David Lee's Soft Money Is Dominating the District 1 Race

David Lee

The soft money being spent in District 1 is on track to shatter the previous record for the amount of independent cash spent in a supervisor race since 2002. But where is all this money coming from? The truth is, it's really hard to tell.

While almost every supervisoral candidate has benefited from soft money -- which include contributions not regulated, thus avoiding legal imitations --  it's especially apparent in the race between Supervisor Eric Mar and David Lee.

See also: Eric Mar: Video Targeting Supe Features Horde of Maniacal, Dirty Kids Banging Pots and Pans

The problem is, it's not clear who these groups are or what they want, and it becomes even less clear when one group hides behind the name of another. The Coalition for Sensible Government, for example, is funded by the SF Association of Realtors, and both groups are funding Lee.

California and San Francisco election laws require every group that's not connected to a candidate but spends money in the campaign to disclose its expenditures to the Ethics Commission. But because of certain loopholes, not all groups have to say where they're getting their money.

"The disclosure rules exist to try and shine a light on some of this, but the loopholes create a shell game," said Oliver Luby, former Ethics staffer. "It's a never-ending series of loopholes with these guys."

As a result, it's fairly easy for a group of people to donate huge sums of money without the public knowing who's kicking in the cash. It's as easy as putting a few names on an LLC, then using that "company" to funnel contributions.

It's not difficult to see how this cavalcade of money is helping Lee in the District 1 supervisor race; if you visit the Ethics Committee website, which tracks third-party spending, the bar representing Lee is off the charts -- literally. As of Oct. 26, more than $252,000 in outside money had been spent to support Lee, and more than $66,000 had been spent to defeat his opponent, Supervisor Eric Mar.

Some of Lee's soft money has gone toward paying for bizarre ads like this one:

In comparison, Mike Garcia, a candidate in District 7, only had a little more than $86,000 spent on his behalf, while London Breed, who is running for the District 5 seat, benefited from $68,000 in independent expenditures.

Soft money is an omnipresent feature of San Francisco politics, as we pointed out in previous stories about Garcia, who was shocked to learn that the Golden State Leadership PAC had spent $25,000 on campaign materials to help him.

But don't count Mar out just yet. He's fighting back with manpower.

"We have an unprecedented number of volunteers," said Nicole Derse, Mar campaign spokeswoman. "They're much more motivated to go out and canvass when they see David Lee trying to buy this election."

Although Lee's soft money shines in this election, most everyone in politics is playing the money game these days -- and Lee says he doesn't like it.

"There is no doubt that the current system does not work and must be fixed," Lee said in an e-mail to SF Weekly. "If it was up to me, we would get rid of these committees entirely."

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