When local taxpayers provide matching funds for political campaigns, it’s supposed to level the democratic playing field—but the red tape has some candidates cornered by unintended consequences.
Trevor McNeil isn’t new to local politics. A public school teacher and father of three, he’s running a grassroots campaign for Supervisor in District 4, a seat that will be hotly contested in November now that incumbent Supervisor Katy Tang has announced her retirement from public office. Although he has run for school board before, this is the first race he’s run with an effort to qualify for public matching funds. When the Ethics Commission informed him he had missed the deadline to file for a Statement of Participation to qualify public financing, his heart sank—and he’s not alone.
With the San Francisco Ethics Commission moving its offices to City Hall around the same time several forms were due, which may have caused some confusion, a number of local candidates are appealing missed filing deadlines to qualify for public financing.
McNeil alleges that the San Francisco Department of Elections told him there was no documentation required by the Ethics Commission for at least a week after filing his nomination signatures. Fundamentally, less established candidates feel that poor coordination between the two City departments is hindering their efforts.
“The day I filed, I asked the Department of Elections if I needed to run across the street and file anything with the Ethics Commission that same day,” McNeil said in an interview. They said, ‘no worries, you can do it another day.’”
But this information was incorrect: according to an 18-page document laying out the process for the public financing program, the Statement of Participation (or Non-Participation, for candidates who forgo public matching funds) is due on the same day as the nomination paperwork.
The City’s public financing program provides double the funding for a non-incumbent candidate’s first $60,000 raised, and directly matches another $35,000. In theory, McNeil could have been able to leverage $95,000 from his own fundraising for $155,000 in public funds to campaign for a total of $250,000.
“The spirit of public financing is to provide a level playing ground for all viable political candidates, especially those from the local community or who lack established, institutional support,” McNeil continued. “As a public school teacher with three young children, I believe I fit the profile of someone who public financing was meant to support.”
McNeil says this issue opens up the potential for reforming the process.
“”[The Department of Elections] asks if I want to provide a Chinese name, a website, or even a candidate statement. These are all optional,” McNeil explained. “So why would you have to proactively seek the participation form? I could have been more organized, sure—but I also think the system failed a little. Perhaps there could be a more coordinated on-boarding checklist between ethics and elections for candidates?”
Other candidates filing similar appeals include Arthur Tom and Li Miao Lovett, also in District 4, and Sonja Trauss in District 6, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But unlike McNeil, Trauss (full disclosure: this author’s former employer) had retained the services of professional campaign consultant Maggie Muir, who previously worked on the campaigns of Mayor-elect London Breed and State Senator Scott Wiener. Li Miao Lovett has dropped out of the District 4 Supervisor race entirely.
Even for candidates who stay on top of deadlines, the process can be cumbersome enough to serve as a procedural bludgeon against their rivals.
While District 6 candidates Matt Haney and Christine Johnson both managed to file their Statement of Participation before the deadline, Johnson still weathered a procedural dispute by her opponent under auspices of the Department of Elections, echoing a spat in the recent mayoral election between “Acting Mayor” London Breed and Former State Senator cum “Small Business Owner” Mark Leno. Haney, a member of the SFUSD school board, challenged Johnson’s chosen ballot designation as “housing policy educator,” intended to reflect both her role as a former Planning Commissioner and Executive Director of the SF Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).
Haney wrote in his objection that “housing policy” was “misleading” in Johnson’s title because serving as the think tank’s Director “was focused on good government and planning, not housing.” (Johnson's reply emphasized that urban planning policy almost by definition has a central focus on housing.) Haney further contended that “educator” was inaccurate because it was not her “principal” job duty. (Johnson replied by citing a variety of lectures, panel talks, and Q&A sessions she had organized for SPUR.)
Ultimately, the Department of Elections sided with Johnson. According to spokesperson Gregory Slocum, “[t]he Department determined that adequate justification was presented and is allowing Ms. Johnson to use her preferred ballot designation.”
These are just some of the ways campaigns can be hamstrung by legal processes intended to empower them. Indeed, no one ever said running for office would be easy—and while it may be too soon to draw any conclusive lessons from these fiascos, it is clear that the bureaucratic hurdles involving two separate agencies have proved baffling both for scrappy grassroots candidates and well-heeled professionals alike.
In District 2, candidate and current BART Board Director Nick Josefowitz filed his Statement of Non-Participation after the deadline. While also retaining the services of consultant Maggie Muir, Josefowitz provided major funding to Regional Measure 3 and 2016’s Measure RR, transportation funding measures approved in multiple counties.
In District 10, candidate and Bayview community organizer Asale-Haquekyah Chandler found the Ethics Commission training presentation overwhelming and dispiriting for newcomers. “It made me not want to run, Chandler said. Chandler added that although the Ethics Commission underscored the importance of campaign finance disclosures in discouraging corruption, she felt the process presumed guilt and malfeasance by default.
“It made me not want to ask for a nickel,” Chandler declared.
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