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Which debt is Newsom retiring?

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is retiring debt from two 2003 elections, a
primary and runoff. Different rules govern each–San Francisco campaign
finance law allows donations of up to $500 for the primary election and only
$250 for the runoff.

That has created a bookkeeping nightmare for those trying to follow his
political fundraising.

“It would take some auditing to see if you wanted to attribute the debt to
the [primary] election or the runoff,” said San Francisco Ethics Commission
executive director John St. Croix said. “It’s not always possible to figure
that out.”

The Newsom campaign filed three debt disclosures with the Commission in
2003: $53,878 on Oct. 18, $225,322 on Nov. 22, and $555,965 as of Dec. 31.
Much of this debt was rung up in the runoff campaign, including some of the
new debt for the Oct. 19 to Nov. 22 period, which straddled the Nov. 4
primary election.

Add to this a few complicating factors. First, further fundraising costs
must be settled using the same fundraising limits as the campaign debt it is
designed to retire. Second, people who had not yet given anything could give
a full $750.

St. Croix noted that some expenses that were run up during the primary
election may not have been billed for until later–it’s impossible to know
without checking the invoices, St. Croix said. However, he said, it was
unlikely that much of the debt run up after Nov. 22 applied to the primary
election.

Using this accounting, it would appear that Newsom owed approximately
$225,000 for the primary and $330,000 for the runoff. The former could be
retired in donations up to $500, while the later are held to the $250 limit.

Since the runoff debt was larger and subject to a lower limit, the Newsom
campaign would logically apply anything they could to the larger debt, then
apply the remainder to the debt from the primary election.

The Newsom camp listed 608 donations that topped $250 in 2004, for a total
of $148,425 above that line. It added another 269 such donations in 2005,
for $65,164 over the $250 line. These two amounts–money that could only be
applied to the primary election, not the runoff–total $213,549. In other
words, nearly the $225,000 that Newsom would have owed for the general
election.

If donations were improperly assigned to the wrong debt, it could in fines
of up to $5,000 per offense. But St. Croix said it appears that these
donations are being accounted for properly.

“The mayor’s records have been scrutinized by countless numbers of people,”
St. Croix said. “We haven’t come across any reason to audit them.”

In any case, the runoff vs. general question should not come up in future
races, thanks to a radical experiment approved by voters. The next mayoral
election will use the city’s new ranked choice system, also known as
“instant runoff voting.” This method allows voters to rank three choices,
with finishers eliminated from the bottom of the results until one candidate
has a majority.

“This is the last time this will happen,” St. Croix said. “There will be no
more runoffs.”


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