David Lee and his landlord backers raise the stakes in District 1

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This SF Association of Realtors-funded mailer is part of an onslaught attacking Eric Mar on behalf of David Lee.

Realtors and commercial landlords have transformed the supervisorial race in District 1 into an important battle over rent control and tenants' rights, despite their onslaught of deceptive mailers that have sought to make it about everything from potholes and the Richmond's supposed decline to school assignments and economic development.

It's bad enough that groups like the Coalition for Sensible Government – a front group for the San Francisco Association of Realtors, which itself is in the middle of internal struggles over its increasing dominance by landlords rather than Realtors – have been funding mailers attacking incumbent Eric Mar on behalf of downtown's candidate: David Lee. Combined spending by Lee and on his behalf is now approaching an unheard of $400,000 (we'll get more precise numbers tomorrow when the latest pre-election campaign finance statements are due).

What's even more icky and unsettling is the fact that Lee – a political pundit who has been regularly featured in local media outlets in recent years, usually subtly attacking progressives while trying to seem objective – has refused to answer legitimate questions about his shady background and connections or the agenda he has for the city. He refused to come in for a Guardian endorsement interview or even to respond to our questions. His campaign manager, Thomas Li, told me Lee is too busy campaigning to answer questions from reporters, but he assured me that Lee will be more accessible and accountable once he's elected.

Somehow, I don't find that very reassuring. But I can understand why Lee is ducking questions and just hoping that the avalanche of mailers will be enough to win this one. In a city where two-thirds of residents rent, but where landlords control most of the city's wealth, it's politically risky to be honest about a pro-landlord agenda.

“It's pretty clear that is a real estate-tenant battleground,” Ted Gullicksen, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, told us. “District 1 is all about rent control, really. If David Lee wins, we'll see the Board of Supervisors hacking away at rent control protections. The only question is whether it will be a severe hack or outright repeal.”

Real estate and development interests have already been able to win over Sups. Jane Kim and Christina Olague on key votes – and even Mar, who has disappointed many progressives on some recent votes, which many observers believe is the result of the strong challenge by Lee and his allies – but an outright flip of District 1 could really be dangerous.

“I want people to know how high the stakes are in this election. I want people to know that outside special interests are trying to buy this election,” Mar told us.

Mar is far from perfect, but at least he's honest and accessible. With all the troublesome political meddling that we've seen in recent years from Willie Brown and Rose Pak on behalf of their corporate clients, particularly commercial landlords – which has been a big issue in District 5 this election and the mayor's race last year – progressives were disturbed by rumors that Pak is helping Mar.

When we asked him about it, he didn't deny it or evade the issue. “Yes, I have the support of just about all the Chinatown leaders, including Rose Pak,” Mar told us. “I'm proud to have a strong Chinese base of support.”

When asked about that support and how it will shape his votes, Mar noted that he also has strong support from labor and progressives, and that he will be far stronger on development and tenants issues than Lee. “I view myself as an independent, thoughtful supervisor who works very hard for the neighborhood,” Mar said. “There's an accusation [in mailers paid for the Realtors] that the Richmond has become unlivable, and that's just not true.”

We have a stack of official documents showing how Lee has used his Chinese-American Voter Education Project and his appointment to the Recreation and Parks Commission to personally enrich himself and his wife, using donations from rich corporations and individuals whose bidding he then does, and we mentioned some of that in our endorsements this week. We'll continue seeking answers from Lee and his allies about their agenda for the city.

In fact, just as I was writing this post, Lee sent a message to supporters responding to our editorial and other efforts to raise these issues. "I know it is shocking, but while working as a full-time employee for CAVEC for the last twenty years, I was paid a salary. But let me tell you this was no six figure job with benefits," he wrote. Actually, CAVEC's federal 990 form shows he was paid $90,000 per year, while his wife, Jing Lee, was paid up to $65,000 per year as "program director" up until 2006. 

"We did not receive any money from the government. All of our activities were funded by private donations and grants and our finances were audited on a regular basis," Lee wrote, not noting that he has refused to make public a full list of his donors, although we know from a 2001 report in Asian Week that they included Chevron, Wells Fargo, Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Marriott, Levi Strauss, Norcal Waste Management (now known as Recology), State Farm, and the late philanthropist Warren Hellman, who at the time was funding downtown attacks on progressives through groups including the Committee on Jobs.

District 1 has always been an important San Francisco battleground. During the decade that progressives had a majority on the Board of Supervisors, District 1 was represented first by Jake McGoldrick and then by Mar. Neither McGoldrick nor Mar always voted with the progressives, yet McGoldrick had to endure two failed recall drives funded by business and conservative interests.

Now, they have increased their bet, raising the question that President Barack Obama posed in last night's presidential debate: “Are we going to double down on the top down policies that got us into this mess?”

Let's hope not.