Voters can track millions flowing into local races. Do they give a damn?

Screen shot from Netfile.

Retirement, for Larry Bush, looks a lot like work did. The former journalist, politico, fixer and government apparatchik is seated on a recliner in his Castro district living room, his feet up; his tiny dog, Izabel, sitting across his legs; and a Macbook in his lap. He’s following the money.

Well, someone has to.

“His watchdoggery is unrelenting … No one else is doing the job,” reads a profile of Bush. “What of the fourth estate? Well, most reporters have become inured to the pervasive influence of political money. For them, lucre is as much part of City Hall as the mortar and the marble. That leaves Larry Bush, rooting around all alone in the musty public records room at the Registrar of Voters Office, poring over campaign finance records.”

That passage was written 23 years ago.

It still feels sadly accurate. And yet, progress has been made. Unfortunately, it’s largely limited to the technical side; now you can skip the public records room or registrar’s office and just log in from your living room, like Bush.

And yet, few voters are exposed to this information and, arguably, even fewer care.

Bush has spent decades leading this horse to water, but he can’t make it drink.

Well, hell. That’s unfortunate. You could make a credible argument that unchecked money in politics is the No. 1 issue that should dominate both media coverage and inform voters’ political opinions — much more so than endorsements, which are mere tokens of political advocacy and back-scratching.

A candidate’s record of action — and, don’t forget, inaction — is important, but must be matched against his or her donor profile. A candidate’s professed priorities are interesting, but have to be weighed against the professed priorities of his or her major donors. Very few people give tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars for altruistic reasons. That’s an investment. And investors are looking for a return.

In this city, they’ve gotten it.

Did you hear? Another poll has been leaked to the media. You’re not going to believe this, but the candidate supported by the group that sponsored this poll is the candidate who comes out on top (this seems to be a pattern, whether the groups favor London Breed or Mark Leno).

Your humble narrator wrote before about how the media could stand to undergo bit of introspection on how to handle partisan polls. And the one salient detail across every last publicly released poll is the one detail the media fails to properly highlight: No one is cracking 31 percent, if that — meaning the eventual winning candidate has a hell of a lot of second- and third-place votes to pick up under ranked-choice voting. Yes, these polls purport to tally such votes for a ranked-choice winner — but that’s a predictive double bank shot. What these polls seem to indicate is that it’s an open race. Which, frankly, only figures to goose big donors into making more of those big donations.

This most recent poll was undertaken by the pro-Breed firefighters union, and placed their chosen candidate atop by a seven-point margin. Fair enough. But who paid for this poll? It’s difficult to know.    

And that’s because everybody loves firefighters. Police envy the unabashed public adulation they receive. Call the firefighters and, very rarely, do they burn down your house. But call the cops and people end up getting ticketed or arrested — or so much worse. The firefighters’ glow extends to those who simply funnel them funds. Voters might not be thrilled if a tech baron mailed them materials or knocked on their doors telling them who he thought they should vote for. But firefighters? Everyone loves firefighters.

To wit, Evan Williams, the former CEO of Twitter and boss at Medium, dropped $50,000 on the firefighters in support of Breed.

(An aside: Williams has been active in this cycle. He also gave $50,000 to It’s Our Time, a pro-Breed Political Action Committee, and dropped another $50,000 on the Edwin M. Lee Democratic club to boost Breed — and, yes, the name of our departed tech- and business-friendly former mayor is now affixed to an outfit that exists largely to serve as a conduit for tech and business money. Of note, tech honchos from Zendesk and Automattic have ponied up $150,000 for the Rose Pak Democratic Club, named for Lee’s deceased frenemy, to support her preferred candidate, Jane Kim. This town.)

Chris Larsen, the CEO of Ripple and, per Forbes, “The Richest Person in Cryptocurrency,” donated $49,000 to the firefighters to back Breed. The city’s association of Realtors kicked in $20,000. The chief product officer of Facebook and his wife kicked in $18,000. Here’s $25,000 from Verizon; do you hear me now?  

But, as you can see here, the firefighters’ No. 1 donor, with $150,000 (so far), is “Progress San Francisco.”

This is the Ron Conway-affiliated committee the “Godfather of Silicon Valley” recently sent out an e-mail blast on behalf of, noting that it “accepts unlimited personal & corporate contributions” and “will contribute to the other 100 percent positive independent expenditure committees in support of London Breed for Mayor.” (That e-mail ended up in the Chronicle; Chronicle columnist Willie Brown was on to something when he noted that the “e” in “e-mail” stands for “evidence”).

Perusing the donors to Progress San Francisco, we find Benchmark Capital general partner Matthew Cohler ($80,000); Twitch Interactive CEO Emmett Shear ($20,000), Instagram CEO Kevin York Systrom ($20,000) and others. Progress San Francisco sent $60,000 the firefighters’ way on May 7 — and, for that matter, on May 10 pushed $80,000 toward the “Affordable Housing for All Yes on D” committee. But thanks to reporting rules, the source of those funds won’t have to be disclosed until May 24. And much more money may flow by then.

That means a flurry of activity from this and other Independent Expenditure committees late in the election will effectively cloak donors’ identities until the last vote has very nearly been cast.

Back in Larry Bush’s living room, he can find all of this information in a matter of moments (and so can you; if you do nothing else prior to casting a vote, visit the Ethics Commission’s website and see who’s paying for what. Did you know R.J. Reynolds has already pumped some $12 million into fighting this city’s proposed ban of flavored tobacco? Now you do.)

When a visitor stands to leave Bush’s Castro abode, Izabel the dog barks and growls: A watchdog for the watchdog. Bush laughs, but, like this dog, the bodies he fostered to rein in campaign finance in this town have proven to be glassy-eyed and nearly toothless. Still, he’ll keep on following the money. “And now the only one who can fire me,” says the 72-year-old retiree, “is me.”   

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One Comment

  1. The money barons are spending as much to boost their candidates as the candidates are spending on themselves. They have replaced the political infrastructure of political parties and get-out-the-vote foot soldiers. What was once millionaires and multi-millionaires now is led by actual billionaires, including one regarded as the fifth richest man in the entire world. Then there is Ron Conway who bragged a few years ago that “We’re going to take back the city,” and more recently bragged mission accomplished and now they have the city. They hope you won’t notice how they have their hand in your pocket many times every day, as Muni fares increase, fees are charged for using our public parks, parking meters and lots cost more and more, garbage pick-up monthly fees rise further, even sitting in your home watching TV costs more. Not to mention water, gas and electricity. But they pay less as taxes are reduced, special districts are created, and most of all they hope you won’t notice that all those costs require a public review and a vote at City Hall. Whose city? That’s up to us.

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