Campaign contributions and City Hall outcomes



By John Dunbar


Does campaign money drive outcomes? This question comes up often, and it’s one that percolates throughout American politics. This year’s lively Presidential campaign has been filled with charges about the impact of campaign money upon decision-making.


San Francisco’s sewage hauling contract helps illustrate this question locally.  It involves two bidders, Norcal and S&S Trucking fighting over a contract to haul 240 tons of sludge a day.  For a five-year contract, S&S Trucking had the low bid at $8.5 million. Norcal’s would cost the City’s general fund $3 million more.  Mayor Newsom and Supervisor Chris Daly have teamed up to champion the S&S contract, the Board of Supervisors on a 10-1 vote is standing by Norcal.  Why?


Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin argues that S&S Trucking contract is “too good to be true” and the firm doesn’t have the experience to do the job.  Another argument is that Norcal’s union benefit and wage package is backed up by a better history than what S&S Trucking offers.  The powerful Teamster’s union also wants Norcal to retain the contract.


Except there is no evidence for the assertion that S&S Trucking would not pay prevailing wages. The head of the City’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, Donna Levitt, told the Chronicle (4/15/2008) that the firm, “has never been audited or cited by the city for failing to pay the required wage.”


As to the argument that S&S Trucking is not up to the job, it’s worked at the San Francisco Airport hauling 24 hours a day, next to live runways.  Its fleet of trucks is large enough to move the sludge.


Critics charge that campaign contributions anchor this contract at the expense of a lower, qualified bid submitted by S&S Trucking. Michael Sangiacomo owns the Norcal Corporation, Sunset Scavenger, Golden Gate Disposal and SF Recycling and Disposal. 


For example, according to campaign finance filings, District 7 Supervisor Elsbernd’s re-election campaign through December 31, 2007 collected  $6,700 from 31 individuals who worked either for Sunset Scavenger, Golden Gate Disposal or San Francisco Recycling.  All 31 contributions were received on the same date, October 19, 2007.  On the sewage contract, Elsbernd, along with nine of his colleagues, sided with Norcal.  Supervisor Elsbernd is not alone - many of these individual contributors show up in other local campaign finance filings as well.  It’s a cost of doing business.



S&S Trucking was bumping against one of the hard facts of US politics: there is not a surplus of individuals who can afford or choose to write campaign checks.  This is true at all levels.  Even George Bush, who raised over $360 million in 2004 to win re-election, had approximately 161,000 contributors who gave more than $200, and 61,700 that gave more than $2,000. 


Concerning federal campaign spending, Spencer Overton, a George Washington University law professor wrote (University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 2004):


“Less than one percent of the U.S. population makes financial contributions over $200 to federal candidates, and these contributions represent the vast majority of funds that candidates receive from individuals. Of those who contribute over $200, approximately 85 percent have household incomes of $100,000 or more, 70 percent are male, and 96 percent are white.”


There has not been a comparable study of local campaign spending, but one survey of a successful 2003 campaign that raised $8 million consisted of an estimated 1200 individual donors.  Not all of the $8 million was raised from those individuals, however, since corporate contributions to local campaigns were legal in 2003.


The business of winning a campaign is expensive.  New York’s late Senator Patrick Moynihan complained about the class bias that was inherent in the new politics of the 1960s that sought to increase voter participation at all levels of American government. To win, candidates or proposition campaigns must persuade thousands voters who may be disengaged from the details of what is on the ballot.   Campaigns have to test market their best arguments, figure out ways to derail the opposition’s best case, and communicate their pitch either in print or through media.  In a San Francisco citywide contest, a credible campaign has to reach at least 250,000 frequent voters. In San Francisco’s District 7 alone over 50,000 people are registered to vote. 


Mayor Gavin Newsom’s opposes Norcal winning this contract.  One basic reason is that his political career is so established at this point that he needs general fund dollars more than he does Norcal.   He can raise money nationally whether he runs for Governor in 2010 or the United States Senate in 2012.   So he has outgrown this comparatively small pool of donors.  As Mayor he needs to fund police academy classes, retain psyche beds at SF General Hospital and buy MUNI bus parts.  In a down budget cycle he is looking for every dollar to accomplish such goals while minimizing his exposure to bad headlines – as Newsom prepares to launch a statewide campaign, that is one of his last remaining challenges.


Supervisor Chris Daly opposed the Norcal contract because he is irreverent, and for him to defy local convention is expected.  It’s part of his makeup.


However, for Board of Supervisor incumbents who live with political necessity and are figuring out how to pay for consultants, polls or postage without risking the ire of the Teamster’s Union, siding with Norcal makes transactional sense.  It’s an established firm with a long history of knowing what it takes to make San Francisco government work.  The extra $3 million cost of the sludge contract, even in a tough budget cycle, is ancillary. Any guilt can be rationalized on the basis that S&S Trucking may successfully litigate their way to this contract despite the Board of Supervisors.

May 2008



Sean Elsbernd prepares for re-election

By John Dunbar
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd is preparing for re-election in November 2008 by building a substantial campaign warchest. The District 7 supervisor is up for re-election in November. Elsbernd was first appointed to the Board of Supervisors in 2004 by Mayor Gavin Newsom in a move widely characterized as a “triple play” in which then Supervisor Tony Hall went to Treasure Island, then Treasure Island Director Ann Marie Conroy went to Emergency Services and then Mayoral liaison to the Board of Supevisors Elsbernd filled the vacancy in District 7.
Elsbernd won the seat in his own right in November 2004. His campaign spent $226,000 to win 10,475 first place votes and 33% of the vote. Additionally, Elsbernd was aided by independent expenditure campaigns to promote his election. Under the City’s ranked choice voting system Elsbernd defeated second place runner up Christine Linnenbach after ten elimination rounds in which second place votes were reallocated. Linnenbach spent $51,000 .
Elsbernd has been Mayor Gavin Newsom’s strongest ally on the Board of Supervisors and probably his most potent. Frequent Newsom critic Supervisor Chris Daly has described Elsbernd as the Mayor’s “Field Marshall” on a body that is often at odds with the Mayor. Elsbernd has a grasp of the legislative process and a political mind that grasps nuances quickly. While Elsbernd articulates the interests of the Newsom administration he also collaborates with Board President Aaron Peskin --whose feud with Newsom has been ratcheted up in 2008. For example, Elsbernd provided Peskin the sixth vote to place Proposition A, the transportation charter amendment, on last November’s ballot.
For the November 2008 election Elsbernd has raised more campaign money than any other candidate –challenger or incumbent-- for the Board of Supervisors. Campaign finance reports show that by December 31, 2007 Elsbernd raised over $141,000. A tried and true campaign strategy incumbents employ is to build up a significant campaign warchest and by doing so deter opponents. This Elsbernd has done. The adoption by City voters in 2002 of ranked choice voting is another advantage incumbents enjoy because name recognition is a necessary condition to win, and it’s harder for a lesser known challenger to defeat an incumbent without a runoff election. The only caveat to that for an incumbent is if someone with a more famous and well regarded last name chooses to enter a contest.
Of the $141,000 Elsbernd raised significant portions of it come from institutional players who are active lobbyists, developers, large property owners and those in real estate business. Elsbernd has raised over $7,000 from lobbyists. These figures include blue chip members of the San Francisco political establishment such as Marcia Smolens and Don Solem. Elbernd also raised close $5,000 from employees working for the City’s heavily regulated garbage companies, Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal.
Elsbernd raised over $40,000 from contributorswhose occupational descriptions are in development, real estate or property owning businesses. Individuals make contributions for any number of reasons that often may have nothing to do with narrow self-interest, key votes or anything beyond positive regard for a candidate. The connection that exists in the popular mind between campaign contributions and political outcomes is often more nuanced and complicated than one-dimensional campaign finance reform advocates care to admit but they are suggestive nonetheless. Academics argue bitterly about what boundaries and limitations elected officials encounter in office because of the fundraising they have to do to survive politically.
District 7 is one of the most affluent districts in an affluent town. In four years on the Board of Supervisors Elsbernd has supported new construction development; property owners often feeling besieged by tenant activists; and downtown business interests often at odds with a liberal Board of Supervisors given to experimenting with everything from paid sick days to universal health care coverage.

March '08



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