Who’s Trying to Buy the District 10 Supervisor Race?

by Paul Hogarth on August 9, 2010

Last week, Beyond Chron reported that District 10 candidate Lynnette Sweet received $3,500 from seven members of the Vidovich family – who own large real estate holdings in the South Bay. But Vidovich Properties also owns a building in San Francisco’s District 10 – at 25 Division Street, which was leased to the Sweet campaign at $100/month. Sweet’s campaign manager defends the cheap rent as fair market value, and explained that most of the building is “unrentable” – although comparative office rents in the neighborhood range at about $2 per square foot. Vidovich has attempted to re-zone this property (with plans to build a 100-unit condominium complex), but the Planning Commission unanimously rejected their bid last year. The Vidovich family has deep ties in Republican politics, and are used to getting their way at the state and federal level. Are they now invested in the District 10 race – for the purpose of developing their local property here in San Francisco?

For ten years, San Francisco City officials – and neighborhood activists – went through the long process of passing the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which governs land use and future development in the Mission and Potrero Hill. Just two months later, the Vidovich family – who owns the land at 25 Division Street, zoned under the Plan for industrial use – asked the Planning Commission to re-zone their property. As their attorney explained at the time, they hoped to build a 100-unit condo complex. But Planning Commissioners were unconvinced, and they unanimously voted down the proposal – on March 12, 2009.

Over a year later, seven members of the Vidovich family each gave the maximum $500 contributions to Lynnette Sweet – who is running for District 10 Supervisor. Today, their property at 25 Division Street houses the Lynnette Sweet campaign headquarters – which they have used as a campaign office since Memorial Day. According to Ethics Commission filings, Sweet paid no office rent prior to June 30th – but they had “accrued expenses” (i.e., unpaid bills) to Vidovich Properties for $100, presumably for the month of June.

Political campaigns getting free – or below-market – rent for their office space is illegal, and Sweet would not be the first San Francisco candidate who has fallen under scrutiny. Back in 2004, Gavin Newsom’s campaign for Mayor had to pay over $10,000 in unpaid campaign office rent for three headquarters – one of which was leased from landlord Julie Lee. At the time, campaign manager Eric Jaye admitted it was a mistake.

Sweet campaign manager Shane Mayer explained to me that most of the office space at 25 Division Street is “unrentable” – and what they currently use is rented at fair market value. “When we had our office opening,” he said, “we had to end it before 8:00 p.m. because we didn’t have the lights running in the building yet.” But a survey of office rents in the neighborhood show rents at around $2 per square foot per month. To be “fair market rent,” the Sweet campaign would have to be using 50 square feet – which is not much.

Vidovich is not a household name in San Francisco, but they are very prominent in South Bay local potlics. The family patriarch, Stephen J. Vidovich, passed away in 2007 and was recognized as having started the family real estate empire – DeAnza Properties – back in the 1960’s.

John Vidovich, the most active politically in that family, is a Republican who ran for the Los Altos Hills City Council at least twice. Some of his recent campaign contributions include Steve Cooley for Attorney General (i.e., Kamala Harris’ GOP opponent), Pete Wilson, Tom Campbell, Matt Fong and George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns.

The Vidovich family is known for having its members bundle contributions to local politicos – like they did for Santa Clara Vice Mayor Kevin Moore, the driving force behind moving the San Francisco 49ers down to the South Bay. In 2008, the SF Chronicle pointed out that Vidovich Properties was the largest recipient of federal corporate farm subsidies (with assistance from Nancy Pelosi), even though the family has largely moved away from farming – and towards real estate development of agricultural land.

But the Vidovich family has long been involved in San Francisco politics as well. Before bundling donations to Lynnette Sweet’s campaign, they gave a combined total of $2,500 to Gavin Newsom’s 2003 mayoral campaign – and $3,500 to Willie Brown’s re-election. Sources tell Beyond Chron that the Vidovich family has connections with Brown going back to his days in the State Assembly – and he provided assistance in their unsuccessful effort to re-zone their property at 25 Division Street to develop a condominium complex.

But those are just the “hard money” contributions. On June 4th, John Vidovich also gave $5,000 to a group called “Committee for a Safe & Prosperous San Francisco.” According to filings at the Ethics Commission, the committee formed on Memorial Day weekend – and will be supporting “candidates that promote a safe and prosperous San Francisco.” No expenditures have yet been made, but expect this campaign committee (FPPC ID# 1327569) to be sending out a lot of “soft money” mailers for Sweet and others this cycle.

Any real estate developer who owns the land at 25 Division Street could stand to make a fortune off a condominium complex there. Is the Vidovich family – under its business entity Doheny-Vidovich Partners – hoping to buy the District 10 race to improve its real estate holdings here in San Francisco, following a strategy they have used for decades in the South Bay?

EDITOR’S NOTE: As a private citizen, Paul Hogarth has endorsed Eric Smith for District 10 Supervisor. Smith has long been a columnist for Beyond Chron, and this piece was not co-ordinated with Smith’s campaign.

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