Real estate interests, venture capital and tech execs are lining up to back challengers in the March elections for San Francisco Superior Court judges. The incumbents, meanwhile, are largely being backed by lawyers and fellow judges.
That’s how the fundraising camps for two contested judicial seats are shaping up. The races are on pace to cost more than the last serious challenge to sitting judges in the city.
The latest campaign contribution data from the state shows that the four candidates running for two open judicial seats in San Francisco have collectively raised nearly half a million dollars. In 2018, when four deputy public defenders ran against four sitting judges, the total raised was $800,000. But the March 5 election is still six weeks away.
The two challengers—corporate lawyer Albert “Chip” Zecher and San Francisco prosecutor Jean Myungjin Roland—are mostly getting their money from tech, real estate interests and venture capital, while their opponents, Judge Patrick Thompson and Judge Michael Isaku Begert, are funded mainly by attorneys and judges.
The contributions point to the powerful interests that have joined the debate over public safety in San Francisco. That financial division is reflected in the difference between Zecher and Begert’s contributors.
Begert, the sitting magistrate, has raised $182,000—more money than any other candidate. Much of that money is from a large group of small donors, but with one exception: Begert’s $100,000 loan to his own campaign.
Zecher, his challenger, has raised $165,000, including $100,000 from crypto boss Chris Larsen.
The single contribution from Larsen, the co-founder of Ripple, could be interpreted as an indication of the heightened attention the contentious race is receiving.
The contest is centered on how rulings from the bench impact crime and public safety. Backers of the challengers contend that the two sitting judges up for election have failed to protect San Franciscans.
The supporters of the two sitting judges say their opponents and their backers are part of a right-wing effort to push all the county’s judges to be more punitive, especially around drug use and sales.
Meanwhile, both sitting judges refute their critic’s claims, saying their rulings follow the law and respect the rights of everyone, including victims and defendants.
Who Is Backing Whom?
Begert’s $182,000 war chest comes from almost 200 people, with all but one giving his campaign $2,500 or less. The exception is the California Judges Association, which handed over $25,000.
Individual judges—34 who sit on the bench in San Francisco—are among the largest group backing Begert with funds. For instance, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow, who was himself challenged by a deputy public defender in 2018 in a similar move from the left, gave $2,500.
Attorneys are also one of the largest groups giving to Begert. Joan Haratani, a corporate lawyer, gave him $2,500. Paul DeMeester, a defense attorney, also gave $2,500.
Begert’s opponent, Zecher, meanwhile, trails but not by much with his $165,000 raised so far. Besides the $100,000 he got from Larsen, Boston Properties, his second-largest donor, gave $10,000. The rest of his 22 funders are from the tech and real estate worlds. They include Carl Shannon, a senior managing director at Tishman Speyer, a real estate developer, and Clint Reilly, the owner of the San Francisco Examiner and Clint Reilly Landmark Properties.
Eleven of his donors live outside of San Francisco.
Roland, the San Francisco prosecutor challenging Thompson, has raised the least, with a current total of $23,500. Among her eight donors, her largest came from Kevin Hartz, a co-founder and partner at A* Capital, who also co-founded Eventbrite, the event management and ticketing website. Her other donors include William S. Fisher, an investor at Manzanita Capital and former president for Gap International, and Sig Anderman, a real estate developer.
Challengers Zecher and Roland have five donors in common, including real estate developer Shannon, who gave them each $1,000.
Thompson, meanwhile, has raised $50,500 from 21 donors, the single largest being the California Judges Association, which gave him $20,000. His donors include mostly attorneys and a sitting jurist, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Brian Ferrall, who gave him $1,000.
“This election is unusual, and these donations, the amount of money there, is reflecting the fact that this is a more important judicial election,” said Jason McDaniel, a political scientist who teaches at San Francisco State. “It’s more important in the sense that the mayor and the DA are trying to make public safety an issue in this election.”