Certain changes will have to be made to San Francisco’s system of publicly financing candidates for local office thanks to Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of Arizona’s public finance law.
In March, I wrote about the case of McComish v. Bennett because it had just been argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was an Arizona law that gives public funds to a candidate based on the amount of funds raised in opposition to that candidate. Arizona’s desire to “level the playing field” among candidates was the stated basis for adopting this system. Opponents of the law argued that, when candidate A’s fundraising efforts result in free money for candidate B, this dissuades contributors from giving to candidate A and makes candidate A reluctant to accept donations — all of which amounts to a restriction on free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with those opponents and ruled the scheme unconstitutional.
San Francisco’s system is similar to the one at issue in Arizona. Here, candidates who opt in to public financing receive matching funds up to a capped amount — $143,000 for supervisor races, for example — but once a candidate raises that amount, if a fellow candidate or a third-party (“independent expenditure”) group spends more, the cap is ratcheted up accordingly. Using supervisor races as an example, in 2008 David Chiu’s limit was raised to $360,000 and in 2010 Scott Wiener’s limit ended up being $493,000.
The ruling in McComish v. Bennett does not mean the end of public financing of campaigns in Arizona or San Francisco. It does mean we will have to stop basing the amount of public money that goes to one candidate on the amount of money that flows in opposition to that candidate. How will this work? I asked election law expert Jim Sutton of The Sutton Law Firm, who explained that the initial cap on spending for mayoral candidates is $1.475 million. Opposition-matching only kicks in once a candidate reaches that limit, and as no one is even close to raising that amount there is time for the Oakland city attorney (who is handling our election law matters now that City Attorney Dennis Herrera is running for mayor) to instruct the Ethics Commission to ignore the opposition-matching law on the books because it is unconstitutional.
The alternative is to dig in our heels and wait for a legal battle that The City is sure to lose. As the Board of Supervisors votes today to pay $290,000 in legal fees to settle a lawsuit because the City Attorney’s Office defended blatantly unconstitutional limits on campaign contributions that voters passed in 2000, I submit that we should quickly alter our approach and move on instead of publicly financing plaintiffs attorneys.
Standing there at the start of the Pride Parade, surrounded by 50 to 75 people wearing orange-and-black “Team Lee” T-shirts that featured a drawing of his face, Mayor Ed Lee did not look like a future city administrator. In fact, his entourage looked remarkably like the dozens of other campaign flotillas dotting the otherwise-interesting landscape of the parade.
“You really expect us to believe you’re not a candidate?” I asked.
“I’m not campaigning for mayor,” he replied.
That was, I think, an interesting choice of words.
What we have here is an immensely popular mayor who has said he won’t run for re-election. The catch: He doesn’t have to. With folks happy to conduct the campaign for him, he can skip the shaking hands and kissing babies and instead roller skate around his spacious City Hall digs while other candidates drink warm chardonnay at house parties. The only thing his supporters cannot do for him is sign a simple document called a declaration of candidacy. If Lee signs that document during the July 18-Aug. 12 “nomination period,” his fan club could do the rest of the work necessary to get his name on the ballot. The rest would be up to the voters.
I asked Lee’s spokeswoman, Christine Falvey if Lee would allow his name to be on the ballot if it meant not otherwise lifting a finger to campaign. She wrote, “Mayor Lee is 100 percent focused on his policy priorities and his duties as interim mayor of San Francisco. He believes the residents of our city deserve his full attention.”
Of course we do, and thank you Mr. Mayor. This response explains why he won’t “run” or “campaign” for the office of mayor, but it is becoming increasingly clear that such efforts might not be necessary.
And he didn’t say, “No.”
Supervisor Scott Wiener’s proposal to allow the Board of Supervisors to make amendments to certain voter-approved initiatives will move forward to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote July 12.
If passed, it will be on the November ballot.
Throughout the hearings on this proposal, many people expressed concern about allowing any changes to laws passed by the voters. But the recent additions to the ballot that would change Care Not Cash and the Parkmerced development and would restrict the revenue options for the Recreation and Park Department have made Wiener’s amendment all the more relevant.
As Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said Thursday, “I think what happened Tuesday afternoon is exactly why this charter amendment is necessary. Three ballot measures were placed on the ballot at the very last minute by four members of the Board of Supervisors. And I think in the last 48 hours, we have seen that those ballot measures were written rather hastily. There are all kinds of unintended consequences.”
Perhaps someone should propose an amendment to require public hearings before four supervisors or the mayor can slap sloppy legislation in front of voters who mistakenly trust that someone has reviewed the proposal with a red pen. Until then, Wiener’s proposal is worth a look.