Follow the $$$
by Julie Pitta
They burst on the political scene with harmless-sounding names – “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco,” “TogetherSF Action,” and “GrowSF” – and slick websites that described what seemed to be grassroots organizations.
Neighbors for a Better San Francisco calls itself “a group of San Franciscans … dedicated to supporting and empowering pragmatic, responsible and neighborhood-focused leaders and organizations.” TogetherSF Action encourages the civic-minded among us to join “thousands of others like you who are ready to commit to rewriting the future of our city.” GrowSF boasts that it “pursues common sense solutions to create a San Francisco that works for everyone.”
Sounds reasonable. Admirable, even. Except for a troubling fact: These organizations are fronts for the latest corporate interests looking to buy influence at City Hall.
Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, TogetherSF Action and Grow SF are Political Action Committees, exploiting a loophole in campaign finance law. By contributing to them – rather than to a candidate, directly – political donors can evade the $500 limit on campaign contributions. Money from groups like these will pour into the coffers of candidates who promise to carry out their agenda, one that benefits big business at the expense of regular San Franciscans.
These so-called “astroturf” organizations create the illusion of grassroots’ support, obscuring the involvement of their uber-wealthy founders. All the better to deceive voters often too busy to dig into details. Neighbors for a Better San Francisco is backed by billionaire investor William Oberndorf, a Republican who lives in Marin County, but spends lavishly on San Francisco political campaigns; TogetherSF Action is the pet project of billionaire venture capitalist Michael Moritz, another big player on the City’s political scene. GrowSF is the baby of tech veterans Steven Buss and Sachin Agarwal, who spent big in recent elections, toppling an incumbent on the Board of Supervisors.
What do they want? A San Francisco even more hospitable to their business interests. For decades, San Francisco has served as a laboratory for the high-tech industry; the driverless cars wreaking havoc on city streets are only the latest get-rich-quick scheme from the geniuses in Silicon Valley. They’re gambling that buying an elected official or two will allow them to conduct business as usual without the nuisance of government regulations.
They’re committed to removing any barriers to the construction of new housing, demanding changes to the City’s building code. The result will be more housing, yes, but not the kind San Francisco so desperately needs – affordable homes for working people.
Finally, they call for a “tough-love” approach to the San Francisco’s drug crisis, demanding that users who resist treatment be arrested. No matter that countless scientific studies have proven that forced treatment rarely succeeds.
“The literature does not support mandatory treatment on any level to help the public health situation,” said Daniel Ciccarone, a physician and professor of family community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, who studies drug addiction.
Mayor London Breed is listening. That should come as no surprise since she was elected with sizeable campaign contributions from the tech and real estate industries. So are her political allies, recently elected Supervisors Matt Dorsey and Joel Engardio who won their elections due to corporate largesse.
These big-money backers are already receiving a handsome return on investment. Breed’s blueprint for meeting the state’s housing requirements – enthusiastically supported by Dorsey and Engardio – is nothing more than a gift to wealthy backers. Among its proposals, it is relaxing height restrictions on future housing developments. Tenants living in rent-controlled apartments could find themselves displaced as older buildings are torn down to make way for luxury high-rises, adding to the glut of expensive housing now sitting empty.
Forced drug treatment has also earned the mayor’s full-throated support as well as that of Dorsey and Engardio. On her orders, the San Francisco Police Department is arresting drug users, a return to failed “war on drugs” policies that will drain scarce city resources and lead to the loss of countless lives.
Two elected officials who have been reliable obstacles to the billionaire takeover of San Francisco now find themselves with targets on their backs. In recent months, GrowSF launched the “Clear Out Connie” and “Dump Dean” campaigns to oust District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan and District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston. Preston and Chan are champions for regular San Franciscans, tenacious fighters for tenants as well as for affordable housing. A word of advice: Pay close attention to the candidates backed by corporate interests in the November 2024 election.
Moritz recently earned headlines for being one of a half-dozen tech billionaires to buy 55,000 acres of pristine farmland in Solano County. Their plan to build a 21st century “utopia,” a Garden of Eden for the well-heeled. Locals are promising to fight back.
San Franciscans would do well to follow their example. Moritz, and his billionaire brethren, are aiming to refashion our City to their exacting specifications. Theirs is a vision that has little room for most of us.
Julie Pitta is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and senior editor at Forbes Magazine. She is a neighborhood activist and an officer of the San Francisco Berniecrats. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X (Twitter): @juliepitta.