Big Tech Backs Breed for San Francisco Mayor. Will She Return the Favor?

(Bloomberg) -- Like many dutiful voters across San Francisco, I spent the weekend poring over my daunting 154-page sample ballot so I’ll be good and ready when polls open tomorrow. Per usual for this city, there's a slew of measures and candidates to consider. But it's San Francisco's race for mayor that's being most closely watched by municipal leaders around the country, and that will have wide-ranging implications for the American tech industry.  

The mayorship’s leading contenders are London Breed, current president of the board of supervisors and a native San Franciscan raised in public housing by her grandmother; Jane Kim, a supervisor who’s lived in the city for years after growing up in New York; and Mark Leno, a former state senator and a small business owner. All would represent firsts as mayor—Breed, the first African-American woman; Kim, the first Asian-American woman; and Leno, the first who’s openly gay.

As with the election of Mayor Ed Lee, whose unexpected death in December precipitated tomorrow’s vote, the tech sector looms large. This time, many prominent executives and venture capitalists have thrown their backing to Breed. A sampling of the tech luminaries who have made campaign contributions: Investor Ron Conway, Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, former Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist and widow of Steve Jobs. (Kim also enjoys the support of a handful of prominent technologists, including Automattic founder and Chief Executive Officer Matt Mullenweg.)

Why the preponderance of tech support for Breed? Talk to any of the industry cognoscenti, and they’ll tell you their top issue is the city’s housing crisis—one that is widely blamed on their own industry. The tech boom has sparked an influx of highly paid engineers whose arrival has driven up rents and home prices (the median price of a house in the city soared to a record $1.6 million in the first quarter). That’s pushed many middle-income renters out of the city, and made it harder for lower-income families to stay in their homes. Tech companies feel the heat too, when even their own employees can’t afford to live close to where they work.

"The root cause of our city and region's biggest problems—whether its affordability, homelessness or even congestion—is the lack of affordable housing," Conway wrote in an email to me. "I and many other tech leaders are supporting London Breed for the sole reason that she is the only candidate truly committed to building more housing."

In fact, while Breed has vocally backed more development, all three candidates support measures that would encourage more affordable housing. All three also have aggressive plans for addressing homelessness, but Breed’s stands out for its harder edge. Aside from increasing access to housing, Breed says she’ll put more cops on the streets, end the tent encampments that have cropped up across the city and champion the use of conservatorships, which let courts appoint guardians for people deemed unable to care of themselves. Kim’s approach includes increasing access to shelters, deploying mobile showers and putting homeless people to work as street cleaners. Julie Edwards, a spokeswoman for Kim, told me Kim is still considering backing conservatorships, adding, “It’s a heavy tool we need to be careful about implementing.” 

I talked to Joe Tuman, a professor of communication studies at San Francisco State University, about Breed’s appeal to tech. To him, Breed is viewed as more of a business-friendly centrist. “She’s clearly a Democrat and a liberal,” he said, “but I don’t think I would call her a progressive by San Francisco standards.” 

Breed’s tech backing has not come without controversy. Gayle Conway, Ron Conway’s wife, drew fire after donating $200,000 to a political action committee that criticized Kim for her move six years ago to reinstate the city’s sheriff after he was accused of domestic violence. Breed’s opponents say she’ll be beholden to wealthy tech donors. “The next mayor needs to be chosen by the voters and not the billionaires,” says Kim spokeswoman Edwards.

But Breed doesn’t always take tech-friendly positions. In 2016 she introduced legislation that would have put a 60-day cap on Airbnb stays (it was later vetoed by then-mayor Lee). And while she calls electric scooters “a fun and clean transportation option,” she also says “they need to be regulated and stay off our sidewalks” (some San Franciscans concur). She also supports the idea of autonomous vehicles, though she warns, “I will make sure our streets are not laboratories for untested technology.” 

Whoever wins tomorrow’s election, the next mayor of San Francisco will want to maintain the tech-friendly atmosphere created by Ed Lee—and the prosperity that came with it—but he or she will also need to rein in the industry’s excesses, and ensure that the benefits of the boom accrue more evenly.

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