S.F. Democratic Races Show Need for Reform

Candidates for the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) have reported fundraising numbers for the period ending March 17th – and the need for reform is evident.  Unlike other local races in the City (where contributions are capped at $500), there are no limits for giving to a DCCC candidate.  Scott Wiener, Debra Walker and Rafael Mandelman are running simultaneous races for DCCC in June and Supervisor in November – and all three have exploited this obvious loophole.  Other candidates have raised huge sums – with the Firefighters Union giving $10,000 to each of its members running.  Nowhere else in California must candidates for DCCC raise this money – for a job that pays nothing, and whose only power is making Democratic Party endorsements.  Most counties elect their DCCC by Supervisor district (rather than Assembly District), which may be a good start.  But what’s really needed are campaign contribution limits – and it’s unclear which entity could do that.  With the upcoming State Party Convention in Los Angeles this weekend, now is an ideal time to be talking about such reform.

Candidates for the San Francisco DCCC – which governs the local Democratic Party – are not covered or regulated by local campaign finance law.  They are merely subject to state law, so like any other political campaign committee are required to file with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC.)  And besides that, the rules are pretty loose.

While all candidates for local public office – Supervisor, School Board, even Mayor – can only take $500 per donor, there are no contribution limits in DCCC races.  With the state requiring June candidates to report what they raised between January 1st and March 17th, the most recent filing reports for DCCC show a system that has gone out of control.

Candidates for Supervisor Use DCCC Loophole

The DCCC gets to make Party endorsements for local office – such as the S.F. Board of Supervisors – and its current control by progressives played a decisive role as to why they swept the Board elections in 2008.  So it’s no surprise that candidates running for Supervisor – on both sides of the spectrum – are making simultaneous runs for DCCC.  

Candidates running for both DCCC and Supervisor use separate campaign accounts – but let’s get real.  Money raised and spent for DCCC elevates their profile among voters in a District, so they can get elected Supervisor five months later.  And those wishing to give over the $500 limit can just funnel money to their DCCC account – a soft money conduit.

Back in February, I reported that Scott Wiener took two donations from strip clubs for his DCCC campaign – in amounts of $5,000 and $10,000, well in excess of what they could give to his Supervisor campaign.

With the June election in a few weeks, it’s no surprise that the three candidates running simultaneous campaigns – Wiener in District 8, Debra Walker in District 6 and Rafael Mandelman in District 8 – raised more this quarter in their DCCC account (a job with no government power that pays nothing) than their account for Supervisor.  Wiener raised $8,000 for Supervisor – and $12,000 for DCCC.  Walker raised $4,000 for Supervisor and $9,354 for DCCC.  Mandelman: $3,900 for Supervisor and $7,140 for DCCC.

And again, we see each candidate taking large checks for their DCCC account that would not be legal if made to their Supervisor campaign.  Scott Wiener did not get more money from strip clubs, but he took $2,000 from the Plumbers Union.  Smaller donations for Wiener in this period came largely from corporate lawyers, deputy city attorneys, bankers and realtors.

Writer Jennifer Viegas gave $500 to Debra Walker’s Supervisor campaign (i.e., the legal maximum), then gave her DCCC campaign $4,000.  Other Walker donations for this period include the President of Cresleigh Development, California Nurses Association, Albert Urrutia of the construction firm Santos & Urrutia and Tom Ammiano’s Assembly campaign account.

Rafael Mandelman also got money from Tom Ammiano – to both of his accounts, $500 for the DCCC campaign and $500 for his Supervisor race.  Other donations he got in this period came from the California Nurses, Carole Migden and $2,500 from Pinnacle Properties.

Problem Not Limited to Supervisor Candidates

While candidates who run simultaneous campaigns opens up the greatest risk of abuse, there is no shortage of other candidates taking advantage of no contribution limits for DCCC.  Mike Sullivan, who chairs the anti-progressive Plan C, raised $28,500 in the past three months.  A third of his money came from donations of $1,000 or more – including a $1,500 check from BOMA, the commercial real estate political group.

But it gets even more blatant when you look at the firefighter candidates.  As I wrote in March, the Firefighters Union is taking an active interest in the DCCC elections – two of their members are running.  Keith Baraka has collected $11,000 – one thousand of that came from himself, while the other $10,000 was a single check from the Firefighters PAC.  Dan Dunnigan raised $10,000 – with 100% of that money coming from their PAC.

Problem Unique to San Francisco

Of course, none of this is new to anyone who follows San Francisco politics.  DCCC elections are always competitive here – whereas in other counties, the drama is getting enough candidates on the ballot so the Lyndon LaRouche people don’t win by default. But I had always assumed it was because in a city like San Francisco, politics is a sport.

So I called Dante Atkins, a friend and fellow Calitics blogger who serves on the Los Angeles County DCCC – to ask if elections are just as crazy down there.  They’re not – San Francisco is unique among California’s 58 counties where you must raise thousands of dollars to win a seat on the Central Committee.  And there are a few reasons why.

L.A. County’s DCCC has over 200 people – whereas San Francisco only has 24 elected members.  So buying one seat on the Central Committee can’t buy a lot of influence for the Party’s endorsement.  But what’s interesting is how they choose to elect members.

San Francisco elects its DCCC by State Assembly District – in a County that only has two.  In other words, half the DCCC is from the East Side – and the other half from the West Side.  Running for DCCC in San Francisco means campaigning in half the city.

That’s unusual, as most counties elect their DCCC by Supervisor district.  Los Angeles chose to do it by Assembly District – because they only have 5 Supervisor districts, and 26 Assembly districts.  But in San Francisco, it makes a lot more sense to elect a DCCC among 11 Supervisor districts – where a smaller electorate makes money less important.

If we want the DCCC to be a “farm team” for future San Francisco Supervisors, it makes sense to do this change.  Electing three per district, for example, would help include more voices.  All that needs to be done is for the San Francisco DCCC to amend its charter.

But Campaign Finance Reform is What’s Really Needed

While changing the way DCCC members are elected is intriguing, what’s really needed is to better regulate campaign finance.  If we have a $500 contribution limit for other local campaigns in San Francisco, it’s time to bring DCCC campaigns under the same rules.

But it’s unclear to me how we could make that change.  Could the City amend its Ethics Ordinance to bring DCCC campaigns into the fold?  DCCC positions are not exactly “local office” – as it’s really an arm of the California Democratic Party.  Passing state legislation might be necessary, or amending the rules and by-laws of the State Party.

This weekend, the California Democratic Party will hold its annual Convention in Los Angeles.  I’ll be attending as a delegate, as I normally do every year.  As this problem appears unique to San Francisco, I hope Democrats from across the state will join me in supporting campaign contribution limits for DCCC candidates.  It’s the right thing to do.

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco’s Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.