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A Different Sort of Retirement Party

Fundaiser for Mayor Lee courts a less-than-thrilling cause: erasing campaign debt

At his swearing-in party Sunday night at City Hall, Mayor Edwin Lee will be praised by Senator Dianne Feinstein and serenaded with a special performance by the San Francisco Symphony.

Next week, he will travel to Millbrae for a less glamorous — but just as obligatory — political event: a fund-raiser to retire some of his $300,000 in campaign debt.

Lee’s campaign raised more than $1.7 million but still amassed substantial debt. Retiring it is especially difficult because of strict local campaign contribution limits. Individuals cannot donate more than $500 to a candidate during a campaign season.

As a result, Bill Barnes, Lee’s campaign manager, said raising money to retire campaign debts tends to be harder than raising money in the early stages of a campaign.

“As there’s an effort to retire debt, you have to go back to talk to new people,” he said.

In Lee’s case, that means talking to people who may have donated to his opponents.

On Jan. 15 Lee will attend a fund-raiser hosted by Fiona Ma, a former assemblywoman who endorsed Lee’s opponent Senator Leland Yee last year.

Ma said she had hoped to run for Yee’s State Senate seat if he had won.

“I’m just trying to help Lee erase his debt,” Ma said. “I put together the host committee, and I’ll show up, encourage people, call people and ask them to come.”

She said that the event in Millbrae would highlight Lee’s stature in the larger Bay Area Asian-American community.

“Mayor Lee wanted me to reach out to folks outside of San Francisco,” she said. “He wanted it to be a greater Bay Area mayoral event, understanding his role among community members who live down on the Peninsula.”

“And he knew I had pretty good relationships there,” she added.

Besides, Ma acknowledged, in raising $1.7 million, Lee had pretty much exhausted potential donors in San Francisco.

“I think he’s already asked everybody in the city,” she said.

Corey Cook, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco, said the post-election debt retirement derby had become a standard fixture in California politics. For example, Gavin Newsom entered the San Francisco mayor’s office in January 2004 with $550,000 in campaign debt.

“You see this in Sacramento constantly,” said Cook, an expert in campaign financing. “Once the new Legislature is sworn in, there’s a host of fund-raisers.”

“It just points out the lunacy of our campaign finance system, in terms of the amounts involved, and the constant way money has to be raised politically,” Cook said.

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