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Politics & Policy

Tech exec running for supervisor filed a campaign violation—against himself

Bilal Mahmood stands in a sunny outdoor market with tents, people, and San Francisco City Hall in the background.
Bilal Mahmood is running two campaigns at the moment, which led to a mistaken mailer that included a logo for his supervisor race. | Camille Cohen for The Standard

San Francisco’s Ethics Commission has received multiple reports of a campaign violation by tech entrepreneur Bilal Mahmood, who is both challenging Supervisor Dean Preston in November and running for a seat on the governing committee for the local Democratic Party in March.

In an unusual twist, it appears one of those reports came from Mahmood himself.

At the end of last month, Mahmood sent out a tweet admitting that a mistake was made in a mailer promoting his bid to serve on the Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC). The mailer—sent just weeks before the March 5 election—featured a logo for his supervisor campaign, which is a major no-no. 

“It’s one of the most egregious violations I have ever seen,” said Jim Stearns, a longtime political consultant in San Francisco who previously worked on Preston’s 2020 campaign.

The error strikes at the core of what new Ethics Commission chief Patrick Ford called “one of the single biggest problems that we have” in local elections.

DCCC candidates can raise unlimited funds for their campaigns, while individual contributions to supervisor candidates are capped at $500. The massive sums of money going into DCCC campaigns—almost $1.8 million total, according to the Ethics Commission’s campaign dashboard—have raised concerns that some candidates are using their DCCC efforts as a way to bypass contribution limits in their bids for supervisor.

Dean Preston listens during a meeting.
Supervisor Dean Preston is up for reelection in November and will face off against tech entrepreneur Bilal Mahmood. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Matthew Pancia, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s local chapter and a volunteer for Preston’s past supervisor campaigns, filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission a day after seeing Mahmood’s tweet.

He said he was motivated to alert the city’s political watchdog because of the “shady” way money is going into DCCC races with coinciding supervisor contests.

“It bothers me just objectively,” Pancia said. “Even if I was a cynical political operative—which I’m not—it’s still shitty.”

Mahmood, who announced his bid for supervisor three weeks ago and has raised more than $230,000 for his DCCC bid, said he personally called the Ethics Commission to report the violation after realizing there was no way to prevent the mail from going out.

“I immediately tried to stop it,” Mahmood said.

He blamed the violation on a political consultant and said he was “taking action” against the individual to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again. 

Mahmood also noted that Preston “has had his own mistakes” leading to ethics complaints, most notably in 2016, when Preston’s campaign against then-Supervisor and now-Mayor London Breed featured a picture of a community organizer who reportedly told Preston not to feature his photo in campaign ads.

An audit later found that Preston's 2016 campaign could not provide receipts or invoices for almost $13,000 in expenditures and was "non-compliant with state and city campaign finance laws."

The supervisor issued a statement Wednesday slamming Mahmood’s mailer.

“My opponent doesn’t seem to take ethics rules or truth very seriously,” Preston said. “That’s already quite clear just weeks into his campaign.” 

It’s unclear how quickly the Ethics Commission will act, as a spokesperson for the agency said the City Charter prohibits any comment on potential investigations. But the violation and subsequent confession would seem to make this an open-and-shut case.

“We’ll see what happens when they complete an investigation,” Mahmood said.