"My initial reaction was just utter astonishment. I think it's unimaginably absurd for folks affiliated with his campaign or an independent committee to think that's at all helpful... It's almost as if they're trying to see if they can make the race more interesting by really raising questions about the ethics of the people who are supporting him."
That's USF's Corey Cook, Director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good and a close observer of the San Francisco political scene, commenting on the latest to-do around the SF Neighbor Alliance, an independent expenditure committee working to elect Ed Lee as mayor. This weekend, both the Chronicle and Bay Citizen reported that the group had set up a voting station in Chinatown where workers were marking voters' absentee ballots for Ed Lee.
From the Bay Citizen:
(E)yewitness accounts and an online video show workers from an independent political group helping elderly Chinatown residents fill out their ballots for the Nov. 8 election...
On Friday morning, The Bay Citizen saw women from the group, an independent political organization supporting Lee's election campaign that is headed by Enrique Pearce, the consultant who made headlines for running the initial "Run Ed Run" drive, working beneath a makeshift tent propped up on the sidewalk at the intersection of Pacific and Stockton Streets, in the heart of Chinatown.
As voters — mostly elderly Chinese — approached with their ballots, the workers, who wore blue “Ed Heads” T-shirts, helped them open their ballot envelopes and at times gave instructions on how to vote.
In some cases, the workers overlaid stencils — thin, transparent plastic panels with horizontal slits to help draw straight lines — on top of the ballots to guide the voters to vote. The workers put the ballots into plastic bags after they were completed.
And from the Chronicle:
Workers at a makeshift voting area in San Francisco’s Chinatown set up by an independent expenditure committee supporting Mayor Ed Lee were filling in ballots for voters Friday, according to two independent witnesses.
“I was so freaked out by the whole thing,” said Malana Moberg, a management consultant who lives in the city. “I thought, ‘Oh, how weird someone is looking at the ballot with them,’ then I was like, ‘Oh my god, they are actually marking it in.’ Not just pointing to it or showing someone, they were actually marking it in.”
The Chron posted a video of the operation shot by someone from the campaign of one of Lee's rivals, though you can't tell much about what's going on from it:
When approached by the Bay Citizen reporter, a worker at the booth protested that the operation was not illegal. The head of the SF Neighbor Alliance, Enrique Pearce, said the same thing. As did John Arntz, the head of the San Francisco Elections Department, referring to the situation as reported to date. But he also told the Chron, "on its face, it doesn’t look good,” and said he had referred the case to San Francisco D.A. George Gascon for review.
Ed Lee himself called what the volunteers were doing on his behalf "moronic," and said it "has nothing to do with my campaign...I'm almost suspicious some of the other candidates have put them up to it." (Watch that KCBS video here.)The incident comes on top of other questionable efforts on behalf of Lee. Two weeks ago, Gascon announced his office had launched a criminal investigation into Lee campaign contributions by employees of Lorrie’s Airport Shuttle. As reported in the Chron, 17 employees had contributed $8,500...
...about two weeks after the airport announced it was reversing a decision on van placement that the company had complained about, city records show. Airport Director John Martin and Lee's staff both maintain the mayor in no way intervened on behalf of the van operator, Go Lorrie's Airport Shuttle. "It was strictly my decision," Martin said.
The Lee campaign returned the donations.
Then there's "The Ed Lee Story: An Unexpected Mayor," a 132-page biography that you won't find on Amazon but may have seen on city streets, in front of people's homes, or in a recycling bin near you. The hagiographic work was written by the SF Neighbor Alliance's very own Enrique Pearce and cost $88,748.66 to publish, according to campaign finance reports.
Whether this latest contretemps will put a dent in Lee's formidable lead in the polls or whether the only people taking note are journalists, bloggers, and the other candidates remains to be seen. The other mayoral hopefuls are certainly making a stink. Jeff Adachi, John Avalos, Michela Alioto-Pier, David Chiu, Dennis Herrera, Joanna Rees, and Leland Yee signed a letter sent to the U.S. Dept of Justice and the California Secretary of State requesting that federal and state election monitors be sent to observe the election, alleging the reported Chinatown operation "target(s) Cantonese-speaking voters in San Francisco, and may potentially impinge on their federally protected voting rights, and also violate provisions of the California Elections Code and other laws."
"I think we may potentially need election monitors to ensure that nothing illegal is happening," candidate David Chiu told KQED's Peter Jon Shuler today. "I certainly agree with Mayor Lee and his campaign that these activities need to stop. I also agree with the director of the San Francisco Department of Elections, who believes that city and criminal authorities need to investigate this as thoroughly as possible. We need to ensure a fair and clean election, we need to protect the integrity of the ballot."
Analyst Cory Cooke said there is still time for a scandal to impact the race.
"We found in our survey, and others have as well, that a good segment of the population remains undecided about their first choice and certainly about their remaining choices using ranked-choice balloting. While most indications are that Lee's the front runner in the race, a lot of people are just now tuning into the election. About half of voters vote on election day and many haven't begun looking at their absentee ballots yet. And there is more or less a steady drumbeat of allegations now, though to be fair most of these are targeting the independent committee and not Lee's actual campaign."
Cook sees a larger story here, too:
"To me this system we've created of independent committees that speak for candidates but not on behalf of candidates is beyond bizarre. It allows candidates to avoid any responsibility for what those campaigning on their behalf do. These independent committees are operating as if it's the wild wild west."