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Mayor Breed's Past Donors Rally Behind Daniel Lurie's Bid for Office

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A person with long hair sits at large table in a home.
Betty Louie in her home in San Francisco on Jan. 26, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Betty Louie knows the value of a dollar.

She was 5 years old when she was taught to count change for customers behind the counter of China Bazaar, the Chinatown staple her parents opened in the 1940s after emigrating from Taishan and Hong Kong, China, respectively.

Louie, a San Francisco native, ran her family’s shop until retiring in 2012. Now in her 70s, Louie, who lives in the Sea Cliff neighborhood, plays tennis and watches ballet.

“One of the things my dad said to me many, many years ago, ‘America has been good to me,’” Louie said. “And with that, he always made sure to give back to the community. They were working, but everything they did, they gave back. So that just became part of who I was.”

Louie, an advocate for Chinatown merchants, has donated to political campaigns since Willie Brown’s 1999 mayoral reelection, records show. In 2018, when London Breed pitched her a vision of a prosperous, safe San Francisco during her first mayoral run, Louie donated $500, the maximum legal limit for an individual donor. She gave the maximum to Breed again in 2022 for her reelection.

An African American woman wearing a navy blue blazer with a rainbow strips on her shirt, stands at a podium with a white man wearing glasses behind her.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks during a press conference to announce a new location of The Stud, a longtime LGBTQ+ venue, on Folsom Street in the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District in San Francisco on Sept. 5, 2023, after its closure at its former site in 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Louie is somewhat typical of campaign donors. They’re usually people who own property in the city or pay substantial taxes like business owners. She’s a landlord, and her properties include Cathay House, an easily recognizable part of Chinatown’s silhouette because of its pagoda-style terracing. It’s a small palace on a hill that would be recognizable to anyone who’s ever climbed California street in a cable car. One of her commercial tenants is Mister Jiu’s, a Michelin-star restaurant whose owner, Brandon Jew, was crowned the best chef in California at the 2022 James Beard Foundation Awards.

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In the years following her initial donation to Breed, Louie has seen racism rise in San Francisco. Anti-Asian hate crimes jumped from 89 in 2020 to 247 in 2021. In 2022, according to California’s Department of Justice data (PDF), hate crimes decreased to 140. Louie still agrees with Breed’s pro-police stance, but her faith in Breed’s execution began to waver last year.

Like many San Franciscans, Louie is fearful of crime and the effect it has had on local businesses. The foot traffic to Chinatown shops had noticeably dipped, according to Louie.

A campaign ad of a man wearing a white dress shirt and blue tie on the side of a building.
A campaign ad for Daniel Lurie in the Financial District of San Francisco on Feb. 1, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

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In October, she donated $500 to Daniel Lurie, one of Breed’s opponents. She isn’t the only one. Campaign finance records show 90 people who donated to Breed’s past campaigns have now given to Lurie, heir to the Levi Strauss fortune and CEO of the Tipping Point, a nonprofit combating poverty. Seventeen of the 90 have given to both this election cycle.

KQED verified the crossover donors through publicly accessible entries from the San Francisco Ethics Commission. According to experts interviewed by KQED, the donors serve as a bellwether for how voters feel about Breed leading into the mayor’s race.

“I think I feel the same as a lot of businesses where we’re concerned about the overall reputation of San Francisco not being as clean,” Louie said. “The crime still has to be brought under control. And I think there’s also people saying, ‘Hey, we’ve given plenty of time to try and fix the problems, and she hasn’t done it.’ So we need new blood.”

Crime is playing an outsize role in elections in San Francisco. In 2023, violent crime increased by just 3% while crime overall dropped 8%, according to the San Francisco Police Department (PDF). Crime rates are still far below the highs of the 1990s, and San Francisco’s violent crime spiked less than San Mateo, Sacramento and Contra Costa counties, according to the most recently available statewide data. Social media has contributed to heightened public safety fears.

Polls show voters are disillusioned with Breed. One poll released Wednesday by Lurie’s campaign showed he would win a ranked-choice voting election, beating Breed by 11 percentage points. But Jim Ross, who ran Gov. Gavin Newsom’s San Francisco mayoral campaign in 2003, said that donor actions are a stronger indicator of voter mood than polling.

“If they’ve invested in a candidate, it takes a lot to move them off that candidate,” Ross said. “This is actually dollars in the bank, not just words to an interviewer.”

But the crossover donors aren’t a clear sign that Breed will need to pack up her City Hall office. Jane Kim, a former supervisor who is now California director of the Working Families Party, thinks most voters feel much like Louie — dissatisfied but not yet decided.

“I’m not even sure they’re settled on ‘We don’t want London,’ to be honest,” she said. “I think everyone is shopping for who that best leader is. And I think London is still on that list.”

Breed declined to comment at a Feb. 1 campaign event for Proposition C, which would waive property transfer taxes to convert offices into residences.

Lurie’s campaign has raised more than $500,000 from 1,500 donors in just under 100 days since he declared. Breed raised $658,000.

“What I’ve seen and what I’ve heard from people is that they are tired of this mayor and the supervisors (being) unable to work together to bring progress to issues that everyone wants to see addressed,” Lurie said. “The mayor’s not bringing people together. And what we see from the mayor is finger-pointing and excuses.”

David Latterman, a senior director of product research in the tech industry, doesn’t think the crossover donors showed a significant dip in enthusiasm for Breed. Latterman, the former principal of the research firm Fall Line Analytics who has worked as a political consultant for state Sen. Scott Wiener, said Breed is bearing the brunt of voters’ frustration with crime. He told KQED that Lurie hadn’t offered a stark enough contrast with Breed to capitalize.

A person holds up a sign that reads "Daniel Lurie for Mayor" in a large indoor crowd.
Supporters of Daniel Lurie hold up signs as he announces his candidacy for Mayor of San Francisco at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco on Sept. 26, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“I think there’s an outside chance she’s beatable,” Latterman said. “I still have not handicapped her to lose this race because you have to have an alternative who people envision as a mayor, (who) they see as a leader who can do her politics generally but much more effective and strong.

“People don’t know a damned thing about Lurie. They don’t know if he’s that guy.”

Latterman said it would take a few hundred more donors crossing over to signal Breed is losing enough contributors to endanger her campaign. Ross said the donors are also significant because they’re more powerful measures of success than the gobs of cash raised by independent expenditure committees.

Independent expenditure committee money is usually spent on TV and internet advertisements. According to Ross, mayoral campaigns are won and lost based on the strength of the “retail campaign,” which are candidate meet-and-greets held in local shops and people’s living rooms.

Ross said Newsom did “a thousand events.”

“They want to talk to the mayor. They want to touch them,” he continued.

Commercial real estate broker Zach Haupert, who lives in San Francisco with his wife and two young children, connected with Breed and Lurie at events.

Haupert, who grew up in Indiana and moved to the city in 2007, met Breed at a candidate luncheon in 2018 at the Old Clam House on Bayshore, one of the city’s oldest restaurants. It was after the death of Mayor Ed Lee, the moment that thrust the responsibility of leadership on Breed’s shoulders. As the then-Board of Supervisors president, she became acting mayor.

At the Clam House, Breed recounted what led her to that moment: growing up in the Fillmore, a historically Black San Francisco community, she rose out of a family touched by drug addiction and poverty to become a prominent city leader.

“Her personal story was hugely important to me,” Haupert said.

He felt inspired. He donated $500 to her campaign. Since then, Haupert saw the streets surrounding his business fall into decline. His office in the South Beach neighborhood became “lined with encampments” during the pandemic, he said.

“We end up chasing off people trying to break into our building, more or less just vandalizing everything that’s in their path,” he said.

Haupert agrees with Breed’s solutions for crime, which include raises to retain police officers but feels she hasn’t gotten the job done. His dissatisfaction led him to attend Lurie’s campaign kickoff at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in September.

“I listened to him speak, and I was fully on board and empowered by what his plan is,” Haupert said.

That sets Haupert apart from Louie, who is still on the fence about the candidates. Kim said while it’s unusual to see donors like Haupert spurn a candidate they’ve previously supported in a reelection year, “I think we’re also in very different political times in San Francisco.”

Louie is ready for candidates to deliver.

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“At this point, I think people are really looking for results because they’ve had a lot of the talk,” she said.

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