Save SF’s campaign finance program

Pub date July 1, 2008
WriterSteven Hill
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION In 2000, San Francisco voters approved a system of public financing of campaigns for the Board of Supervisors, which in 2006 was expanded to the mayoral race. By eliminating the need for candidates to raise large amounts of private money, the program has been extremely successful at helping sever the link between big money and political decisions. But now this flagship program is threatened: Mayor Gavin Newsom is proposing to raid several million dollars from the public campaign fund.

Last September the mayor put forth a plan to take $6 million from the fund and give it to one of his pet programs: SF Promise. The cost of this program was only $525,000 the first year, begging the question of why the mayor was grabbing $6 million from the fund. Of course, Newsom had actively opposed public financing for the mayoral race, so it’s possible he wanted to defund the program. Supervisor Aaron Peskin wisely introduced legislation to fund SF Promise from the city’s reserve funds, thereby warding off the raid.

Now another proposal has surfaced to remove $5 million from the fund. According to Ethics Commission spending projections, removing $5 million will create a $1.7 million to $4.3 million shortfall for the next mayoral race in 2011 — and that’s just to meet minimum baseline funding.

The justification for this plan is that the city is facing a budget crunch and needs these funds. The mayor promises, promises, promises to return the funds later — but the only way to legally secure those funds is through a charter amendment, which the Mayor’s Office has declined to support.

This latest rationale rings hollow, and we only have to look across the bay to see why. Earlier in the decade, Oakland adopted public campaign funding, and after it was used in one election cycle, Oakland was hit with a budget deficit. The City Council decided to dip into the public financing funds in the gap. They promised, promised, promised that they would restore the funding once the deficit problems were resolved. Yet to this day Oakland still does not have public financing of campaigns — because, while it’s still the law, there’s simply no money in the fund.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, members of the Budget Committee seem to be prepared to vote in favor of this dangerous proposal as early as July 3. While Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Chris Daly have wisely expressed opposition, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who has been a public financing supporter in the past, has so far expressed support for the cut. McGoldrick could end up being the swing vote, joining with public financing opponent Sup. Sean Elsbernd and mayoral ally Sup. Carmen Chu to support this legislation.

Dipping into the public financing fund for any reason sets a terrible precedent and undermines the integrity of this valuable program. Just as politicians should not draw their own district lines because of a conflict of interest, they should not undermine previously established campaign finance laws.

Rob Arnow and Steven Hill

Rob Arnow and Steven Hill have been the architects of public financing for mayoral and Board of Supervisors elections. Steven Hill also is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation. Contact them at