Downtown’s planner

Pub date October 28, 2008


The battle for the district 1 supervisor’s seat is being framed largely by politically conservative groups, funded by real estate and development, that are spending thousands of dollars supporting former planning commissioner Sue Lee over school board member Eric Mar.

An incestuous web of independent expenditure and political action committees have collectively spent enough against Mar to blow the $140,000 cap off the voluntary expenditure ceiling that all the candidates in that district agreed to.

The money’s coming from the Building Owners and Managers Association, Plan C, the Coalition for Responsible Growth, and the San Francisco Association of Realtors. Although these groups can’t legally work directly with candidates, they typically swap funds among each other and receive outside support from the deep pockets at the Chamber of Commerce, Committee on Jobs, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

According to Ethics Commission executive director John St. Croix, the $140,000 cap was lifted on Friday, Oct. 24, which means the candidates are now free to spend up to their individual campaign limits, which are different for Lee, Mar, and Alicia Wang, the other major contender for the seat.

All three are receiving public financing — but so much outside money is being spent in support of Lee that, to keep pace, the individual spending caps for Mar and Wang have been raised and are now higher than Lee’s.


Lee, who worked for Willie Brown’s mayoral administration and was public relations director for the Chamber of Commerce, now runs the Chinese Historical Society of America. Her voting record on the Planning Commission has been consistently pro-development and anti-neighborhood. Some examples from her final months on the commission:

<\!s> On April 10, 2008, she approved a mixed-use development at 736 Valencia St. and removed community benefits and below-market-rate unit requirements — against the wishes of community members and housing rights activists.

<\!s> On March 27, 2008, she was the only commissioner to vote against modifications to a rooftop remodeling project at 1420 Montgomery St. that would have pacified neighbors concerned about the scale and character of the plan.

<\!s> On March 13, 2008 she supported a conditional-use permit for a formula-retail paint store at Cesar Chavez and South Van Ness despite concerns about its effect on nearby small businesses.

<\!s> On Feb. 28, 2008, she approved a remodeling of a two-story flat on Potrero Ave. that opponents, including the next-door neighbors, characterized as a demolition in disguise.

"Her voting record for the past three years is crystal clear," one lawyer who represents neighborhood interests at the commission told us. "Given a choice between supporting neighborhood interests, long-term residents and the interests of the little guy or supporting development interests and the big- money people who are busy in our residential neighborhoods, she chooses the latter every time."

The lawyer, who regularly appears before the planning panel and asked not to be named, added: "She has supported big-box retail in our neighborhoods over the objections of neighbors. She has supported the destruction of rent-controlled housing and low-scale, more affordable housing that is being remodeled out of existence."

"She’s a total pay to play," said Robert Haaland, a labor activist with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which is deeply vested in independent expenditures supporting Mar. "Her donations can be tracked back to decisions she made as planning commissioner."

For example, Lee voted in favor of a plan by Martin Building Company to convert a city-owned building on Jessie Street into 25 luxury condos that now rent for about $3,000 a month. Martin’s owner, Patrick McNerney is a Lee campaign donor. Also contributing to Lee is Eric Tao of AGI Capital, which helped finance the Soma Grand development, a project opposed by sustainable growth organizations like Livable City, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, and the Sierra Club. Lee voted in favor of it.

In 2006, Lee approved lifting the downtown height restrictions from 150 feet to 250 feet for a 189-unit building with ground level retail on Howard Street. The project sponsor, Ezra Mercy, gave Lee’s campaign the maximum legal donation of $500.

In fact, her campaign has received thousands of dollars in individual contributions — and according to our analysis, more than half has come from real estate developers, attorneys, and builders, including some who appear frequently before the Planning Commission, such as executives from Wilson Meany Sullivan, CB Richard Ellis, and Millennium Partners.

Lee did not return a call seeking comment.


The same day the spending cap was lifted, Mar alleged the local Democratic Party’s name was being improperly used by a new group calling itself the "San Francisco Democratic Club." First reported by Paul Hogarth on the online news site BeyondChron, the club is apparently composed of Democratic County Central Committee defectors who disagreed with the party’s endorsements for the Nov. 4 election.

The group’s treasurer, Mike Riordan, is also a deputy political director of PG&E’s Stop the Blank Check Committee, which is mounting the $10 million campaign against the Clean Energy Act. PG&E gave $30,000 to this new democratic club, the members of which have not been revealed.

Riordan hired DCCC member Tom Hseih’s firm to send robocalls in Cantonese to Asian voters urging support for Lee over DCCC-endorsed Mar. The endorsement script referred to the group as the "San Francisco Democratic Party Club." Mar said it was a misleading way to align this new club with the DCCC.

When asked if the club’s use of the Democratic Party name and membership to support candidates and issues that haven’t received the party’s vote was their intention, Hsieh told the Guardian, "Yeah, and you know what? That’s covered under the First Amendment."

Sup. Aaron Peskin, who chairs the DCCC and spoke on its behalf in support of Mar at two recent rallies, said, "at minimum, it’s misleading. At maximum it’s a violation of the party rules and punishable by removal." He said there was a credible argument and evidence supporting Mar’s allegation, but that it’s something the DCCC would have to deal with in its own house, likely after Nov. 4.