San Francisco mayoral race could be influenced by money supplied by committees 

Millions of dollars have already been raised by candidates in the mayoral race, but a surge of cash is about to be injected into the contest as third-party support groups prepare to spend freely to boost their favorite candidate.

Despite strict limitations on how much a mayoral candidate can raise from individuals and spending caps dictated by accepting public financing, there remains an often-exploited loophole that allows limitless cash to be raised and spent.

Dubbed “soft money,” the contributions come from independent or political action committees formed by unions, business groups, political clubs or simply like-minded individuals who want to throw cash behind a candidate’s effort.

Third-party money could be a game-changer in November as candidates try to cut through the political clutter of a crowded field. Reaching as many voters as possible with a compelling message is paramount to winning in this mayoral election where ranked-choice voting will have its first impact.

Two independent committees  already have been established for Mayor Ed Lee. One was set up Aug. 18 by multimillionaire angel investor Ron Conway, who has made his name investing in successful start-up tech companies such as Twitter. The committee is officially called San Franciscans For Jobs and Good Government and is being managed by political consultant Brian Brokaw.

On Wednesday, yet another soft-money spending vehicle was established to benefit Lee, this one under the name of Committee for Effective City Management.

These soft-money machines could give Lee a significant boost in the race. Lee, who is not accepting public financing, has also not agreed to abide by a $1.4 million spending cap.

“They could make Ed Lee the best caretaker mayor that money could buy,” mayoral candidate and Supervisor John Avalos said.

But Avalos will likely benefit from some soft-money with a coveted endorsement from the local Democratic Party, which spends thousands of dollars pushing its candidate slate with flyers and advertisements.

However, he said that will “pale in comparison” to the soft-money spending for Lee.

Political consultant Jim Ross, who ran Gavin Newsom’s mayoral campaign in 2003, said it is possible that independent spending backing Lee could exceed the spending of all the other mayoral candidates combined.

“A lot of rich people are supporting Ed Lee,” Ross said.

Lee isn’t the only mayoral candidate benefiting from a newly formed soft-money committee. In April, an independent expenditure committee was set up to support state Sen. Leland Yee’s bid for mayor. A month later, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, contributed $100,000 to the committee.

While three independent spending machines have been recently created, there are numerous others that have long been active in San Francisco’s political arena that will throw money into race, such as the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club PAC; Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the labor group representing the most city government workers; San Francisco Tenants Union; Police Officers Association; the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce; and the Democratic County Central Committee.  

In the Board of Supervisors November elections, $1.3 million in soft money was spent for or against a candidate. And just one person with deep pockets can make a big difference. Supervisor Mark Farrell benefited from an independent expenditure committee that spent $213,000 in support of him. That committee was funded with a $141,000 donation from real estate investor Tom Coates.

Like political candidates, independent expenditure committees are required to report to the San Francisco Ethics Commission how much they have raised and spent. The commission’s website also maintains a list of third-party spending in an election.

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