Say what you like about the campaign to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin; it has been a costly affair, especially for those hoping to get rid of the progressive prosecutor.
Some $6 million has gone to the recall campaign over the past 15 months, according to Ethics Commission data. The anti-recall campaign has collected a smaller war chest of $2.7 million. Taken together, the total from both sides is roughly five-and-a-half times the combined amount amassed for all other San Francisco measures on the June 7 ballot.
Funding has been dominated by a small number of huge donations. That is especially true of the pro-recall camp, where money from a single political action committee (PAC), Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, accounts for 64 percent of the total funds.
Explore our graphic to see who has donated from February, 2021, until last Friday. Use the search bar to find particular donors or donor occupations. Circles matching your search term will be highlighted as you type.
The pro-recall campaign has raised over twice as much money as its opponents, largely thanks to huge PAC donations
Please note: Payments between campaign committees have been excluded to avoid money being counted twice. This data is up-to-date as of May 20, 2022, but excludes donations of less than $1,000 between April 28 and May 20, due to the campaign filing schedule. Occupations were self-reported.
Who are the main players?
By a wide margin, the biggest contributor to the recall is a PAC called Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, which has contributed around $4 million to remove Boudin.
If that name rings a bell, it may be because the Neighbors PAC was the single largest contributor to the school board recall as well. Its money comes from a handful of extremely wealthy donors – but more on that later.
The second-biggest donor in favor of the recall is the California Association Of Realtors, which has donated $458,000 through three separate committees. Big individual donors include tech investor Garry Tan, PayPal co-founder David Sacks, and Chicago-based investor Daniel O’Keefe.
The anti-recall effort has snagged some big donations from organizations, although they are not of quite the same magnitude. Its largest benefactor is the American Civil Liberties Union, which has donated $350,000. The caregivers’ union SEIU 2015, criminal justice reform PAC Smart Justice CA, and the service employees’ union SEIU 1021 have each given upwards of $100,000. Boudin’s largest individual donor is tech billionaire Chris Larsen, who has contributed $115,000.
Altogether, the anti-recall camp has gathered about 37 percent of its funds from donations of $50,000 or more. But a considerable proportion of its money, around 19 percent, comes from contributions smaller than $1,000.
In the pro-recall camp, big money makes up a much bigger slice of the pie. Over three-quarters of the total money raised ($4.76 million) has come from $50,000-plus donations, and only 4 percent has come from donations smaller than $1,000.
The pro-recall campaign has relied more on large donations
Total raised by donation size
$50,000 and more
Total raised by donation size
$50,000 and more
Please note: Payments between campaign committees have been excluded to avoid money being counted twice. Figures rounded to the nearest $1,000. Up-to-date as of May 20, 2022.
Where else is money coming from?
Apart from the big donors, plenty of non-uber-wealthy San Franciscans have given their money to one side or another. The Ethics Commission data does not show every individual donor, as people who donate less than $100 are not required to disclose personal information and are sometimes aggregated, but it can still show us interesting trends.
For instance, the data indicates that 298 people who reported their job title as “attorney” donated against the recall, compared to 68 donating in favor. Similarly, self-identified “professors” typically opposed the recall, with 63 against, compared to just 3 in favor.
People who reported themselves as unemployed made up a much bigger chunk of anti-recall donors, whereas retirees were more commonly in favor. And real estate was another area with a big split: 70 people with “real estate” or “Realtor” in their job titles gave money toward the recall, while only 8 donated to oppose it.
But while these patterns are intriguing and can offer a glimpse of where support for either side is coming from in the city, their money is dwarfed by the big donors. So, let’s take a closer look at the contributor that is 10 times the size of any other: the Neighbors PAC.
What is the Neighbors PAC?
Neighbors for a Better San Francisco has been active since 2020 and has already thrown itself into several San Francisco political battles. It donated heavily in favor of the school board recall and weighed in on 2020 ballot measures: opposing higher taxes on commercial buildings, supporting increased affirmative action, and opposing increased taxes on real estate transactions, for example.
Its principal officer is listed as Jay Cheng, a deputy director at the SF Association of Realtors. Mary Jung, a director at the same association and leader of SF Safer Without Boudin, has described herself online as “volunteer director” of the PAC.
According to current state filings, 55 people have given this PAC money since 2021. Their average monetary contribution sits at around $93,000.
A majority of the PAC’s money has come from donors involved in investment or real estate. And many of its biggest donors have regularly donated to Republican races, which is in large part what led the Boudin campaign to characterize the recall as “GOP-controlled.”
William Oberndorf, a major supporter of Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Republican politicians, has funneled a little over $600,000 into the Neighbors PAC since 2021 (plus $300,000 in 2020), as well as contributing $49,000 to the recall directly. John Kilroy, Diane “Dede” Wilsey, William Duhamel, Tom Chavez, and several others have all made major contributions to Republican races and have also poured money into the PAC.
However, there are Democratic donors in the mix as well. The PAC’s biggest donor over the past two years has been Shorenstein Realty Services, a real estate investment company run by Brandon Shorenstein. Shorenstein gave $633,000 overall, and is a local Democrat.
“This vote is not about politics,” he wrote in an email. “This is a bipartisan issue about making San Francisco a safer place for residents to live, work, raise a family and enjoy everything that our great city has to offer. I strongly believe new leadership is needed to achieve that goal.”
Explore the chart below to see who has donated to the influential PAC over the past couple of years. Use the search bar to find individual donors.
The Neighbors PAC has been financed by a handful of extremely wealthy donors
Data from California Secretary of State. Includes committee contributions from 2021 until April 28, 2022.
Contributions from 2020 are not included in this chart, because that money was given in support of other causes. For instance, the billionaire funder of the SF Standard, Michael Moritz, gave $300,000 to the PAC in September, 2020, but he told Mission Local over email that the donation went towards that year’s supervisorial elections. Even tech billionaire Chris Larsen, Boudin’s biggest individual backer, gave $300,000 to the PAC in 2020.
Since 2021, the PAC has given to several groups and campaigns, including the Edwin M. Lee Democratic Club and the school board recall. But the Boudin recall remains its biggest expense by far, with around $4 million donated by May 20, 2022.
What do the campaigns spend money on?
“We wanted to put a large share of our resources into direct voter contact and put out a really strong field operation,” said Julie Edwards, spokeswoman for Boudin’s campaign.
Edwards said that while they had been investing in digital outreach, Chinese-language media, and other strategies, their main focus was connecting with voters physically. She added that they were using the “robust” donor networks built up during Boudin’s 2019 election to keep funds flowing, and would be fundraising right up until election day.
“We recognize that the recall committee has seemingly decided to spend virtually limitless amounts of money, primarily on television ads,” Edwards said. “That’s a different strategy than ours.”
Andrea Shorter, the pro-recall camp’s spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment. But Ethics Commission data shows that their greatest single expense (at close to $1 million) was paid signature gatherers at the outset of the recall effort. A range of media strategy companies have since been major beneficiaries of the campaign.
With a little over two weeks until the vote, and with mail-in voting already underway, we can expect to see the intensity of both campaigns ramp up from here on out.
The charts and analysis in this article are based on figures from the Ethics Commission campaign finance dashboard.
Due to constraints in the filing schedule, figures include all recorded donations up to April 28, 2022, but only donations above $1,000 from that date until May 20. These figures are changing rapidly in the run-up to the June 7 election, and we aim to publish an update after the campaigns’ final donation declaration on June 3.
The Ethics Commission records all payments between campaign committees as well as payments to campaign committees from donors. To avoid double-counting this money, these types of payments were excluded from our analysis.
The colors showing occupation type were defined by donors’ self-reported occupations, plus our investigation of particularly big donors. The first bubble chart includes donations to both Richie Greenberg’s initial effort to get a recall on the ballot and the second successful effort.