Ed Lee’s refusal of public financing allows him to raise millions for San Francisco mayoral race 

Ed Lee’s decision to not accept public financing in the mayor’s race allows him to accept donations well beyond a limit imposed on other candidates who are running against him.

As expected, Lee joined a crowded field of mayoral candidates Monday after pulling the required paperwork four days before the deadline. His campaign also launched a website asking donors to come forward with contributions, pledging to not accept public financing in the midst of an economic downturn.

“It’s a personal decision,” Lee said. “We had to make a lot of cuts to balance the budget, and I just personally feel that if I can raise the money for this campaign, why not put it on myself to do that?”

Asked whether he would voluntarily accept a spending limit, campaign spokesman Tony Winnicker said Lee would not.

That could give Lee, who enjoys the power of incumbency, a significant fundraising advantage over his opponents.

At the very least, Lee’s decision to forego a spending cap could make this a much more expensive campaign for everyone involved.

Each candidate who accepts public dollars agrees to a limit — currently $1.475 million — on how much money they can spend. As of Aug. 1, 2011, eight candidates for mayor have been certified as eligible to receive public funds and a ninth candidate’s application is under review.  

If someone who is not accepting public dollars raises money over that ceiling, the bar is raised for all the candidates who accepted public financing, according to John St. Croix, director of the Ethics Commission.

But for many of Lee’s rivals in the race, the ability to raise money with the possible help of people like Chinatown power broker Rose Pak is another instance that behind the scenes, there is more than meets the eye. City Attorney Dennis Herrera called Lee out for dishonesty — Lee promised that he was not going to run for office when he was appointed interim mayor in January — and his connections to powerful and rich backers.

“Ed Lee told us he didn’t want to be interim mayor.  But powerful people insisted he do it, so he did,” Herrera said in a statement.  

This is the first competitive mayoral race in The City with public financing. In the past, mayoral elections in San Francisco have been expensive affairs. In 2003, Mayor Gavin Newsom spent $5.1 million to win the top post in a heated and close contest against Supervisor Matt Gonzalez.  


Money matters

$1.475 million Current cap on expenditures for candidates who accept public financing
$500 Current limit on individual donations to mayoral candidates
$750 Limit on mayoral contributions in 2003
$5.1 million Cash spent by Gavin Newsom in 2003
$800,000 Money spent by Newsom’s opponent, Matt Gonzalez, in 2003

Source: Ethics Commission

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Brent Begin

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