How to Buy a Seat on the Democratic Central Committee

by Paul Hogarth on May 26, 2010

With June 8th coming up, San Francisco voters are getting glossy campaign pieces in their mailboxes – for an obscure office that most have never heard of. Races for Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) are always insane, but now there is an unprecedented amount of money involved. We’ve always had slate cards that endorse a series of DCCC candidates (voters can pick up to 12), but now a few very well funded DCCC candidates have their own mailings more appropriate for a Supervisor campaign. And the Affordable Housing Alliance has a mailing that touts a “renters’ choice” – which endorses DCCC candidates who flunked their own questionnaire. That’s because AHA offered its “pro-tenant” stamp of approval to any candidate who gave them money. As campaigns for DCCC get more expensive, this “pay-to-play” model proves the need for reform.

In no other part of California must candidates for the DCCC – which fundraises and registers voters for the Party, and votes on the Democratic Party endorsements in local elections – raise gobs of money for a job that pays nothing. Candidates have always sought the endorsement of clubs and groups. They had to raise money, but most of it would go to help fund a “slate card” of a group that had endorsed them – among a slew of 11 other DCCC candidates.

Now, some candidates are taking it to a whole new level – with glossy mailings that promote just themselves, and driving up the cost of name-recognition for the DCCC.

Recently, I received a large mailing supporting DCCC incumbent Scott Wiener – who has raised $62,000 for his campaign – complete with headshots of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, State Senator Mark Leno, and Mayor Gavin Newsom. It appeared more like the kind of literature for a candidate running for Supervisor (not a DCCC member on a 24-member committee.) In fact, Wiener is running for Supervisor in District 8.

But I found it odd to receive the mailing – because while I live on the East Side, I don’t live in District 8. Candidates like Wiener who make simultaneous runs for DCCC and Supervisor focus their DCCC campaigns in their Supervisor district – as a “trial run” for the more meaningful election five months later. What does it mean that Wiener sent me one of the huge mailers for his DCCC campaign? Clearly, his campaign has money to burn.

Meanwhile, the Firefighters Union has taken an active interest in the June ballot – with glossy mailers sent almost daily for “Yes on B.” Firefighter and DCCC candidate Keith Baraka is almost fully funded by the Firefighters Union PAC ($10,000 of the $11,000 he raised.) And he sent out a mailer for his campaign that was even bigger and glossier than Wiener’s.

Of course, part of the problem is we don’t know where all the money is coming from – because candidates have not yet been required to submit their reports of money raised after March 17th. Some DCCC candidates, for example, sent out mailers touting their campaign – and the Ethics Commission still has no record of them raising a dime. New reports will be available in a week – but with early absentee voters being the bulk of the electorate in this low-turnout election, that information might come a little too late.

One slate card that has attracted some attention is from the Affordable Housing Alliance – which touts the “renters’ choice” for the June ballot. While urging a “yes” vote on the pro-tenant Proposition F and a few progressive candidates, the mailing also encourages a vote for DCCC moderates Scott Wiener on the East Side and Mary Jung on the West Side. Which raises the question who exactly the Affordable Housing Alliance really is.

In 2000, the Bay Guardian published an excellent piece by Gabe Roth that laid it all out. “Once a legitimate tenant advocacy group,” he wrote, “the AHA does little these days except endorse candidates and send out mailers during election season. Numerous well-known tenant activists say the AHA reflexively promotes the candidates of the Willie Brown machine – no matter where they stand on tenant issues.” That year, the AHA endorsed Supervisor Michael Yaki – and suggested he had no pro-tenant opponent, while ignoring the eventual winner Jake McGoldrick.

For this year’s DCCC elections, AHA sent out a questionnaire to all hopefuls – which one candidate posted on his website. It only had six questions, which included: (a) do you support Prop F, (b) do you support the cap of 200 condominium conversions a year, (c) would you oppose efforts like Prop R (which voters rejected in 2002) to lift the cap and (d) do you support repealing the Ellis Act. AHA noted that a perfect score on the questionnaire would be to answer each question with a “yes.”

The candidate who posted the questionnaire answered with a perfect score, but did not receive the AHA endorsement. Meanwhile, Scott Wiener and Mary Jung both voted against Prop F at the DCCC. Wiener was also a supporter of Prop R in 2002, and in 2006 did not support repealing the Ellis Act when asked at a meeting. But these DCCC incumbents got the endorsement.

Why? Just go to the Secretary of State’s website – and find AHA’s independent expenditure form to find the answer. Wiener and Jung each gave $1,000 to the AHA mailer, so they got the endorsement despite doing poorly on the questionnaire answers.

The East Side version of the mailer also gave very prominent billing to DCCC candidate Melissa Apuya – calling her a “strong advocate for rent control.” She may be pro-tenant, but the SF Tenants Union did not endorse her among their DCCC picks. Secretary of State records show that Apuya gave $5000 to the AHA mailer. She also works for State Senator Leland Yee, whose consultant (Jim Stearns) was paid $18,719 to do the mailer.

It is one thing when a legitimate group with a real constituency (e.g., the Sierra Club or California Nurses) endorses candidates for DCCC, then asks these candidates to help fund their slate card – so that voters can learn which candidates they are supporting. But what AHA has done is endorse candidates who can give money (even if they’re not “pro-tenant”), and then uses that to advertise them as being the “renters’ choice.” With DCCC candidates raising even more money, this practice will only get worse in future elections.

We need to make reforms to stop this money race. First, DCCC campaigns must fall under the same rules as other city races – cap contribution limits to $500 per candidate. Second, DCCC members must be elected by Supervisor District (rather than Assembly District) – which would allow for a more level playing field with candidates who have less money. In fact, most County Central Committees across California elect members by Supervisor district – and San Francisco should move to that method after the June 2010 election is over.

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