Opinion: Buffy Wicks’ choice of campaign consultant is a not a good sign

Wicks has hired a company that is also working to defeat a San Francisco ballot measure that would tax large companies to help pay for homeless housing and services.

Local media coverage of campaign spending by Buffy Wicks, a former Obama administration official, in Assembly District 15 has focused on her high-dollar direct donors and “independent expenditure committee” helpers with even deeper pockets.

There’s been less publicity about the consulting firm retained by Wicks to win first place in the June primary and, if possible, beat Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles in the general election.

Wicks insists that she’s every bit as “progressive” and “corporate-free” as Beckles, a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance—and equally committed to housing affordability. But some voters may doubt such claim when made by a candidate employing the same political consultants who are fighting housing-related initiatives not far away.

Since her campaign began, Wicks has spent about $240,000 on the services of 50+1 Strategies, including the cost of a huge direct mail barrage overseen by this San Francisco-based firm. 50+1 markets itself as “a team of organizers” who believe that “meaningful community engagement can improve people’s lives and create lasting change.” Among their past or present clients are Airbnb and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, both definitely engaged in the community but not generally on behalf of progressive causes.

Affordable housing advocates in San Francisco just learned, for example, that 50+1 Strategies does not favor generating new tax revenue to improve homeless people’s lives by housing more of them. Instead, the hired guns working for Wicks are helping the chamber to defeat a measure called “Our City, Our Home.” If passed in November, it would double funding for housing and homeless services in San Francisco, by levying a gross receipts tax on companies with $50 million or more in annual revenue. I predict that millions of business dollars will be spent on this “Vote No” campaign.

Three years ago, San Francisco progressives similarly tried to increase housing availability by getting Proposition F on the ballot, so city hall could better regulate Airbnb’s home sharing business. The $8 million corporate campaign against that measure was orchestrated by 50+1, which argued that Measure F was “just too extreme.”

The firm, now representing Wicks, advertises this campaign victory on its website.

Almost all serious political candidates, even low budget ones like Beckles, hire consultants to do polling, fund-raising, database management, direct mail, TV and radio ad buys. In California, firms like 50+1 and Whitehurst/Mosher—well-known for its anti-soda tax campaigns in Richmond and Berkeley and now working for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce with 50+1 —often juggle a client list that includes brand name companies, top California Democrats, and even some labor unions. Like Wicks, the co-founders of 50+1, Nicole Derse and Addisu Demissie, are former Obama presidential campaign staffers. After Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, left the White House to run for mayor of Chicago, Demissie helped his campaign there, just like he’s backing Wicks’ first-time bid for office here.

Even Beckles’ modest pre-primary budget ($160,000 vs. total spending of $1.2 million on Wick’s behalf) was enough to hire consultants, from a firm called Telegraph, to jump-start her AD15 campaign. Telegraph listed some corporate clients but its past political work was more aligned with the labor and community causes championed by Beckles herself. Telegraph’s Jim Ross and his colleagues helped raise Oakland’s minimum wage and strengthen its rent regulation, via successful ballot measures. In 2016, Telegraph also advised a Richmond rent control coalition that won new tenant protections favored by Beckles. Since January, the Richmond city councilor has utilized little paid help and did not send out a single mass mailer during the AD15 primary. Instead, she depended on social media and grassroots volunteers to spread her “people-powered” message.

In our post-Citizens United-world, unlimited campaign spending by major corporations on their favored causes and candidates has greatly enhanced the role of political consultants. As I report in Refinery Town, a  book about big money in Richmond politics, this is not a positive development. However, a candidate’s choice of consultants on the campaign trail may provide clues about her future political relationships and policy stances, as an elected public official, at the city, state, or federal level.

Wicks’ heavy reliance on 50+1—while that firm is simultaneously working against “Our City, Our Home” in San Francisco—seems particularly telling. Consultants (other than Wicks’ own) would probably agree that the “optics” are not good. Too many AD15 voters have already had bad experiences with hired guns, paid a lot of money by business interests, to fight progressive candidates and policy initiatives in the East Bay.

Steve Early is a Richmond resident, belongs to the Richmond Progressive Alliance and supports Jovanka Beckles in her Assembly District 15 race against Buffy Wicks. Early is the author, most recently of "Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an America City."