A full two-thirds of the Recall Chesa Boudin money, and 25% of Recall the School Board contributions, comes from a secretive PAC called “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco,” which lists its address as being in San Rafael.
We’re just a few days from the Feb. 15 Recall the SF School board election (mail in your ballot, if you haven’t yet!). And in the lead-up, the Examiner published a piece last week about a Republican-leaning megadonor William Oberndorf, who’s given $600,000 to a political action committee (PAC) that is largely funding both the school board recall and the Chesa Boudin recall attempt. That PAC is called Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, and the Examiner reports they’ve put up “two-thirds of Boudin recall money.” Our own look at SF Ethics department filings show that Neighbors for a Better San Francisco is also responsible for nearly 25% of the school board recall contributions.
But a look at those filings shows something even more curious. Neighbors for a Better San Francisco lists its address as being in… San Rafael.
It’s not unusual for an out-of-town PAC to give money to a San Francisco political campaign, I can assure you having looked through hundreds of these filings. What is unusual is for a PAC’s name to claim they’re from San Francisco, when they are an out-of-town PAC.
They have no address listed, but we do see a phone number. That phone number belongs to a law-firm-slash-lobbying-group called Nielsen Merksamer, who are based in Sacramento, but have a San Rafael office. They did not return comment for this article, nor did they for the Examiner article.
The worst-case scenario here is that an out-of-town PAC funding all of those goddamn campaign advertisements is misrepresenting themselves as a San Francisco organization, when they are absolutely not a San Francisco organization. A more charitable explanation would be that Nielsen Merksamer’s “legal compliance systems” division (they have several different lines of business) simply prepared the campaign filings and made sure all the ducks were in a row, just like when an accountant prepares your taxes for you.
But when an accountant prepares your taxes, your legal name still appears on those tax forms. Here we merely have a San Rafael “Treasurer” whose name appears, yet no one is listed as being President, Chairperson, or any other executive leadership position for Neighbors for a Better San Francisco.
Nielsen Merksamer’s legal division seems a highly normal, blue-chip law firm. They’ve represented a who’s who of Fortune 500 type companies, and have a partner who’s chair of the board of the highly respected Public Policy Institute of California. But their lobbying arm works on campaigns that may make you feel like you need to take a shower after reading the next paragraph.
USC hired them in 2019 to limit sexual abuse victims’ ability to recoup financial damages. KQED reported in October that Nielsen Merksamer was similarly listed a “Treasurer” for another generic-sounding PAC called Working Families for a Strong Benicia, whom the Valero oil refinery hired to shoot down fact-checking in political advertisements. They raked in at least $2 million lobbying for 2020’s Prop. 22 gig workers initiative, and currently, they’re lobbying to classify nurses as gig workers with fewer benefits and health protections.
While it’s unclear who’s actually in charge of Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, it is well established who their largest donors are. State filings show their $2.1 million haul for 2021 (thus far) comes from donors Oberndorf ($600,000), venture capitalist Steven Merrill ($235,000), investor Jason Moment ($200,000), Shorenstein Realty ($233,000), Kilroy Realty ($167,000), and a handful of other contributors.
A Mission Local investigation found that in 2020, they received $300,000 from Ripple co-founder Chris Larsen (who now opposes Boudin’s recall, and who has funded surveillance camera networks around town to deter crime), and another $300,000 from Sequoia Capital’s Michael Moritz, whose $10 million funds the new-ish local publication SF Standard.
It is not a new thing that billionaires give a lot of money to political campaigns, particular in our current age of recall-mania. But in these Chesa Boudin and SF school board recall campaigns, it’s important to realize that the recall momentum is not coming from inside the house. On paper, at least, the recall is coming from up north in San Rafael.
Image: Campaign flyers funded by Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, Joe Kukura, SFist