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Politics & Policy

Pandas are expensive. The mayor wants Big Tech, wealthy donors to help pay for them

A crowd watches and takes pictures of two pandas on a wooden platform. One panda sits down while the other climbs up a ladder.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed is seeking donations from tech firms and philanthropists to cover $25 million in panda-related costs. | Source: CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images

San Francisco’s highly anticipated panda plan reached a milestone Tuesday as the Board of Supervisors approved a fundraising proposal introduced by Mayor London Breed.

The mayor received approval to seek donations from Big Tech firms and prominent philanthropists to cover $25 million in panda-related costs, including rental fees to China, the construction of a panda habitat—and, of course, bamboo. One adult panda can eat more than 80 pounds in a day.

Well-known companies like Apple, Salesforce, OpenAI, DoorDash and Lyft are listed, as are some high-profile individuals and families. Among them are former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, oil heir Gordon Getty, Chinese American community leader and former media tycoon Florence Fang and the Fisher family, who founded the Gap.

Surprisingly, the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund, the family foundation related to Daniel Lurie, a mayoral candidate running against Breed, is on the list, too. 

It’s unclear how these potential donors will react, but many of them are believed to have friendly relations with the city. The list is very similar to the donors’ list from last November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Graton Rancheria casino, which donated $4.6 million to the city to host the international conference, is on the list. United Airlines, Ripple, Sutter Health, Visa, MEBO International and Kaiser Permanente, who were top donors to APEC, are also listed and will likely receive a call from City Hall leaders on donations for pandas.

A woman in a grey suit speaks at a podium with a Salesforce logo, while a man in a black jacket and light shirt sits smiling nearby, in front of a blue and purple backdrop.
Salesforce is one of the many companies that may help Mayor Breed with donations needed to cover $25 million in panda-related costs. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Breed and China announced in April that a pair of pandas will come to the San Francisco Zoo, hopefully next year. The Mayor’s Office issued a statement emphasizing that no taxpayer money will go toward their care.

“We know how significant bringing pandas to San Francisco will be for our tourism recovery and economy, and for our residents, which is why the mayor is adamant about fundraising solely through private donations,” the statement said. “The ability to privately fundraise will relinquish any possibility of burdening our taxpayers, which is ultimately our goal.”

Peskin says no

To raise the needed funds, Breed has asked for an exemption from the city’s complex “behested payment” rules. That would allow some city departments to receive unlimited donations from individuals, charities or private-sector companies, even if donors have contracts or do business with the city.

The request was granted by the board, although not without some drama.

In May, Supervisor Dean Preston raised some concerns about the transparency of potential donors, as the disclosure is required by the behested payment law, which forced the Mayor’s Office to release the list of potential donors. Preston then postponed the item for three weeks.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved the plan 9-2, with Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Hillary Ronen voting no.

A woman converses with a seated man; both are in a wood-paneled room with a US flag.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin voted against Mayor London Breed's panda fundraising proposal. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Peskin, who’s also running to replace Breed, said at the board meeting that he’s concerned about a specific company on the list, PG&E. In recent years, the utility has generated a number of controversies, including soaring electricity prices and legal challenges related to wildfires, as the city moves to strengthen its own public power system.

“Am I comfortable … asking them for money?” Peskin asked at the board meeting before the vote. “It doesn’t feel right.”

According to the Mayor’s Office, the city and the zoo will develop and share a fundraising timeline and continue working with Chinese partners on the details of the panda plans.