San Francisco: A test tube for public financing of campaigns

San Francisco has all the ingredients–big money campaigns, powerful interest
groups and influential consultants–that campaign finance reformers cite when
they urge limits on political spending.

But the city also provides a limited test case for publicly financed
elections: San Francisco has been providing public funding for county
supervisor races since 2002.

While it’s too soon to fully know the result of this experiment, two things
are clear. First, the program is popular. Second, it hasn’t necessarily made
life easier for the chronically under-funded San Francisco Ethics
Commission, the city’s elections watchdog.

Commission executive director John St. Croix said that each city
supervisorial race will usually see five to 10 serious candidates–one recent
contest had 22–for the type of seat that in other cities can go uncontested.

In the most recent election cycle, he added, there were 23 were
publicly-funded supervisor candidates who, by law, had to be audited. The
Commission is running up to two years behind on these audits, he said.

Now a group called San Franciscans for Voter Owned Elections is trying to
bring the system to the mayor’s race, inspired by that city’s own big money
race. In 2003, Democrat Gavin Newsom outspent Green Party candidate Matt
Gonzalez approximately $5.7 million to $900,000–though these numbers are
still a matter of dispute.

Rob Arnow, campaign coordinator for the group, said their campaign is not
about opposing Newsom. Rather, they want to level the playing field and
avoid a repeat of the current spectacle of their mayor traveling the country
trying to retire his debt.

“We’re not blaming him personally,” Arnow said. “We look at this is as
systemic problem.”

Charles Marsteller, former director of San Francisco Common Cause, dates the
big money surge to 1995, when term limits forced Assembly speaker Willie
Brown out of Sacramento and landed him in the mayor’s chair. His rise
coincided with that of Jack Davis, a Brown advisor who is considered the
precursor to many of today’s top consultants.

“There was a shift to Sacramento-style politics with Willie Brown,”
Marsteller said. “Willie brought a certain kind of mindset: pay to play.”
Such talk bristles the newer generation of sought-after consultants. One of
Newsom’s lead consultants, Eric Jaye of Storefront Political Media, said
that a moderate candidate like Newsom must deal with a highly contentious
political environment filled with fringe voters.

The Newsom campaign had 22 full-time employees, registered 10,000 new voters
and had 600 precinct captions–a nearly unheard of effort in for a city of
less than a million people, Jaye said. Even the small size of the 43
square-mile city serves to drive up the cost, Jaye said, by increasingly the
demand for door-to-door canvassing and in-person appearances.

“A voter in L.A. wouldn’t expect to see the candidate for mayor in their
neighborhood,” Jaye said. “Here it’s the norm.”

The power of money and the consultants it can buy has also been on the minds
of many since the 2000 supervisor’s race that Mabel Teng lost by 37
votes–while she still had $21,000 sitting in her bank account.

But Arnow warned against viewing this as an “only in San Francisco”
movement. He pointed towards similar laws in Maine and the cities of New
York, Tucson, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M.

“It’s not just about doing this for San Francisco,” said Arnow said. “We see
ourselves as part of a national movement.”

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