Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has never appeared the profligate type: the 41-year old bachelor rents his Polk Street apartment and does not own a car; he rides a “beater” Schwinn to City Hall and appears to be more interested in work than the many playful distractions San Francisco offers.
Whether or not that’s how he conducts his personal life is unclear — and irrelevant, because that is how the candidate for mayor is conducting his first campaign for citywide office. Chiu has the most cash on hand of any of the contenders in the Nov. 8 mayoral election, according to filings at the Ethics Commission.
Including public financing, the Chiu Crew had $567,000 on hand as of Thursday, filings show. That’s more than Mayor Ed Lee — who spent more than that in about a month, but who’s counting? And in fact it’s “double the cash on hand of any candidate,” a staffer said, and quadruple the cash of some one-time frontrunners like state Sen. Leland Yee.
But with the election 39 days away, and Ed Lee the apparent frontrunner with City Attorney Dennis Herrera a seeming distant second, what will Chiu do with all that cash?
It’s unclear exactly what percentage of the vote Chiu is counting on; his campaign would not offer polling numbers. Chiu is, however, with three offices citywide, a decent street effort and all that money in a bank account, “prepared,” said Chiu campaign spokesman Addisu Demissie.
Despite off-year mayoral elections historically enjoying a low turnout, October is when most voters begin to tune in, and the wisdom goes, this is when spending has the most impact.
“We built an infrastructure, now as voters are tuned into the race, we have the resources necessary to communicate with them and get the message out,” Demissie said.
Other campaigns have not held back, with Joanna Rees, Leland Yee and Dennis Herrera all going to the airwaves with attack ads aimed at Ed Lee.
Lee, himself, has struck back, slamming the other candidates for using public financing on attack ads. Lee has chosen not to accept public funds, which also means that the candidate of the downtown status quo is not subject to the $1.5 million fundraising cap his opponents must obey.
Thus fair, Chiu has spent on some perhaps odd items: voter literature printed in Hebrew, for example, and the Chewbacca costume donned by a campaign volunteer. TV ads, Web ads and piles and piles of mailers — all more conventional electioneering tactics — could come this month, Demissie hinted. “39 days [until the election] is an eternity in politics, a lot can change in the next month,” he said.
But if Chiu should lose, he could spend that money to keep his supervisor seat.
Should Chiu still have money left over in his account after the election, he would be able to use at least some of it on future campaigns. “He could transfer that [leftover money] over to any other legally-constituted committee,” according to the Ethics Commission’s Mabel Ng.
That means a supervisorial committee formed to support Chiu, but not, say, a committee formed for a ballot measure or another candidate. All public financing, however, would have to be returned to the city, Ng said.
There’s little doubt that Chiu is one of the city’s most ambitious politicians, but with only one electoral victory under his belt — District 3 in 2008, when he was a darling of the city’s progressive movement and former Board President Aaron Peskin’s groomed protege — he may have aimed too high this year.
Then there is speculation that Chiu has privately abandoned his mayoral ambitions in order to salvage his political career. Chiu turned down an offer from Mayor Gavin Newsom to become District Attorney in January, after which Newsom reportedly told Chiu he made a fatal error.
This summer, after Chiu said publicly that Mayor Ed Lee broke a promise, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce’s Rose Pak fumed to Chinese-language media that Chiu was disrespectful. Some insiders say that Chiu has had to do damage control since, and is worried that Pak could undermine him in re-election efforts next year.
“There was a time when David Chiu was interested in the coalition of campaigns to come out against Ed Lee and make beating him their focus, but now he’s not,” one insider said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The conventional wisdom with that is that he’s scared of Rose Pak. So, that gets back to the point of him spending the money to go positive, and keep his seat.”