Money talks

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The economy’s a mess, and the housing crisis, financial meltdown, and skyrocketing unemployment rates have left a lot of San Franciscans short of cash. But the flow of big downtown money into political campaigns hasn’t slowed a bit.

In fact, a tally of all 2008 monetary and in-kind political contributions logged in the SF Ethics Commission Campaign Finance Database shows that even in the face of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, money spent on local political campaigns in the city swelled to a whopping $20.6 million. That grand total, which does not include loans or so-called "soft money" like independent expenditures, is higher than that of any previous year recorded in the Ethics database, which tracks campaign spending back to 1998.

A review of the entire database paints of picture of how influence money flows in San Francisco: Six of the top 10 donors over the past 10 years are big businesses and downtown organizations that promote the same conservative political agenda. The campaign cash often wound up in the same few political pots — a handful of supervisorial campaigns and some coordinated political action committees.

And despite spending ungodly sums of money, downtown lost more races than it won.

More than half the total money spent in 2008 came from one source: Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which plunked down $10.2 million last fall for the No on Proposition H campaign against the San Francisco Clean Energy Act. That November ballot measure, which lost under PG&E’s barrage, would have paved the way for public power, initiating a process to make the city the primary provider of electric power in San Francisco with a goal of 50 percent clean-energy generation by 2017.

The powerful utility wasn’t only the biggest spender last year — it claims the No. 1 slot on a list of all campaign contributions spanning from 1998 to 2008, which the Guardian compiled using Ethics data. PG&E dropped a juicy $14.7 million into local political campaigns over that period, beating out runner-up Clint Reilly by more than $10 million.

Below are brief introductions to the 10 biggest spenders, 1998-2008.

They’ve got the power. The colossal sums PG&E has forked over to influence ballot measures over the years puts the utility in a category all its own. SF isn’t the only municipality where the company has poured millions into defeating a public power proposal. In 2006, when Yolo County put measures on the ballot to expand the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which would have edged PG&E out of the service area, the utility spent $11.3 million to try and keep it from happening.

Pay to the order of Clint Reilly. Reilly, the former political consultant, now runs a successful real estate company. While his name routinely comes up on the roster of campaign contributors, he owes his status as No. 2 to his 1999 campaign for SF mayor, into which he poured some $3.5 million of his own money. "Most of the money we give is for Democratic candidates or progressive politicians, or neighborhood-oriented issues," said Reilly, who also served as president of the board of Catholic Charities.

Committee on really high-paying jobs? Third in line is the Committee on Jobs, a political action committee that aims to influence local legislation affecting business interests. The PAC is bankrolled in part by the Charles Schwab Corporation, Gap, Inc., and Gap founder Don Fisher — all of whom surface on their own in our Top 30 list. With a grand total just shy of $3 million, the committee coughed up about $100,000 in campaign-related spending in 2008. Much of that funding went to similar political entities, including the SF Coalition for Responsible Growth, the SF Chamber of Commerce 21st Century Committee, and the SF Taxpayers Union PAC (see "Downtown’s Slate," 10/15/2008). This past November, the COJ also backed the Community Justice Court Coalition, formed to pass Proposition L, which would have guaranteed first-year funding for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s small-crimes court in the Tenderloin. Prop. L failed by 57 percent.

Bluegrass billionaire. San Francisco investment banker and billionaire Warren Hellman has dropped nearly $1.2 million over the years into local political campaigns, our results show. Dubbed "the Warren Buffet of the West Coast" by Business Week for his sharp financial prowess, Hellman co-founded Hellman and Friedman, an investment firm, in 1984. Hellman is known for putting on Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, an annual SF music festival. While he tends to contribute to downtown business entities such as the Committee on Jobs and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, in 2008 he devoted $100,000 to supporting a June ballot measure, Proposition A, that increased teacher salaries and classroom support by instating a parcel tax to amp up funding for public schools.

Fisher king. Don Fisher, founder and former CEO of Gap, Inc., is another one of SF’s resident billionaires. While Gap, Inc. turns up in 17th place in our results, Fisher himself has poured more than $1.1 million into entities such as the Committee on Jobs, SFSOS, the San Franciscans for Sensible Government Political Action Committee, and other conservative business groups. Fisher’s total includes money from the "DDF Y2K family trust," a Fisher family fund that shows up in Ethics records in 2000. In that year, $100,000 from that trust went to support the Committee on Jobs’ candidate advocacy fund, and another $40,000 went to a pro-development group called San Franciscans for Responsible Planning.

Not a very affordable campaign, either. Sixth up is Lennar Homes, the developer behind the massive home-building project at Hunters Point Shipyard, which the Guardian has covered extensively. The vast majority of its $1 million reported spending was directed to No on Prop. F, a campaign sponsored by Lennar to defeat a June ballot measure that would have created a 50 percent affordable-housing requirement for the Candlestick Point and Hunters Point Shipyard development project. The measure failed, with 63 percent voting it down.

Chuck’s bucks. Charles Schwab Corp., which set up shop in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, is an investment banking firm that reports having $1.1 trillion in total client assets. The corporation ranks seventh in our Top 30 list, with some $973,000 in donations. In 27th place is Charles R. Schwab himself, the company’s founder and chairman of the board (and the guy they’re referring to in those "Talk to Chuck" billboards posted all over SF). If Schwab’s individual and corporate donations were combined, the total would be enough to bump Warren Hellman out of fourth place. Schwab’s dollars are infused into the Committee on Jobs, the San Francisco Association of Realtors, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, SF SOS, and other downtown-business interest organizations. "We’re a major company here in the Bay Area and a major employer," company spokesperson Greg Gable told the Guardian. "We’re interested in political matters across the board — it’s not limited to any one party." But it’s limited to one pro-downtown point of view.

The brass. The San Francisco Police Officer’s Association is another major player, spending some $913,000 since 1998 on political campaigns. The organization backed candidates Carmen Chu, Myrna Lim, Joseph Alioto, Denise McCarthy, and Sue Lee for supervisors in 2008, contributions show. All but Chu lost.

At your service. SEIU Local 1021 and SEIU 790 crop up frequently in Ethics data, with a grand total of about $860,000 in spending over the years. SEIU representatives recently turned out en masse at a Board of Supervisors meeting to urge the supervisors to support a June 2 special election to raise taxes in order to boost city revenues and save critical services from the hefty budget cuts that are coming down the pipe.

Friends in high places. No real surprises here: the Friends and Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library contributed its money to, well, ballot measures that would have affected the library. In 2000, for example, the F and F plunked $265 thousand into an effort called the "Committee to Save Branch Libraries — Yes on Prop. A."

Top 30 San Francisco campaign donors, 1998-2008

1. Pacific Gas & Electric $14,831,486
2. Clint Reilly $4,138,089
3. Committee on Jobs $2,970,857
4. Warren F. Hellman $1,191,970
5. Don Fisher (incl. Don & Doris Fisher Y2K trust) $1,164,286
6. Lennar Homes $1,002,861
7. Charles Schwab Corporation $973,176
8. S.F. Police Officers Association $913,834
9. SEIU Local 1021 & SEIU Local 790 $860,979
10. Friends & Foundation of the S.F. Public Library $858,082
11. California Academy of Sciences $818,154
12. Residential Builders Association of S.F. $753,857
13. Steven Castleman $665,254
14. S.F. Association of Realtors $647,299
15. S.F. Chamber of Commerce $614,824
16. SEIU United Health Care Workers West & Local 250 $585,937
17. Gap, Inc. $573,959
18. California Issues PAC $556,238
19. Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums $541,474
20. Wells Fargo $464,899
21. Building Owners & Managers Association of S.F. $464,027
22. Bank of America $429,316
23. Golden Gate Restaurant Association $422,685
24. SF SOS $407,491
25. AT&T Inc. and affiliates $404,704
26. Clear Channel $391,783
27. Charles R. Schwab (individual) $362,250
28. Yellow Cab Cooperative $344,907
29. S.F. Apartment Association $280,376
30. San Franciscans for Sensible Government PAC $279,009