Anemic debut for public mayoral financing

Pub date September 12, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan

This year offers the first mayor’s race in which candidates can qualify for public financing to supplement their campaign spending. But of the 14 candidates who originally entered the race, only two — Tony Hall and Chicken John Rinaldi — managed to file the financing paperwork by the Aug. 28 deadline.

Two days later, Hall dropped out of the race, leaving Rinaldi as possibly the sole recipient of money from city coffers. Mayor Gavin Newsom doesn’t qualify because he has already exceeded the city’s voluntary $1.37 million spending limit.

"I’m withdrawing because not enough people are willing to stand up and hold this clown Newsom accountable for the mess he has made of this city," Hall told the Guardian the day after he quit. "I am no longer willing to risk the happiness of my family and the welfare of my supporters, who have been intimidated and harassed."

Hall’s withdrawal invalidates his 2007 financing application, in which he claimed to have raised about $27,000 from city residents. To qualify for public financing, candidates must prove that by the Aug. 28 deadline, they received at least $25,000 from 250 local residents, which then qualifies them for $50,000 from the city.

After that step, eligible candidates who can raise $100,000 and meet various conditions can receive up to $400,000 from the city. The next $400,000 that such candidates raise themselves will be matched dollar for dollar by the city, meaning that successful candidates can receive $850,000 in public funds and even more if the $7 million fund isn’t depleted and an opponent raises many millions of dollars.

With all eyes now on Rinaldi, Ethics Commission director John St. Croix told us that his staff is reviewing Rinaldi’s application and should make a decision this week. "But keep in mind that even if Rinaldi doesn’t qualify initially, we’ll show him where the holes in his application are, and he’ll have a chance to fix them," St. Croix added.

If Rinaldi’s roughly $26,000 in local contributions check out, he’ll receive notice that the city is giving him $50,000. If they don’t, he’ll have the option to resubmit new documentation within five days to prove that all of his qualifying contributions were received before the deadline.

Contributions must be accompanied by a copy of the check, a signed contributor card, and a copy of a utility bill or driver’s license to prove the contributor has local residency. After the election, candidates who receive public funds are subject to a mandatory audit of their campaign expenditures and campaign bank account statements.

With so few candidates even potentially qualifying for public financing, is it possible that the $25,000 qualifying threshold for public financing is set too high? Former Ethics Commission member and staffer Joe Lynn said that finding 250 residents with a C-note each to spare isn’t easy for most candidates, especially this early in the race.

"No one has that many friends, and most money comes in the last week of a campaign, when people are placing their bets," said Lynn, who believes that the $25,000 threshold would have been more easily attainable if better-known progressives had gotten into the race.

"And Tony Hall would have had an easier time raising money if there had been a candidate on the left, instead of just one chicken in the pot," Lynn added, recalling how, at the start of an election cycle, all candidates have big eyes and believe they’re going to raise lots of money.

"But this isn’t a free giveaway," Lynn said. He warned that the city also investigates each contribution to verify its authenticity and that candidates who violate the rules face hefty fines. "Once you get into the ring, you’re a serious player — and they’re going to treat you seriously," Lynn said, noting how complicated it is to meet all of the standards for public financing.

Even if no mayoral candidates make it over the public financing hurdles this time around, Lynn believes such funds are essential if San Francisco wants to nurture its grassroots activism — and with it, the people who may have original solutions to the same old problems.

"The function of the grass roots isn’t to win elections but to present the agendas of folks who differ from the Chronicle," Lynn said, noting that of the $7 million in public funds available this year, any money not used will be available in 2011, when more people are expected to run and qualify for funds.

"It was understood that this year there wouldn’t be as many people running," St. Croix said, "because the incumbent is running, but that there will probably be more in 2011, by which time we will have more experience of public financing and the mayor’s race."

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who authored San Francisco’s public financing legislation, said the goal of the law is to "equalize the opportunity" of running a campaign.

"It does help if you have name recognition and advanced preparation, but this isn’t about cutting corners," Mirkarimi told us. "It was designed to reward people for organizing efforts that are commensurate with an organized campaign."