Backroom brokers

Pub date October 28, 2008
WriterTim Redmond


It’s not the invisible hand of Adam Smith tossing hate mail on your doorstep this fall like ugly confetti. It isn’t a distinct and independent group of candidates and civic organizations that just happen to be saying the same things, either. There is a carefully orchestrated campaign going on to undermine the progressive agenda, block affordable housing and clean energy, and give Mayor Gavin Newsom a majority on the Board of Supervisors.

It’s well funded; it’s serious; it’s based on lies — and it’s a threat to rent control, sustainable environmental policies, universal health care, the city’s living wage law, and the rest of the accomplishments and goals of the progressive majority on the board.

If that sounds overblown, listen to what the organizers of this campaign are saying themselves.

On Aug. 15, after progressives took control of the Democratic County Central Committee and installed Sup. Aaron Peskin as chair, John Keogan, the head of a year-old organization called the San Francisco Coalition for Responsible Growth, a pro-downtown group founded to counter the progressive movement, announced his intentions in a letter to allies.

"CRG are [sic] preparing for an all-out attack with other like-minded groups and now is our time to stand-up [sic] and be counted," Keogan wrote. He asked members to support "taking SF on a sharp turn to the right."

Those "other like-minded groups," according to campaign finance reports, are a Who’s Who list of downtown-based organizations that have consistently fought to roll back tenant protections and slash government spending on social services: the Building Owners and Managers Association, the Committee on Jobs, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the Association of Realtors, the Chamber of Commerce, Plan C, and the Police Officers Association.

By law, political candidates can only raise and spend limited amounts of money. But organizations like BOMA, the Realtors, and Plan C can put as much cash as they want into supporting and opposing candidates — as long as the efforts are "independent."

But the orchestration of the attacks on supervisorial candidates Eric Mar, John Avalos, and David Chiu, and the support for their conservative rivals, Sue Lee, Ahsha Safai, and Joe Alioto, is so sophisticated it’s impossible to believe that these groups and candidates aren’t working together.

Between Sept. 9 and Oct. 20, public records show, the groups spent a combined $363,754 ($178,177 in District 1, $104,308 in D3, and $81,269 in D11) on independent expenditures attacking Avalos, Mar, and Chiu and supporting their opponents. They also spent $20,000 supporting Eva Royale in her long shot race for the solidly progressive District 9 seat.

The landlords and downtown aren’t the only ones organizing. All that spending, and the threat of even more to come considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars these downtown groups still have in the bank, has served to unite tenant and labor groups in ways unseen in previous San Francisco elections.

"There’s an unprecedented coalition between tenants and labor," labor activist Robert Haaland told us. "We’re working together to defeat the landlord candidates, who are also anti-labor."

"We have a tremendous fear that the spending and progress on health care and social services will be rolled back," Tim Paulson, president of the San Francisco Labor Council, told us. "Anything less than our candidates [being elected in each of the three swing districts] will pose a real danger to the movement."


One of the central players in this attempt to take the city away from the progressives and hand it over to downtown is Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is actively supporting Alioto, Lee, and Safai.

Eric Jaye, the mayor’s chief political advisor, has no formal role in the three district campaigns, but Newsom rarely makes a move in local politics without consulting Jaye. In fact, when reporters call the mayor’s press office to ask for comments on local candidates and initiatives, they are typically referred to the private consultant.

Jaye told us he’s talked to all of Newsom’s candidates. "I told them to run on district issues," he said.

The mayor and the latest member of the Alioto clan to seek office (Joe’s sister, Michela, is already on the board) have walked precincts together. And Newsom is so involved with the downtown effort he’s skipping a major Democratic Party gala (where he was slated to get an award) to spend time instead with the Republican-led Coalition for Responsible Growth (CRG).

Jaye’s main job this fall is running the PG&E campaign against the Clean Energy Act, Proposition H. So far PG&E has spent more than $10 million on the effort, and that number will grow in the final week before the election. Part of that same campaign has been propping up Newsom ally Carmen Chu, who has benefited from thousands of dollars of PG&E spending on her race. Chu’s face is all over PG&E’s No on H fliers.

Another central operator is Alex Tourk, the former Newsom aide who resigned after learning that the mayor had been sexually involved with Tourk’s wife. Tourk is now running the CRG operation.

"They brought me on board to do a volunteer campaign that, yes, they funded, but which seeks to inform voters in a non-partisan fashion where the candidates in D1, 3, and 11 stand on key issues," he said.

That campaign’s goal was to get 10,000 people to mobilize — he called them, using a term popularized by Richard Nixon, the "silent majority."

Tourk maintains that door-hangers the group has been distributing don’t endorse any candidates or push any initiatives. But the messages fit exactly with the overall downtown strategy — they seek to discredit the progressives by linking them with controversial ballot measures such as Proposition V, which would urge the School Board to save the military recruitment program, JROTC.

The supervisors have nothing to do with JROTC, but downtown and the Republican Party are using it as a wedge issue.

CRG is facing some political heat of its own: SF Weekly reported in its Oct. 22 issue that CRG’s recently elected president, engineer Rodrigo Santos, accepted money for professional work from someone who had business before the Building Inspection Commission while he served as commission president. Santos is a Republican, like several key Newsom appointees.

Making matters worse are revelations that Mel Murphy, vice president of the inspection commission and a CRG member, distributed invites in City Hall to an Oct. 17 CRG fundraiser for Safai and Alioto. City officials aren’t supposed to do political work at City Hall.

Alioto’s filings show that on Oct. 17, he received $500 from the firm of Santos and Urrutia’s structural engineer Kelton Finney and $250 from S&U engineer Calvin Hom.


Political consultants Tom Hsieh Jr. and Jim Ross are involved in the District 1 race (Hsieh also responded to the Guardian on Safai’s behalf) — and are using PG&E and downtown money to support Sue Lee.

Beyond Chron reported Oct. 27 that Hsieh has been sending robocalls in Cantonese to voters saying that Lee is endorsed by the "San Francisco Democratic Party Club." Actually, the Democratic Party endorsed Mar.

What is this new "party club" anyway? Well, the Web site reported, the club started raising money just two weeks ago, and already has collected $30,000 from PG&E, $2,000 from the Chamber of Commerce, $5,000 from GGRA (Golden Gate Restaurant Association), and $70,000 from the Committee on Jobs. Another new club, called the Richmond Reform Democratic Club, is opposing Mar — and has $18,000 from the Committee on Jobs, $5,000 from PG&E, and $2,000 from BOMA.

In television ads paid for by the Realtors, a voiceover tries to link Mar, Avalos, and Chiu to Sup. Chris Daly, whose popularity outside his district is low — although neither Mar nor Chiu has much of a discernable connection to Daly. Avalos was a Daly City Hall aide.

One of the Realtors ads was so utterly inaccurate and deceptive — it claimed Chiu and Avalos support decriminalizing prostitution, when both have publicly opposed the decriminalization ballot measure — that Comcast pulled the ad off the air when Chiu filed a complaint.

Fog City Journal uncovered what appears to be illegal collusion between the police union and Safai. Although candidates are barred from coordinating with groups making independent expenditures on their behalf, POA president Gary Delagnes told FCJ editor Luke Thomas that Safai had given the group a photo of him to use on a mailer, a copyrighted image that Thomas took. Safai denied wrongdoing, but refused to answer further inquiries about the matter.

It’s a pitched battle — labor, the tenants, and the Democratic Party against the landlords, PG&E, downtown interests, and the Republicans. It’s pretty clear which side you want to be on.

Steven T. Jones, Sarah Phelan, and Amanda Witherell contributed to this report.