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Meager spending in DA race signals lack of confidence in Jenkins’ challengers

A composite photo (from left) of San Francisco District Attorney candidates Joe Alioto Veronese, Brooke Jenkins and John Hamasaki. | The Standard

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins ascended to power on the back of a big-money recall campaign that took down her predecessor Chesa Boudin.

But her deep-pocketed allies are largely staying out of the upcoming race to pick San Francisco’s next district attorney.

Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, the multitentacled, shadowy group that contributed millions to recall Boudin in June, hasn’t bankrolled attack ads dressing down her challengers John Hamasaki or Joe Alioto Veronese.

Neither has San Francisco’s police union, which spent hundreds of thousands to oppose Boudin when he first ran for office and won in 2019.

In fact, outside groups have spent a mere $60,000 on the upcoming race as of Thursday—11 times less than the $700,000 spent by outside groups in 2019, when four candidates faced off in a close race with no incumbent.

The dwarfed spending in the race could signal that Jenkins’ big-money supporters don’t think she needs much help clearing a path to victory. It may also suggest that Jenkins’ detractors aren’t confident that Hamasaki or Alioto Veronese stand a fighting chance of unseating her, and have decided to save their fat checks for another race.

“The bottom line is that the candidates who entered the race to challenge Jenkins are not very strong quality challengers,” said Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. He noted that Jenkins’ opponents might have otherwise spent big to defeat her.

DA Brooke Jenkins speaks to the press at her office on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

It’s unusual for outside groups to spend so little on a competitive, citywide race in San Francisco like this one, according to Jim Ross, a political consultant who led Boudin’s failed campaign to defeat the recall. Ross said he was surprised by the lack of outside spending on both sides.

Elections are about more than whether a candidate can win—they’re also a chance to push a broader issue like criminal justice reform, he said.

I think it’s a missed opportunity,” Ross said. “Her administration has been marred by missteps throughout.”

This time around, Real Justice PAC—one of the biggest Boudin defenders in the recall—decided to focus on other races across the country after investing heavily to support the ousted district attorney, said a spokesperson for the committee.

“It simply does not have any more capacity to focus on another race with a very short runway given these preexisting commitments,” said spokesperson Jessica Brand.

Hamasaki and Alioto Veronese, both attorneys and former Police Commission members, have each secured big endorsements.

Hamasaki garnered support from progressives such as former state officials Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano. Alioto Veronese gained support from labor groups including the firefighters union.

But both candidates are polling well below Jenkins, who Mayor London Breed appointed to succeed Boudin in July. Neither has excelled at attracting big-dollar donors in the short timeline spurred by the recall.

So far, Jenkins and Alioto Veronese have each benefited from just $20,000 of outside spending. 

The Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club promoted Jenkins on billboards, while Grow SF—a new moderate political group started by former tech workers—purchased online ads boosting her.

Alioto Veronese, for his part, enjoyed billboards paid for by an outdoor advertising company and committee called Outfront Media LLC.

Joe Alioto Veronese files paperwork with the San Francisco Department of Elections declaring his candidacy for District Attorney on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Hamasaki is the only candidate an outside group spent money to oppose. 

A law enforcement-funded committee, the Golden State Communities Project, bought $20,000 in attack ads comparing Hamasaki to former President Donald Trump for sending a controversial tweet about teenagers carrying guns.

“More guns is not the solution to our gun crisis,” the ad blares. “Trump gun policies have no business in San Francisco.”

All three of the candidates have individually raised—and spent—far more than outside groups dropped on the race.

Each of them has spent more than $125,000 on the race as of Oct. 22, the most recent campaign finance filing deadline.

Alioto Veronese is leading the pack, but he also announced his plans to run even before the recall and has had the most time to fundraise.

While those figures have surely swelled since the last deadline, none of the candidates have enough cash on hand to come close to the nearly $800,000 Boudin and his leading opponent Suzy Loftus each spent in 2019, when candidates had a lot more time to fundraise.

Marcus Chenier, a fourth candidate in the race, has not submitted any campaign finance filings to the SF Ethics Commission.

In a phone interview, Alioto Veronese said his campaign is bumping up against voter and donor fatigue.

This is the fourth—or fifth—election San Francisco voters have participated in since the failed recall attempt to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom last September, depending on whether they live on the east side of town and voted in a special election. Alioto Veronese said some donors and voters are content with Jenkins replacing Boudin, and he has to convince them otherwise.

“Those big-money donors are just happy to have anybody in office that is not Chesa Boudin,” he said. “So there is a lot of complacency out there.” 

Hamasaki said only that “each ethical and criminal scandal” has caused Jenkins’ endorsements and support to “dry up.”

Outspoken former San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki officially announced his run for District Attorney on Friday, August 12, 2022 at San Francisco City Hall. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“No one wants to be associated with a prosecutor completely tarnished by the scandal,” Hamasaki said in a text message.

Jenkins’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Neither did the San Francisco Police Officers Association and Neighbors for a Better San Francisco—which opposed Boudin—or the ACLU of Northern California, which supported Boudin in the recall, when asked why they are staying out of the upcoming contest.