Financial limits hamstring donations to San Francisco campaigns 

Running for citywide office in San Francisco is no easy task, but with so many candidates running for mayor, district attorney and sheriff, a rule limiting the amount of money an individual donor can give in one election cycle is making it all the more difficult.

The Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance mandates that no one person’s donation can exceed $500 multiplied by the number of elected offices up for grabs. The Nov. 8 election has three of the most-important elected positions available, yet one person can only donate a combined $1,500 among at least 15 candidates raising money.

That donor limit could be especially hard for Mayor Ed Lee, who is expected to enter the race for mayor today, long after other candidates have been in the running for months.

Candidates who enter the race late — for mayor or district attorney — might go to their friends for donations and find they have already given the maximum amount to other campaigns, according to political consultant Jim Ross, who isn’t working on any mayoral campaigns.

"I don’t know if it has been a problem yet, and I don’t even know if it has been monitored, but it certainly could be a factor, especially if Ed Lee enters the race," Ross said.

The Ethics Commission tried to abolish or raise that limit this year but was unsuccessful. The argument is that in even-numbered years, such as 2010, there were 13 elected offices on the ballot — including three community college board seats, three school board seats and five supervisorial seats — and the cumulative limit was $6,500.

"This law is arbitrary because it limits contributions in any given race based on the entirely irrelevant matter of how many other races are on the ballot that year," Ethics Commission Director John St. Croix wrote in an analysis of the law.

Now, it’s a matter of whether the Ethics Commission will have the resources to enforce the law at all. For mayoral candidate Michela Alioto-Pier, the rule has already been a factor in raising money.

"We have this other weird thing, this cap, where people can only spend $1,500 in a cycle, and that’s never really been enforced before," the former supervisor said. "Now for those of us who got into the race a little later than others, you’re going to your regular donors who have already maxed out on that."


Spending boundaries

$500: Limit to a single campaign

3: Seats up for grabs in 2011

$1,500: Total limit on donations for 2011

13: Seats up for grabs in 2010

$6,500: Total limit on donations for 2010

Source: Ethics Commission

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Brent Begin

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