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Project Political Runway: In Mayor Lee’s regime, if you’re not in with Ron Conway, you’re out

On Sept. 17 at 7 a.m., community and labor groups, including the California Nurses Association, United Educators of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Tenants Union, held a “Wake Up Conway” rally at the San Francisco Four Seasons residence of billionaire tech investor and Mayor Ed Lee ally Ron Conway. The protest came after the release of a “pay to play politics” report by the group Jobs with Justice San Francisco detailing contributions, behested payments, and lobbying by the tech and real estate development industries.

While some may dismiss the report because of the “left leaning” bent of Jobs with Justice, it’s hard to ignore the numbers: Conway alone contributed 26 percent of all tech-based political contributions analyzed in the study, and he’s second only to Google for the largest “behested payment” (an unlimited charitable or governmental donation made at the behest of a city official). Mayor Lee was at the helm of those tech-based behests, and he has received far more monetary favors than his predecessor Gavin Newsom or any other city official over the past decade, according to the report. “Those favors to the mayor have been well-returned, and at a public cost,” Jobs with Justice San Francisco executive director Gordon Mar says, citing examples such as “the Twitter tax break, the under-regulated proliferation of AirBnB rentals and city-sanctioned use of our public bus stops by Google and other private tech shuttles.”

John Eller, San Francisco director of Alliance of Californians for Comm-unity Empowerment, which is circulating a petition calling for an independent investigation, says the rise of behested payments and patronage at City Hall is alarming “at a time when tech companies are avoiding their taxes, city services are underfunded, and luxury developers are defining city housing policy to benefit themselves at the expense of affordability for all of us.”

There’s no denying that the mayor and Conway want the November election to go their way. Conway is the Tim Gunn to Mayor Lee’s Heidi Klum in San Francisco’s own version of “Project Political Runway,” where one day you’re in and the next day you’re out — and if you’re out, they’ll do just about anything to stop you from getting back in. Take, for example, the April 7 gathering of prominent business, labor, and tech leaders held at the Hanson Bridgett law firm. According to attendees, the mayor — flanked by his chief of staff Steve Kawa, top advisor Tony Winnicker, and Conway — was deadly serious when he warned there would be consequences if they helped former Board of Supervisors president and progressive thorn-in-the-side Aaron Peskin in his bid to take back his seat from Lee’s handpicked District 3 incumbent Julie Christensen. One attendee said they felt like they were “being threatened” not to support Peskin. Witnesses also allege that after letting the room know “he was watching,” the mayor and Kawa left the event and Conway remained to drive the point home, saying, “I think we heard it pretty clear from the mayor. We’d better not have anybody here give to Aaron Peskin, or there’ll be problems with Ed Lee.” (Apparently helping Peskin means the mayor won’t help you.) Other attendees heard Conway admit that he had contributed heavily to keep David Campos from reaching the California Assembly in 2014 (in a tight race, David Chiu eked out the win), but feared that doing the same for Christensen could come back to haunt him and the mayor. At that point, he reportedly did some arm-twisting, telling the gathering to step up to the plate and donate to Christensen’s campaign.

Conway contributed the maximum allowed by individuals, $500, to Christensen, as did a number of his family members. But the Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth Political Action Committee (whose members include the Chamber of Commerce, downtown building owners and construction trade union Laborers Local 261) received nearly $30,000 from Conway, which paid for a poll related to the Christensen/Peskin race. They also received nearly $3,000 to pay for fliers for Christensen (surprise, surprise — the group is supporting Christensen for District 3.) Alliance for Jobs reported the flier dollars, but Peskin’s camp has raised questions about whether the money from Conway for the poll should also have been reported. Eileen Hansen, a former ethics commissioner, said she would file a complaint, estimating that $150,000 in third-party spending has gone unreported by Alliance for Jobs. (A complaint would trigger an investigation, but don’t hold your breath on anything coming of it — the Ethics Commission is notoriously toothless.)

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone aware of Conway’s not-so-subtle push to keep the mayor his puppet. In 2012, while being honored by The Commonwealth Club as a “Distinguished Citizen,” he reminded the audience about comments he made before the business group Bay Area Council where he said “we must take our city back” from progressives. “I said, ‘We are going to take our city back,’ and guess what? Ed Lee got elected mayor, and we have taken our city back,” Conway boasted.

In 2011, Conway contributed $25,000 to a political committee supporting Mayor Lee’s election. Since then, he has backed Lee’s ballot measures ($70,000 to the mayor’s 2014 transportation bond, and $250,000 to the mayor’s 2012 tax reform measure, which was strongly supported by the tech industry) and preferred candidates (“third parties” spent nearly $180,000 to help elect District 5 supervisor London Breed and $104,000 against her opponent — including nearly $50,000 from Conway — and third-party money totaling nearly $925,000 was spent in an attempt to defeat incumbent District 1 supervisor Eric Mar).

For this November’s election, voters will need to decide whether they want a District 3 supervisor and a sheriff who are in (Julie Christensen, Vicki Hennessy) or a District 3 supervisor and a sheriff who are out (Aaron Peskin, Ross Mirkarimi). All four candidates are capable and all four have their pluses and minuses (see pages 10–13). For the sheriff race, being in or out doesn’t matter as much as it does in the District 3 supervisor race. With the hand-appointed Christensen, the mayor has thus far had a 6-to-5 vote on the Board of Supervisors in his favor on big development projects and tech-friendly initiatives (like sparing Airbnb all those pesky rules and regulations that the rest of the hotel industry deals with). The one candidate who doesn’t have a fight on his hands is the mayor himself, who will slip right into a second term (despite the fact he told voters in 2011 that he didn’t even want a first one). Mayor Lee’s public persona is that of a meek and mild, nose-to-the-grindstone, number-crunching public servant, and I endorsed him in 2011 because he was the best choice in a field of weak candidates. I remember, however, the exact moment I felt that perhaps San Francisco voters had been duped: As I watched Mayor Lee shake hands with President Barack Obama at the White House on CNN, the unmistakable glint in his eye said, “I like this job and all the perks and the power that come with it, and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep it.”

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