Apolitical Ads Look Mighty Partisan

*'Issue' statements are exempt from spending limits

By John Wildermuth, Rachel Gordon, Chronicle Political Writers

It may look like a nasty political ad, read like a nasty political ad and even savage one of the candidates for San Francisco mayor, just like a real political ad, but the multicolor attack pieces now blanketing the city don't have a thing to do with Tuesday's election.

Just ask the people who sent them.

With just days to go before the runoff election for mayor, Matt Gonzalez and Gavin Newsom aren't the only ones playing hardball politics. A diverse selection of party groups, advocacy organizations and special interests are pumping their own money -- and ferocious attack ads -- into the contest for mayor.

The California Urban Issues Project, which describes itself as "a public education and grassroots lobbying group to promote quality of life issues,'' has sent out a trio of mailers suggesting that Supervisor Matt Gonzalez's campaign for mayor is the chief threat to San Francisco's quality of life.

One of the ads blames Gonzalez's policies for "the deadly cycle of panhandling, addiction and homelessness,'' while another talks about Gonzalez's accepting a $70,000 pay raise for the Board of Supervisors and suggests "For Matt Gonzalez, It's All About Me!''

The third shows a house made of dollar bills, calling it "How Supervisor Matt Gonzalez sees your home.''

What the ads very specifically do not do is urge anyone to vote against Gonzalez or for Newsom.

"They don't tell people how to vote -- it's only to talk about the issues and where candidates stand on the issues,'' said James Sutton, treasurer for the group and also an attorney for Newsom's campaign.

It's an important distinction. The Supreme Court has ruled that issue advertising, which doesn't advocate a political decision, is free speech that can't be regulated. San Francisco, on the other hand, passed Proposition O in 2000, which sets limits on the ways independent groups can raise money for political ads.

"There's no way our ads refer to the election,'' Sutton said. "We want to put out information about where the candidates stand on the issues and let the public decide.''

Some of those decisions already have been made. The president of the California Urban Issues Project is Nathan Nayman, executive director of Committee on Jobs, a lobbying group for corporate San Francisco and no Gonzalez backer.

The ads are more dirty politics than public education, angry Gonzalez supporters argued.

"It's clearly an outrageous attempt to distort Matt's record,'' said Enrique Pearce, Gonzalez's campaign manager. "There's a lot of misleading information out there.''

The close-fought battle for mayor has created plenty of unusual alliances.

The Residential Builders Association, for example, gave $15,000 to the San Francisco Tenants' Union last month. The tenant's group then turned around and spent more than $10,000 on a mailer for Gonzalez.

Joe O'Donoghue, head of the builders' group, is a Gonzalez backer. But it wasn't too long ago that he and his group were Public Enemy No. 1 for tenants.

"In this particular election, it's interesting that (O'Donoghue's) backing Matt,'' who's seen as a strong advocate for rent control, mused Ted Gullicksen, head of the tenants' union. "Two years ago, he was featured on our slate card as the bad guy.''

The support Newsom's getting from the state Democratic Party is less surprising. After losing a high-profile recall election to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in October, the Democrats are willing to spend big to keep a Green Party leader like Gonzalez from taking over a Democratic stronghold like San Francisco.

"Anyone who doesn't understand the difference between George Bush and Al Gore isn't on the same page'' with the Democrats, San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi said Thursday in a backhanded reference to the Green Party's support for Ralph Nader in 2000 presidential election.

The state Democratic Party already has spent $153,000 to send out hard- hitting mailers slamming Gonzalez for refusing to vote for a proposed charter amendment that would give $60 million annually to local schools, a measure Newsom supported.

"Gavin Newsom stood up for our kids,'' the ad said. "Matt Gonzalez turned his back on them.''

Gonzalez says he voted against the proposed amendment because he didn't know how the city would pay for it, but that didn't keep the Democrats from asking in another mailer "Are kids and schools really a priority for Matt Gonzalez?''

"It's a shame to see the official Democratic Party trying to distort Matt's record,'' Pearce said.

The Democratic Party is another group that doesn't have to play by San Francisco's campaign rules. As long as their mailers are sent only to the city's 250,000 registered Democrats, they are considered "member communications'' and are exempt from the city's spending rules.

There are plenty of other groups backing one candidate or the other. The San Francisco Association of Realtors has spent $44,000 on mailers for Newsom. The hotel and restaurant workers Local 2 has put up $33,000 in non-cash contributions for Gonzalez. Local Democratic clubs have put out low-cost mailers for Newsom, while Ali Kia, a local nursing home owner, spent $15,000 to run a full-page article in The Chronicle supporting Gonzalez.

"I don't even know who he was,'' said Pearce, Gonzalez's campaign manager.

"Obviously, I was delighted.''

But the money being spent by independent groups in 2003 is nothing like the cash that was flying around four years ago, when Mayor Willie Brown's re- election campaign was supported by more than $3 million in independent expenditures.

Aside from the changes in the law, both Gonzalez and Newsom have actively discouraged independent spending in the mayor's race, because since the rules say a candidate can't be involved in those dealings, there's no telling what a candidate will end up having to defend.

"There are all kinds of agendas that come into play with independent expenditures,'' said Newsom consultant Eric Jaye. "And they're not always in the candidate's interest.''

E-mail the writers at jwildermuth@sfchronicle.com and rgordon@sfchronicle.com.

See the article on San Francisco Chronicle website

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