San Fran hunts down zombie candidates

April 5, 2012

By Dave Roberts

Zombies staggered around San Francisco during its 2011 election, feeding on unsuspecting taxpayers.

These “zombie candidates” for mayor received millions of dollars in public funds for their campaigns, even though their chances of winning were slim to none. Ironically, they had to keep their half-dead campaigns alive anyway in order to avoid paying back the free money bitten from the taxpayers’ flesh.

Now San Francisco officials are having second thoughts about taxpayer financing of campaigns. They are planning to rein in the largesse, in effect putting a bullet through the heads of the zombies before the undead rise from their political graves. San Francisco’s experience should be instructive whenever California liberals launch another effort to establish public campaign financing for statewide elections.

The last such effort, Proposition 15 in June 2010, was shot down by statewide voters 57-43 percent. Sponsored by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, it would have charged the state’s 1,239 registered lobbyists $350 per year (instead of the current $25), which would be funneled to candidates for the office of secretary of state in 2014 and 2018. As such, it was a pilot project, which would have been expanded to other electoral offices if successful.

Proponents argued that Prop. 15 would reduce special-interest influence, allow politicians to focus on fixing the state’s problems rather than raising money for re-election and enable those without wealthy connections to compete on a level playing field. Proponents asserted that publicly financed campaigns in other states have led to office holders working on behalf of constituents instead of lobbyists.

Opponents argued that instead of preventing lobbyists from funding and influencing politicians, it actually forces them to do so. It allowed candidates to continue raising funds for legal defense and an inaugural party. And they pointed out that it allowed the Legislature to spend money from the general fund to finance campaigns if the lobbyist rate increase proved insufficient to cover the costs.

San Francisco Zombies

The idea of financing campaigns with taxpayer dollars has had a much warmer reception in San Francisco, where it’s been in effect for mayoral and supervisorial contests since 2000. The city elections code states that the purpose of public financing “is to combat corruption and the appearance of corruption in local politics.” It supposedly “reduces the possibility that contributions will allow private, relatively wealthy individuals to receive disproportionate access to City decision-makers or exercise undue influence with City elected officials.” And it “increases public confidence that City elected officials will act solely in the City’s best interests.”

An ordinance introduced at a Board of Supervisors Rules Committee meeting last week declares that the program has been a “success” — just before listing a variety of amendments designed to make it less zombie-friendly.

The problem had been brewing for years. But it came to a head last summer and fall when dozens of candidates came out of the woodwork in the race for what appeared to be an open mayoral seat. Ten of the 16 candidates qualified for public financing (nine took advantage of it). All but one of them was a current or former supervisor or city official who figured he had a decent shot at the top spot.

That is, until interim Mayor Ed Lee went back on his promise to not run for election. When he threw his hat in the ring on the last day of filing, he automatically became the prohibitive favorite, despite turning down public financing. As a result, most of the candidates who had been campaigning for months with public funds instantly became walking zombies.

Head Zombie

The head zombie was City Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, who received $279,668 in taxpayer-funded financing, but only garnered 1,013 first-choice votes in the city’s ranked-choice voting system. That works out to $276 per vote spent by San Franciscans to subsidize his campaign, despite only 0.5 percent of voters wanting Ting to be their mayor.

The walking dead also included businesswoman Joanna Rees. She bit into taxpayers for $491,405, but managed only 3,096 votes (1.6 percent of the total), or $159 per vote.

Also staggering along were former supervisors Bevan Dufty and Michela Alioto-Pier. Combined, they received more than $1.1 million in public money, equating to $74 per vote. San Francisco taxpayers shelled out a total of $4.6 million for nine zombie mayoral candidates.

Meanwhile, Lee won easily, gathering nearly 31 percent of the votes in the first round, versus the second place finisher’s 19 percent. He then won the election in the 12th round of ranked-choice balloting — despite not taking one dime from the taxpayers.

There were howls of outrage at the waste of taxpayer money. In response, the board of supervisors will consider an amended ordinance on April 10 that would:

* Double the qualification threshold to a total of $10,000 raised from at least 100 contributors for a supervisor’s race and $50,000 from 500 contributors for mayoral candidates. The threshold is higher for incumbents.

* Cut public matching funds from four times funds raised privately, to two to one.

* Shift the filing deadline to June from August.

* Distribute matching funds in June instead of February.

Fewer zombies?

As a result, a late entry by an Ed Lee that zombifies candidates who have already spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars would no longer be likely.

In addition, the city’s total campaign fund cap would decrease to $7 million from the current $13.6 million. It also eliminates the provision that raises the spending cap on public funds if third-party spending exceeds that ceiling. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is illegal to link public with private campaign financing, which in effect punishes private donors.

The bad news, as far as those opposed to publicly financed campaigns are concerned, is that $7 million of taxpayer dollars will still be wasted on politicians or would-be politicians. The good news is that there will be fewer zombie candidates wasting that money.

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