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Did the 49ers swing a local California election?

Henry Bushnell
·5-min read

Millions of dollars spent by San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York appear to have successfully swung local elections in Santa Clara, California – and changed the makeup of the city's council, which York’s Niners have sparred with for years.

Three of four candidates backed by York, whose family owns the Niners, won Santa Clara City Council seats this week, ousting an incumbent and two other establishment choices in the process.

They won, in part, because York poured roughly $3 million into their campaigns. York’s money accounted for around 90% of all spending on city council campaigns. It amounted to roughly $50 per registered voter, and roughly $150 per vote in the four city council races combined.

And York spent it, via his political action committee, with a purpose. The Niners have said that purpose was to diversify a previously-all-white council that didn’t reflect its city. (Santa Clara is 43% white; three of York’s favored candidates are Asian-American.) Critics, however, argue the team merely wants to reshape a council that has not been amenable to its interests, and turn the city into “Yorkville.”

“It’s shocking and obnoxious,” Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. “He’s unhappy with the way Santa Clara is holding him accountable and he seems to figure it’s cheaper to buy the city council seats.”

San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York before the 2020 NFC championship game in Santa Clara. (Tony Avelar/AP)
San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York before the 2020 NFC championship game in Santa Clara. (Tony Avelar/AP)

The 49ers’ messy relationship with Santa Clara

The 49ers are in Year 7 of a decades-long marriage with Santa Clara. They moved to Levi’s Stadium, their new billion-dollar home, in 2014. Almost immediately, their relationship with the city soured.

Gillmor, a former councilwoman who ascended to mayor in 2016, and her allies have sparred with the team over everything from soccer fields to unpaid rent. The Niners, in one of many emblematic squabbles, have begged the city to loosen a 10 p.m. weeknight curfew to allow for concerts at the stadium. The city hasn’t budged. The Niners have pushed for more oversight of the stadium, which the city helped finance and which it controls. The city council has pushed back. It has moved to sever an agreement that allowed the team to operate NFL and non-NFL events at Levi’s, alleging fraud and willful misconduct. The Niners have sued to block that action.

The two parties have quarreled over revenue splits and other matters. They’re locked in several legal battles, some of which have spilled out into public. Rahul Chandhok, the Niners’ vice president of public affairs and strategic communications, has frequently criticized Gillmor. Gillmor and her team sometimes fire back. The whole relationship is extremely messy.

The city has won most battles because Gillmor allies held a strong majority on the council. It’s that majority that York sought to upend. He reportedly lives 10 miles west of the city, in Los Altos Hills, and presumably didn’t have a vote in Tuesday’s election. Instead, because U.S. laws don’t limit individual political expenditure, he simply reached into his wallet.

Jed York’s big political spending

York didn’t handpick the candidates. But they were “relative unknowns,” according to the San Jose Mercury News.

That is, until York’s money started coming in. As of late last month, City of Santa Clara records show over $500,000 spent by York and the 49ers on each of the four city council races. His contributions dwarfed all others.

(Source: City of Santa Clara)
(Source: City of Santa Clara)
(Source: City of Santa Clara)
(Source: City of Santa Clara)
(Source: City of Santa Clara)
(Source: City of Santa Clara)
(Source: City of Santa Clara)
(Source: City of Santa Clara)

York’s PAC, “Citizens for Efficient Government & Full Voting Rights,” spent thousands on mailings, phone calls and texts to voters; on TV advertisements selling his favored candidates; on digital advertising and campaign websites. An Oct. 2 expenditure report, for example, shows $190,351 spent on TV ads supporting Suds Jain, who ultimately won the District 5 seat with 3,037 votes to his opponent’s 1,897. Dozens of similar filings throughout October show the finances in detail.

Jain, Kevin Park and Anthony Becker ultimately won their races. Only Harbir Bhatia lost out to incumbent Kathy Watanabe. The three victories, the Mercury News wrote, were “stunning upsets,” and broke up the establishment’s majority.

Two of the councilmen-elect moved publicly to distance themselves from York’s money on Wednesday, telling the Mercury News that they didn’t seek it out.

“Let’s be honest, Jed York is not a neighbor, he’s not necessarily a friend, he’s a businessman,” Park said. “And the 49ers, they’re a business. I don’t think any businessman or business puts down any money if they don’t expect to get some kind of return on that money. … In a lot of ways I can’t help but feel a little upset with the amount of the spending the 49ers did on my behalf. Because even if they meant well, it does color my campaign when I was trying to run a clean grassroots campaign.”

And Jain: “I have been very critical of the stadium and the giveaways to the 49ers. … I’m not by any means a sports fan. When this campaign started, I didn’t even know who the quarterback was.”

But the candidates are viewed as being more willing to work with the Niners. Park said he’d be willing to negotiate. Jain told the Mercury News that the city should consider loosening the curfew for weeknight concerts. No matter York’s intentions, his money worked, and the business he runs could be better off because of it.

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