An Odd Tradition: Thousands of Dollars Flood to Winning S.F. Supes After Polls Close -- From Their Enemies

Categories: Politics

rsz_john_avalos.jpg
Joe Eskenazi
Supervisor John Avalos admits that taking post-election donations from former political enemies looks bad -- but having a massive campaign debt is bad
You'd think making a donation to a San Francisco supervisorial candidate would be a bit like a horse race: You make your "bets," you cheer down the stretch, and, if you bet correctly, you get a "return." In some ways it's like that. But once the horses cross the finish line, the analogy blows up. In a San Francisco supervisorial horse race, the winning horse's "people" quickly shoot those who bet on his opponents a message: Horse racing is expensive. It would behoove you to make a donation to the winner. And they do.

Glancing through the supes' campaign filing statements, a cavalcade of donations came in following election day, Nov. 4. Counter-intuitively, many of these post-election donations were from folks who either did not support the winners -- or out-and-out opposed them. "A number of them were dead-set against me," concurs Supervisor John Avalos, who was not the preferred candidate of what our buddies the Guardian call "Downtown interests," but still racked up post-election donations from people and organizations that backed his opponents like big-shot lawyers Steven Kay and Mary Murphy, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and the San Francisco Firefighters Political Action Committee. Meanwhile, Avalos' progressive colleague, Eric Mar, managed to get post-election donations from erstwhile foes like land-use lawyers Andrew Junius and James Reuben, the Residential Builders Association, and Rodrigo Santos. That last donor is more than a little eye-catching; Santos is the president of the Coalition for Responsible Government, which spent $14,236 on an anti-Mar hit piece during the race (Santos -- and many others -- did not return multiple calls for this story).

John Hanley, the president of the firefighter's union, said that making a donation to winning candidates it did not back is the union's "policy," but he laughed when asked if it's actually written down anywhere. "What's in it for us? We want to congratulate the candidate on winning. Here's $500 to decrease your debt and congratulations. Other than that, there's nothing in it for us," said Hanley, whose PAC donated $500 to Avalos and Eric Mar (to whom he personally gave $500 as well, despite vociferously supporting Mar's opponent, Sue Lee, during the campaign). "The election's over so let's help decrease the debt so they can do politics full-time, govern San Francisco, and not have to do fund-raising."

Hanley -- and every one else reached for this story -- would have us believe that after months of hard-core campaigning, some of which did indeed reach gutter-level, once the winner was declared everyone clasped hands and said "May God allow you to rule wisely -- and here's a check for 500 bones."

Or maybe, just maybe, they want to get their calls returned. Bob Stern returned our call, and he thinks that one makes some sense.

"People want to give contributions to people who are in power. [Late donations] happen all the time, particularly from business groups or anyone who has business pending and wants to be on the good side of the person in power," said Stern, the president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

Stern recently scoured statewide campaign filings, and noted that the California Medical Association made a late donation to every state legislator -- the  most conservative Republican and the most liberal Democrat -- except for one guy. When Stern queried why this legislator was skipped, the CMA's response was, "Oh! We better give to him!"

"It's all about three words: "Losers don't legislate,'" Stern continued. "And those losers, by the way, will not be retiring their debts. It's almost like an ante -- but the system allows it." What's more, in San Francisco, donors are capped at $500 per election cycle -- meaning candidates hoping to retire debts have to reach further than their base of supporters.

Both Avalos and Mar told SF Weekly that they did not, personally, solicit their former opponents to make donations. Avalos noted that "there were a couple of breakfast meetings" attended by people he "didn't ask" to be there. Mar noted that "there were others behind the scenes saying 'You better call Eric.' I didn't make any proactive effort to reach out, but there are others out there who know how the system works who encouraged [former opponents] to reach out to me."

Sean Keighran, the president of the Residential Builders Association (RBA)  told SF Weekly that "mutual friends" asked if they could "help out" with Mar's debt. RBA members had walked in more than 150 precincts for Sue Lee, but Keighran made a few phone calls and a handful of builders, retired builders, or their wives kicked in a few thousand dollars.

According to the most recent campaign filings, Mar wiped out his debt with $14,048 in post-election donations, while Avalos is still looking at a $3,700 debt after raising $9,400 in post-election donations.

Avalos insisted that he "won the election knowing firmly what I ran on and whose interests I was promoting. Most of them were neighborhood interests." When asked why lawyers, lobbyists, and business groups felt the need to come running with their checkbooks, he noted that "it behooved those who possibly thought they lost influence." When asked if those who hadn't supported him actually did lose influence, he answered "I would say they didn't."

So why give? Isn't this just a quasi-compulsory buy-in for those with pending business to sit at the big boys' table?

"People always look at politics and say it looks fishy," Avalos continued. "That's what politics is about. That's what special interests are -- they have special interests. They want influence over people. I have to live with people who believe that all the time."

Apparently, it was either that or live with a campaign debt.

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