Cash not care

Pub date October 26, 2010
WriterSarah Phelan

With the general election just days away, campaign disclosure reports show that downtown interests are spending huge amounts of money to create a more conservative San Francisco Board of Supervisors and to pass Proposition B, Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s effort to make city workers pay more for their pensions and health insurance.

Much of the spending is coming from sources hostile to programs designed to protect tenants in the city, including rent control and limits on the conversion on rental housing units to condominiums. An ideological flip of the board, which currently has a progressive majority, could also have big implications on who becomes the next mayor if Gavin Newsom wins his race for lieutenant governor.

At press time, downtown groups were far outspending their progressive counterparts through a series of independent expenditure committees, most of which are controlled by notorious local campaign attorney Jim Sutton (see “The political puppeteer,” 2/4/04) in support of supervisorial candidates Mark Farrell in District 2, Theresa Sparks in District 6, Scott Wiener in District 8, and Steve Moss in District 10.

Prop. B has also been a big recipient of downtown’s cash, although labor groups have pushed back strongly with their own spending to try to kill the measure, which is their main target in this election.

But the biggest spender in this election appears to be Thomas J. Coates, 56, a major investor in apartments and mobile homes and a demonstrated enemy of rent control. He alarmed progressive groups by giving at least $250,000 to groups that support Farrell, Sparks, Wiener, Moss, and Prop. G, legislation that Sup. Sean Elsbernd placed on the ballot to cut transit operator wages and change Muni work rules.

Although Coates declines to identify with a political party on his voter registration, he donated $2,000 to President George W. Bush in 2004. More significantly, he was the biggest individual donor in California’s November 2008 election, when he contributed $1 million to Prop. 98, which sought to repeal rent control in California and limit the government’s right to acquire private property by eminent domain.

Coates, who is also a yachting enthusiast and sits on San Francisco’s America’s Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC), donated $100,000 on Oct. 20 for Farrell, $45,000 for Sparks, $45,000 for Moss, and $10,000 for Wiener through third-party independent expenditure committees such as the Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth.

The group has already received thousands of dollars in soft money from the San Francisco Police Officer’s Association, the Building Operators and Managers Association, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers, which supports a high-end hospital and housing complex on Cathedral Hill.

Those downtown groups have spent close to $200,000 on English and Chinese language mailers and robo calls in support of Sparks, Wiener, and Moss in hopes of securing a right-wing shift on the board.

Progressive groups including California Nurses Association, the San Francisco Tenants Union, and the SF Labor Council have tried to fight back in the supervisorial races. While downtown groups spent more than $100,000 promoting Sparks in D6, labor and progressive groups spent $13,000 opposing Sparks and $72,000 supporting progressive D6 candidate Debra Walker.

In D8, progressive groups that include teachers, nurses, and transit riders have outspent the downtown crowd, plunking down $40,000 to oppose Wiener and $90,000 to support progressive candidate Rafael Mandelman. So far, downtown groups have spent about $100,000 to support Wiener.

But in D10, the district with the biggest concentration of low-income families and communities of color, downtown interests spent $52,000 supporting Moss and $5,000 on Lynette Sweet while the Tenants Union was only able to summon $4,000 against Moss. The SF Building and Construction Trades Council spent $4,000 on Malia Cohen.

But that’s small potatoes compared to what downtown’s heavy-hitters are spending. The so-called Coalition for Sensible Government, which got a $100,000 donation from the San Francisco Association of Realtors, has already collectively spent $96,000 in support of Sparks, Wiener, Moss, Sweet, Rebecca Prozan in D8, Prop. G and Prop. L (sit-lie) and to oppose Prop. M (the progressive plan for police foot patrols) and Prop. N (a transfer tax on properties worth more than $5 million).

The Coalition for Responsible Growth, founded by Anthony Guilfoyle, the father of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s ex-wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle (who now works as a Fox News personality), has received $85,000 from the Committee on Jobs, $60,000 from the Realtors, and $35,000 from SF Forward. It has focused on spending in support of Prop. G and producing a voter guide for Plan C, the conservative group that supports Sparks, Wiener, Sweet, and Moss

Coates’ donations raise questions about his preferred slate’s views on tenant and landlord rights. A principal in Jackson Square Properties, which specializes in apartments and mobile homes, Coates is the founding partner of Arroya & Coates, a commercial real estate firm whose clients include Walgreens, Circuit City, and J.P. Morgan Investment Management. In 2008, when he backed Prop. 98, Coates told the San Francisco Chronicle that rent control “doesn’t work.”

Ted Gullicksen, director of the SF Tenants Union (SFTU), which has collectively spent $30,000 opposing Sparks, Wiener, and Moss, is disturbed that Coates spent so much in support of this trio.

“Coates was the main funder of Prop. 98,” Gullicksen explained. “His property is in Southern California. He’s pumping a lot of money into supervisors. And he clearly has an agenda that we fear Moss, Sparks, and Wiener share — which is to make the existence of rent control an issue they will take up in the future if elected to the board.”

That threat got progressive and labor groups to organize an Oct. 26 protest outside Coates’ San Francisco law office, with invitations to the event warning, “Be there or be evicted!”

Sparks, Moss, and Wiener all claim to support rent control, despite their support by someone who seeks to abolish it. “I answered such on my questionnaire to the SFTU, which chose to ignore it,” Sparks told the Guardian via text message. “In addition, I’ve been put out of apartments twice in SF, once due to the Ellis Act. They ignore that fact as well.”

Records show that in May 2009, Moss — who bought a rent-controlled apartment building near Dolores Park in D8 for $1.6 million and he lived there from the end of 2007 to the 2010, when he decided to run for office in D10 — served a “notice to quit or cure” on a tenant who complained about the noise from Moss’ apartment. Ultimately, Moss settled without actually evicting his tenant.

“I read about Coats’ [sic] contribution in Bay Citizen,” Moss wrote in an e-mail to the Guardian. “This donation was made to an independent expenditure committee over which I have no control and almost no knowledge. I have stated throughout the campaign, and directly to the Tenants Union, that I believe current rent control policy should remain unmolested.”

But Moss is with downtown on other key issues. He supports Newsom’s sit-lie legislation and the rabidly anti-tenant Small Property Owners Association, whose endorsement he previously called a “mistake.”

Yet Moss, who sold a condo on Potrero Hill in 2007 for the same price he paid for the entire building in 2001, seems to voice more sympathy for property owners than renters, who make up about two-thirds of city residents. He told us, “Landlords feel that they are responsible for maintaining costly older buildings and that they are not provided with ways to upgrade their units in ways that share costs with tenants.”

Another realm where downtown seems to be trying to flip the Board of Supervisors on a significant agenda item is on health care, particularly the California Pacific Medical Center proposal to build a high-end hospital and housing project on Cathedral Hill in exchange for rebuilding St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission.

The project has divided local labor unions. UHW supports the project and a slate of candidates that its parent union, Service Employees International Union, is opposing through SEIU Local 1021, which is supporting more progressive candidates. The California Nurses Association also opposes the project and candidates such as Wiener who back it.

“A recent mailer by CNA falsely says that CPMC is closing St. Luke’s and Davies,” CPMC CEO Warren Browner recently complained in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. “We are not. We are committed to building a state-of-the-art, high-quality replacement hospital at St. Luke’s and continuing to upgrade Davies.”

But the CPMC rebuild is contingent on the board approving the Cathedral Hill project. So the CNA mailer focused on what could happen if the city rejects the CPMC project: “We could lose two San Francisco hospitals if Scott Wiener is elected supervisor.”

SEIU-UHW’s alliance with downtown groups and its use of member dues to attack progressive candidates places it at odds with SEIU Local 1021 and the SF Labor Council, which has endorsed Janet Reilly in D2, Walker in D6, Mandelman in D8, and Cohen (first choice) and Chris Jackson (second choice) in D10.

“We’re really disappointed that there are labor organizations that feel they have to team up with Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which is against health care [it challenged the city’s Healthy San Francisco program all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court], and with CPMC, which is working to keep nurses from joining a union,” Labor Council Director Tim Paulson said. “This alliance does not reflect what the San Francisco labor movement is about.”

Paulson said that the Labor Council values “sharing the wealth … So we don’t want Measure B [Jeff Adachi’s pension reform] or K [Newsom’s hotel tax loophole closure, which has a poison pill that would kill Prop. J, the hotel tax increase pushed by labor] or L [Newsom’s sit-lie legislation],” Paulson said.

CPMC’s plan is headed to the board in the next couple months, although Sup. David Campos is proposing that the city create a health services master plan that would determine what city residents actually need. Hospital projects would then be considered based on that health needs assessment, rather than making it simply a land use decision as it is now.

Moss told the Guardian that UHW endorsed him because of his positions on politicians and unions. “I agreed that politicians should get not involved in union politics,” Moss said. “The United Healthcare Workers seem to be a worthy group,” he added. “All they said was that they wanted to make sure that they had access.”

But CNA member Eileen Prendiville, who has been a registered nurse for 33 years, says she was horrified to see UHW members recently oppose Campos’ healthcare legislation. “I was shocked that they were siding with management,” she said.

Prendiville believes UHW is obliged to support CPMC’s Cathedral Hill plan, which is why it is meddling in local politics. In his letter to the board, Browner noted that his company and its parent company, Sutter Health, can’t legally do so directly. “The fact is that CPMC and Sutter Health are 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, nonpartisan organizations, and we neither endorse nor contribute to candidates,” Browner wrote.

“When UHW settled its contract with its members [as part of its fight with the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers], they had to publicly lobby for Cathedral Hill,” Prendiville claimed.

SEIU 1021 member Ed Kinchley, who works in the emergency room at SF General Hospital, is also furious that UHW is pouring money into downtown’s candidates and measures. “UHW isn’t participating in the Labor Council, it’s doing its own thing,” he said.

Kinchley said UHW, which is currently in trusteeship after a power struggle with its former elected leaders, is being controlled by SEIU’s national leaders, not its local membership, which explains why it’s aligned with downtown groups that have long been the enemy of labor.

“Sutter wants a monopoly on private healthcare and people like Rafael Mandelman and Debra Walker have been strong supporters of public healthcare,” Kinchley said. “I want someone who can straight-up say, here’s what’s important for families in San Francisco, especially something as important as healthcare. But it sounds like UHW is teaming up with the Chamber and supporting people who are not progressive.”