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Losing San Francisco mayoral candidate spent $510 per vote

Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Phil Ting, Assessor-Recorder of the City and County of San Francisco, is seen in this undated promotional photo.

Phil Ting, Assessor-Recorder of the City and County of San Francisco, is seen in this undated promotional photo. (Courtesy Reset San Francisco)

In losing the 2010 governor's race, Republican Meg Whitman set a record for political spending in a California election: Her campaign cost $178.5 million.

But Whitman's losing campaign against Democrat Jerry Brown appears somewhat more economical in terms of dollars spent per vote obtained. Whitman paid about $43 for each of the 4.12 million votes she attracted.

Compare that with the recent electoral foray of San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, who was among 16 contenders in the 2011 contest for mayor of San Francisco.

In losing to appointed incumbent Ed Lee, Ting spent an astonishing $510.45 per vote, according to data compiled by the CitiReport political website. Ting finished 12th, spending more than $500,000 to win 1,013 votes - and seemingly setting a record for spending the most money per vote in a major election in California.

Ting's record comes with an asterisk: 60 percent of the money he spent came not from political donors, but from local taxpayers via the city's public campaign finance law.

This information comes from a series of analytic reports on San Francisco campaign finance issues by CitiReport's Oliver Luby. Working from public records, he calculated what he called "votes per dollar" for the 2011 municipal election.

"The results may be useful in evaluating the value of election propaganda and determining which campaigns had inherent popularity or grassroots strength," Luby writes.

The study provides a measure of campaign efficiency. Lee and the soft-money committees that backed him spent $54.99 for each of the 59,663 votes he won.

That rate was more than twice what the runner-up, San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos, spent ($21.07). But it was far less than the spending rate of the No. 3 candidate, City Attorney Dennis Herrera ($85.24).

Five also-ran candidates spent more than $100 per vote, according to the study. One, venture capitalist Joanna Rees, spent $335 per vote and finished 10th.

The issue of public financing complicates the calculation. In all, five California cities have some mechanism for distributing public funds to candidates in municipal elections, said Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, a reform group. They are Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento and Long Beach, in addition to San Francisco.

Those cities all provide matching public funds to candidates who already have obtained money from private donors, Lange said. Candidates don't have to accept public money, but if they do, they must abide by a cap on campaign spending, Lange said.

The systems were devised to lessen the power of special interest money in local elections. San Francisco's system was intended to "encourage more candidates to run for office, allow candidates to spend more time discussing the issues and spend less time fundraising, and encourage candidates to limit their spending," the city Ethics Commission has written.

According to CitiReport, nine mayoral candidates together obtained $4.97 million from the city under terms of the program. Lee and public defender Jeff Adachi, the sixth-place finisher, didn't take public funds, relying solely on private donors.

Ting obtained $312,000 in public funds. Political consultant Eric Jaye, who ran the campaign, said Ting focused on issue-oriented town halls and other community events that sought to identify solutions to local problems.

"He did a good job of raising the debate and issues, but not of raising his vote total," Jaye said.

Ting also set up Reset San Francisco, a website that says it is "equipped with the latest web 2.0 tools to empower you to discuss the city's most important issues and share your ideas with other San Franciscans."

Although the mayor's race is over, the website has fresh content; Ting now is running for state Assembly.

Read more California investigative reports at CaliforniaWatch.com.

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