Airbnb’s political machine in San Francisco is lead by an opposition researcher that even Karl Rove admired
The company has spent $8.5m to campaign against proposed new law, and hired the political strategist who first revealed George W. Bush’s DWI.
This is a mayoral election year in San Francisco, but since nary a formidable candidate chose to oppose incumbent mayor Ed Lee, that’s not likely to be a draw.
One political campaign, however, is getting plenty of airtime in the city. If you live in San Francisco and have inputs from your sensory organs, you’re probably aware of it.
I’m talking, of course, of Proposition F – the “Airbnb initiative.” Proposition F is the ballot measure that has Airbnb and its investors shitting themselves. How can you tell?
To date the company has put $8.5 million into the campaign opposing the proposition, on pace to beat out PG&E for the city record for the amount to come from a single corporation. (For comparison, the entire beverage industry ponied up $12 million a year ago to oppose a tax on sugared drinks – and still only got 44% of the vote. The campaign committee in favor of Proposition F has raised $375k.)
The $8.5 million doesn’t include the salaries of their on-staff political consultants, who since late August have been led by Chris Lehane, former Clinton Administration damage control chief, the guy whose book is titled “Master of Disaster.” He’s also believed to be a master of planting stories in the press, an ability Joshua Green documented in the Atlantic in 2004, and Karl Rove admires in his memoirs.
So what do get with $8.5 million and the guy who revealed George W. Bush’s DWI four days before the 2000 election, prompting Karl Rove to call him “one of the Democratic Party’s best opposition researchers,” and credit him with swinging the popular vote to Gore?
It’s still too early to tell. Most of that money still hasn’t been spent, and there are still six weeks to go. With Lehane’s help, Airbnb is likely to save the best for last. But they already have plenty to show for their anxious outpouring.
Just days after taking the helm of Airbnb’s “global policy and public affairs,” Lehane mixed sports metaphors for his new employer, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that Proposition F “will lead to lawsuit vigilantism… People will be able to fire off lawsuits left and right, as opposed to government playing its role as the umpire calls you out, you’re out. That’s why we have objective third parties to make decisions. This is an effort to an end run around city government.”
In recent weeks, a number of well-produced, creepy TV spots have promoted the idea that “Proposition F will encourage neighbors to spy on one another,” inspire a rash of frivolous lawsuits and constitute invasions of citizen privacy by the government. The provision that would require Airbnb hosts to report how many nights they’ve rented their spot is interpreted through the fear filter as: “the government will demand to know where you sleep every night.”
(While those are all a bit ridiculous, the last one is even more funny, since the current law – the one that got written just the way Airbnb wanted – makes a distinction between ‘hosted’ and ‘unhosted’ units, meaning if the city were able or willing to enforce the current law, it would have to know where hosts slept. This distinction was the subject of criticism this spring, and a hard cap was proposed as a solution, but that was changed back at the last minute so that the split-cap could “have a chance to work” – another favored phrase of the No campaign.)
One longtime Airbnb host-advocate has uncovered some dirt on the leader of the other side’s campaign, and gotten it written up in the Chronicle. They’ve featured the support of local taquerias, noodle shops and other small businesses, political groups representing the LGBTQ, Latino and Asian communities, and endorsements from the Mayor, moderate members of the board of supervisors, and, of course, hosts hosts hosts. They spent $264,800 on a poll which showed they had jumped ahead of their opponents...and then dumped millions more into the campaign fund.
Airbnb also won the half-hearted support of the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board, though the husk of the San Francisco Examiner is pro-F, and the Chronicle’s Carolyn Said has been regularly documenting abuses and illegalities of the Airbnb platform for quite some time (One-paper towns…).
No venture capitalists have been featured in any of the media offerings, on the campaign’s website or its Facebook page. Obviously. Just as obviously, the ballot measure could deliver a blow to Airbnb’s profits and eventual public offering, especially if it inspires similar action elsewhere.
The measure would cap the number of days a unit can be rented, at 75 per year, install fines for listing unregistered units (registering units is currently mandatory, and in 9 months of open registration some 600 hosts out of a total of over seven thousand have done so. There are currently no penalties to either Airbnb or hosts for failing to register). Registering a unit could bring Airbnb activity to the attention of landlords, who could evict hosts for breach of contract in only-Airbnb-knows-how-many cases. Of course, this happens already, but if this risk becomes codified it could severely dampen enthusiasm for topping up incomes by Airbnb’ing.
Currently the campaign group, “San Francisco For Everyone, No on Prop F,” is running an ad featuring the impeccable hair and suave entreaties of former-Mayor and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who looks into the camera and explains why he’s “concerned about Proposition F,” for all the same reasons that Airbnb and the Mayor are.
It may bear mentioning that the last time Newsom used his former-Mayor clout to support a contentious ballot measure – last summer’s Proposition B limiting waterfront development – he and Ed Lee were soundly walloped. And when he used his Lt. Governor powers to sue the city over the measure, he lost that too. But now he’s running for governor -- maybe Gavin has his groove back?
“I’m hoping that Gavin does for airbnb what he’s done for everything else he’s meddled in since leaving San Francisco,” said Dale Carlson, who is leading the yes of F campaign.
(Unfortunately, Pando no longer supports comments, so we won’t have the opportunity to enjoy any of Newsom’s famous sock puppetry.)
Though it may seem that all the local powers that be have thrown in their lot beside Airbnb, there is one notable exception: Senator Dianne Feinstein, who late last year criticized the current law, which got this whole thing started. While Newsom, Lee, Airbnb, and nearly all their campaign materials call Prop F “too extreme,” Feinstein calls it a “common sense change.”
If it continues bombarding the populace with its overtly pragmatic and fear-mongering messages, Airbnb may find that its tactics are too extreme for voters’ liking.
Either way, the vote will likely be held up as a litmus test of the “new San Francisco’s” political tastes. Which may or may not be true: The entire decision rests on that most unrepresentative of electoral minorities: off-year voters. In 2013, less than 30 percent of registered voters here turned out. If that happens again, a small minority will soon make a very big decision for the entire city.