform propositions

The San Francisco Chronicle

For campaign finance reformers and longshot supervisor candidates, Proposition O is a fantasy come true.

If San Francisco voters pass the measure on Tuesday, every supervisor hopeful who raises $7,500 could get upwards of $60,000 in public funding. The proposition also limits how much a supervisorial candidate can lend his or her campaign and how much a person or group can give to city office seekers and political committees.

Proposition O, say supporters, will muzzle the influence of wealthy candidates and their backers and give lesser-known candidates a better chance to voice their ideas.

Advocates of election reform are also pushing a second San Francisco ballot initiative, Proposition J, that they say would eliminate the potential for donor kickbacks. The measure would bar a city official from taking gifts, payments, job offers and contributions from anyone who previously benefited from the official’s vote or approval.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Jane Morrison, president of the urban conservation group San Francisco Tomorrow, says of Proposition J. “Who could be against it?”

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a public policy think tank, opposes both measures, saying they are unfairly restrictive.

Jim Chappell, president of the organization, says Proposition J would penalize long-serving city officials who have voted on hundreds of measures, forcing them to scrutinize every new campaign contribution they get. He says Proposition O would encourage too many fringe candidates to seek office knowing their campaigns might receive public funding.

“I’m personally disappointed that we couldn’t support (both propositions),” says Chappell. “There is probably no subject more important in American politics today than getting the money situation under hand.”

Different organizations spearheaded the two initiatives. The San Francisco Ethics Commission, which enforces the city’s ethics laws, voted unanimously to place Proposition O on the ballot. A volunteer organization, the Oaks Project, gathered enough signatures to create Proposition J in San Francisco and four similar initiatives in other California cities.

Proposition O has drawn much more opposition than Proposition J because its passage would dramatically alter the way election campaigns are funded in San Francisco.

Besides creating public financing of supervisorial candidates, the measure would curtail the large amounts of “soft money” that go to noncandidate committees.

Under the city’s current system, wealthy donors funnel tens of thousands of dollars to those committees, which then blanket a race with ads and brochures. If Proposition O passes, donor contributions to noncandidate committees would be limited to $3,000 a year, and a loophole would be closed that allows some of these committees to disclose their donors after an election.

Critics of “soft money” often point at Gap Chairman Donald Fisher, who actively supports such pro-business groups as San Franciscans for Sensible Government — groups that, in turn, bankroll election campaigns.

“If Donald Fisher or another wealthy individual or corporation wanted to spend $100,000 to help a candidate out, they could (under Proposition O) — but they’d have to form their own individual expenditure committee, and if they did that, they’d have to call their committee, say, the Donald Fisher Committee,” said Michael Mooney, organizer of the Proposition O campaign. “It’s one of the positive consequences of Prop. O — it helps you see what the money trail really is. Right now, Donald Fisher can give to one committee, which gives to another committee, that produces a mailer that looks like it is paid for by a (neighborhood group). The funding source is often murky until the election is over.”

Proposition O would also restrict the total amount a donor can give to candidates. Contributions to a single candidate would be limited to $500 for general elections and $250 for runoffs, with a cap on donations to all candidates determined by the number of contested offices. For example, if there are six supervisor seats open, a donor could dole out a maximum of $3,000 (six times $500) in the general election and $1,500 (six times $250) in a runoff.

Public financing has similar restrictions. To be eligible, a supervisorial candidate would have to raise $7,500 from at least 75 different donors, from donor amounts between $10 and $100; agree to debate opponents; and agree to limit spending to $75,000 in a general election and to $20,000 in a runoff. Eligible candidates would get upward of $43,750 in campaign funding for the general election and $17,000 for any runoff.

If the measure passes, the finance program’s annual cost could not exceed $2 per resident in San Francisco. City Controller Ed Harrington estimates that it would cost at least $1.6 million annually.

Its supporters say that is a small price to pay for campaign finance reform. “It’s not a huge amount of money,” says Morrison. “They should be spending that kind of money on something like this.”

The Ethics Commission held months of public hearings and worked with the city attorney’s office before creating Proposition O, which could face legal challenges.

A series of recent court rulings struck down previous campaign limits in San Francisco. Last year, a lawsuit by San Franciscans for Sensible Government challenged the city’s limit on contributions to noncandidate committees. Clint Reilly, who ran for mayor against Willie Brown, also sued last year, saying the city’s donation limit to candidates was a violation of free speech. At the time, mayoral candidates who agreed to spend no more than $600,000 in a general election could receive individual contributions of up to $500. For candidates who didn’t agree to the $600,000 cap, contributions were limited to $150.

Facing court rulings that favored both lawsuits, the city agreed to rewrite its campaign ordinances, leading to public hearings that begat Proposition O.

Barbara Kaufman is the supervisor most vocally opposed to Proposition O, saying that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to finance supervisorial campaigns and that candidates shouldn’t run if they can’t raise the necessary financial support.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley and Holli Thier, president of the League of Women Voters of San Francisco, are among the supporters of Proposition O.

Because of the Ethics Commission’s mandate to be a neutral body, it can’t actually campaign for passage of its own measure. Instead, ethics commissioners are limited to explaining what prompted their June 26 decision to create the proposition.

“The commissioners decided to consider public financing (of campaigns) to make races more competitive and to encourage candidates to spend more time communicating with voters and less time raising money,” says Ginny Vida, executive director of the Ethics Commission.

Few people are actively opposing Proposition J, and no ballot arguments were submitted against the measure.

Paul Herzog, organizer of the Proposition J campaign, said the initiative would ensure that no payoffs or kickbacks are given to elected officials who vote a certain way.

The measure and its companion initiatives around the state are the first in recent memory to be put on the ballot by an all-volunteer group that went door to door. Herzog said the controversy surrounding former state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush persuaded many people to sign the ballot argument.

Quackenbush resigned in July after revelations that his department had reached secret settlements requiring insurance companies accused of mishandling claims from the 1994 Northridge earthquake to contribute $12.8 million to foundations he created.

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