Why Are the 49ers Spending Millions on a City Council Race? Ask Jed York

3 min
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers throws a pass against the Green Bay Packers in the first half of their preseason football game at Levi's Stadium on August 26, 2016. Santa Clara's City Council and the 49ers have been fighting over management of Levi's Stadium since the team moved there in 2014. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Political action committees (PACs) spent more than $3 million on the city council race in Santa Clara, a city of roughly 130,000 people in the heart of Silicon Valley. That outlay of cash is raising eyebrows among voters — and even the candidates themselves.

"It appears that one is trying to gain some private benefit from [those donations] and put private interests ahead of the public interests," said John Pelissero, a senior fellow at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

The money, most of it from Jed York, the owner of the San Francisco 49ers football team, highlights an ongoing conflict between the team and the Santa Clara City Council. York's money is flowing to a block of city council candidates that largely come from outside of politics and are challenging incumbents or candidates backed by the current council.

Beginning in late September, York began donating money to a PAC founded by former Congressman Mike Honda, called the Citizens for Efficient Government and Full Voting Rights. Independent expenditure documents show that York donated $250,000 on Sept. 30, $800,000 on Oct. 1, $300,000 on Oct. 6, $950,000 on Oct. 13 and $600,000 on Oct. 19.

All that money is going towards campaign mailers and television ads supporting four candidates: Suds Jain, Harbir Bhatia, Kevin Park and Anthony Becker. The PAC is also spending on ads attacking incumbent candidates Kathy Watanabe and Teresa O'Neill as well as Robert Mezzetti and Bob O'Keefe.


Since 2014, York and the City Council have been at odds over the management of Levi's Stadium, which was built for the 49ers to play in. The two parties have fought over a number of issues, including curfews for events held at the stadium, changes in management agreements, the payment of stadium employees and late rent payments.

As these disagreements escalated, York has become increasingly involved in local politics. During the March elections, York started a PAC called No on C-Santa Clarans for Full Voting Rights, which worked towards defeating the local Measure C, which would have condensed the city's six voting districts into three. York donated $330,000 to defeat the measure, and it eventually failed.

This fall, with nearly $3 million in donations, York's involvement has risen to a whole new scale.

49ers spokesman Rahul Chandhok said the team wants to support candidates that represent diversity and will uphold voting rights in the city the football team calls home.

Park, who is running for a council seat in District 4, has raised about $16,000 on his own. Honda's PAC — funded by York — spent more than $370,000 on mailers and ads supporting his run.

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Park thinks that the candidates who are benefiting from York's support are increasingly being grouped together in the minds of voters.

"We're running individual campaigns," said Park. "But people understand there is a fight between the incumbent-backed candidates and the independent candidates. It is a little bit of a battle of one team versus another."

Park said he was surprised to learn that York backed his campaign, especially since he was opposed to the football team's moving to Santa Clara back in 2014. But over the past few years, Park has felt the city hasn't cooperated with the 49ers and has failed to talk to them reasonably. He figures Jed York supports his run because he can be more understanding.

"The 49ers are more willing to work with a group of people that opposes them but is willing to talk, as opposed to a group of people, like the current city council, that opposes them but doesn't want to talk," Park said.

But O'Neill, the incumbent who is running against Park, is suspicious of York's motives. She has been on the city council since 2007 and feels that the 49ers are a behemoth and that it requires skill, patience and skepticism to handle their complicated contract. She said that she has tried to cooperate and "play nice" with the football team, but got "steamrolled" in the process.

"I'm scared — not for myself — I will be fine," O'Neill said. "But I'm scared for Santa Clara because I don't think some of these people that are running, I don't think they realize what they're up against."

She's not alone in her skepticism. The Santa Clara Police Association PAC has spent a little more than $70,000 on a campaign supporting the incumbent and city council-backed candidates and opposing the political newcomers. In early October, the association created a satirical video mocking York's expenditures on his candidates of choice.

Bhatia is running for the District 1 seat and, like Park, was confused by York's support. She is nervous of what voters will think of all this money backing her campaign and resents the idea that she is bought and paid for.

"I believe all the PACs just should have stayed out," Bhatia said. "We had such a great grassroots campaign. It's not like we waited until [the 49ers] got involved. We've been working our butts off for the last five months."

Bhatia said she wishes that money had gone towards building affordable housing in the city or towards education. Before York started donating millions to support her run, she felt she was able to discuss the issues that face her city with voters. Now, she said, all anyone wants to talk about is the money.

Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson said that voters and candidates can only speculate about the true motivations of donors who give large sums of money towards political campaigns.

"I don't think there's anything inherently evil about spending large sums of independent expenditures," Levinson said. "I think it raises a whole host of questions about the influence of money in politics and the best way to run elections."

Levinson pointed out that since the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, independent expenditures, or money spent by a political organization without guidance from candidates, are considered a form of free speech.


"In terms of [York's] goal of diversifying the city council, I think most people would view that as a laudable goal, and we can ask ourselves whether the ends justify the means," she said. "The concern is that candidates are overly responsive to monied interests and if it doesn't change the way they vote, [then] it might change the way they listen or talk."