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Politics & Policy

Mayor’s panda plans bogged down as supervisors question $25M fundraising ask

A woman in a blue blazer speaks at a podium, with large windows and soft light in the background.
Supervisors postpone Mayor London Breed’s effort to allow some city departments to fundraise for the pandas’ cost. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Mayor London Breed’s giant panda dreams are meeting some harsh political realities.

Citing concerns about potential conflicts of interest among the Mayor’s Office and major political donors, a three-person committee at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 Thursday morning to postpone Breed's request to allow “behested payments” in her nascent efforts to raise $25 million for the San Francisco Zoo to host pandas leased from China.

The panda proposal stems from Breed’s April trip to China, where she secured an agreement to bring a pair of pandas to the city’s zoo. Housing and caring for the pandas is likely to cost the zoo tens of millions of dollars. Breed introduced a resolution to the board that would clear certain city departments to fundraise for a new enclosure and other needed infrastructure upgrades to the zoo.

Among these departments are the Recreation and Park Department, which owns the zoo, and the city-operated San Francisco International Airport and its commission. Breed’s resolution would allow these departments to receive unlimited donations, or behests, from individuals, charities or private-sector companies, even if donors have contracts or do business with the city.

Such an exemption from the city's complex behested payment rules, tightened in 2022 because of the Department of Public Works corruption scandal, requires the Board of Supervisors’ approval. The proposed exemption would be only for panda purposes and would last six months, with the possibility of renewal.

At the Government Audit and Oversight Committee hearing Thursday, Breed's Chief of Staff Sean Elsbernd said that no taxpayer dollars will be used for hosting the pandas, necessitating an aggressive fundraising campaign from the city.

“That's why we continue to ensure only philanthropic [money] will go to support the pandas,” Elsbernd said.

A giant panda walks through grass near wooden structures, looking toward the camera.
China agrees to send a pair of pandas to San Francisco. But the city still needs to fundraise tens of millions of dollars. | Source: Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images

However, with the city facing budget cuts, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who is running to replace Breed for mayor, criticized the timing and nature of her proposal as a distraction to the city’s pressing priorities.

Safaí said he supported the pandas coming to the city but questioned how leaders could justify the attention paid to such fundraising while the city is also cutting millions of dollars from the multibillion city budget and defunding many programs, which could hurt nonprofits, families and children. 

“This is about prioritizing children over pandas,” the supervisor said. “This is about prioritizing our future.”

Some donors are already expressing interest. Elsbernd said that United Airlines has reached out about donating toward the pandas’ costs, but Breed’s office has to wait until the city passes an exemption because the airline has contracts with the airport.

Supervisors Connie Chan and Dean Preston questioned the mayor’s top aide about the potential for corruption if airport commissioners were allowed to ask for unlimited donations from airlines. 

“Is it necessary to include airport commissioners?” Chan asked, emphasizing that the behested payment rules aim to stop potential "pay-to-play" schemes. Preston also demanded more transparency from the Mayor's Office about which donors it plans to approach.

In a statement, Airport Commission President Malcolm Yeung, a Chinese American who went to China with Breed, said that San Francisco hosting pandas was the dream of many mayors and he’s excited to help make it a reality, but he agreed that the commission should stay out of the fundraising campaign.

“While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to help in this way,” Yeung said. “I understand the need to remove an airport commissioner from the behesting exemption.”

Another concern centered on the zoo’s ability to care for the pandas properly, in light of investigative reports by the San Francisco Chronicle detailing incidents involving a dangerous working environment and the death of a penguin.

Elsbernd parried these questions by suggesting that zoological experts from China and federal authorities will have a chance to assess the zoo’s safety and conditions. The city is currently engaged in discussions involving multiple international partners regarding the technical requirements for the zoo to receive the pandas, he said.

The committee eventually voted to shelve the resolution temporarily, with Chan and Preston voting to postpone, while Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a Breed ally, voted against the delay. Preston, the chair of the committee, would not commit to bringing up the item in the next meeting.

After the vote, Breed's office released a statement saying the delay of the issue is not uncommon, and the office will amend the resolution based on the supervisors' feedback.

“This is an exciting moment and opportunity for our city,” the statement said. “Mayor Breed will continue to work across city departments and with the Board of Supervisors to ensure the private funding needed can proceed.”

The city and the zoo have not yet released a timeline or specific costs for the pandas’ arrival, and the $25 million is just an estimated number, based on previous costs incurred by U.S. zoos that have hosted China’s national animal. Breed can only start the fundraising effort when the resolution passes the board. 

Several prominent and wealthy Chinese American leaders have told The Standard that they are interested in donating to the cause but said it is still too early for them to start considering the sizes of their checks.