The San Francisco 49ers have poured nearly $2.7 million into the Santa Clara mayor and city council races, a big spending boost to support their favorite candidates and potentially cement the influence of 49ers CEO Jed. York, over the city.

The 49ers initially contributed nearly $750,000 on Sept. 1 to committees backing Anthony Becker for mayor and Karen Hardy and Raj Chahal for re-election to city council. Just a month later, the team more than tripled its donations ahead of the November 8 election.

As a result, local voters say, there’s no escaping the 49ers’ barrage of political publicity — especially in the mayoral race. On TV and in the mailbox, on social media or browsing the internet, voters say they are inundated with cutting-edge ads aimed at unseating Mayor Lisa Gillmor, the team’s top critic.

“The number of announcements is astronomical,” said Thomas Shanks, former director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “I think what the 49ers are trying to do is buy more of the city, and voters will decide if they’re for sale.”

The 49ers’ efforts include a rare public spat with a rival NFL owner. Affiliates of Miami Dolphins president Stephen Ross, developers of an $8 billion commercial and residential project adjacent to Levi’s Stadium, donated $250,000 to a committee to re-elect Gillmor.

Among the 49ers-funded ads blasting Gillmor is one that aired during ESPN’s broadcast of the 49ers-Rams game on Monday night. In that ad, the 49ers called Ross “one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters” and claimed he was involved in “shady backroom deals” with Gillmor. That kind of criticism is extraordinarily rare among team owners such as York and Ross (an NFL spokesperson declined to comment).

Beyond that dynamic, the ads blame Gillmor for a $27 million budget shortfall and accuse him of “gross mismanagement” of the city. Meanwhile, political newcomers Larry McColloch and Christian Pellecchia who challenge pro-49ers board members Chahal and Hardy are portrayed as Gillmor’s puppets. The combative ad is paired with ads portraying Becker, Chahal and Hardy as caring, wellness-conscious problem solvers.

Other ads during the campaign bolster the re-election bids of Hardy and Chahal, who voted to settle the city’s lawsuit accusing the 49ers of embezzling taxpayer dollars into management by the Levi’s team. Stadium. The City Council is the owner of the 49ers in the public stadium.

About half of the team’s contributions went to promoting Becker, who became their biggest booster on the city council. As of Sept. 29, the 49ers had already spent more than $21 on each of the city’s registered voters in Becker’s name.

“My reaction is that it’s very disappointing to see so much money being poured into the races,” Becker wrote in a Tuesday text message to The Chronicle. “I was hoping the 49ers and the developers would stay away… There’s not much we can do about it because it’s their constitutional right.”

A 49ers spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment on the team’s campaign spending.

TV commercials air on CNN, ESPN, MSNBC, the Food Network and HGTV. The 49ers booked $1.4 million in television time during the election, according to Comcast records.

Advertisements for the team appear frequently on Facebook, YouTube and in Google searches, voters told The Chronicle.

“If I scour Facebook for news articles, I’ll see two or three ads every three or four minutes,” said voter Jamie Major, a registered nurse who lives in Chahal District.

Some voters said they received eight pamphlets touting the 49ers’ favorite candidates and attacking their opponents. Canvassers who admitted to being paid by the team knocked on doors to promote 49ers candidates, some voters reported.

The team also purchased several election-related infomercials from the San Francisco Examiner.

“It’s unbelievable that they’re so blatantly spending so much money trying to buy the mayor’s seat of Santa Clara,” Gillmor said. “They’re not even hiding it… They’ve made a great return on their investment from the last $3 million they’ve spent on the three board members (in 2020). So I’m sure they hope that the mayoral seat will give them an even greater return on investment.

An individual donor cannot give more than $630 to a candidate in a local election, according to municipal law. But unlimited donations are allowed to “independent spending committees”, entities not controlled by the candidates from which they are responsible for benefiting. In contrast, political action committees contribute directly to candidates but are subject to donation limits.

Using this strategy, York pumped $2.9 million into the 2020 campaigns to elect a 49ers-friendly majority to the city council; three of his four favorite contestants won. Team lobbyists have regularly met privately with five board members who make up the pro-49ers bloc. In the months that followed, the board fired the city attorney and city manager, who both challenged the 49ers over stadium issues, and gave the team what it was looking for on several related issues. at the stadium, according to public records.

Then, on August 30, the board voted to drop the city’s lawsuit to strip the team of its stadium management contract due to a long list of alleged financial irregularities. Two days later, the 49ers began their campaign spending spree.

The team announcements make no mention of the settlement of the stadium lawsuit or the firing of the two city officials, the wanted 49ers moved. The team also gives no clue what it expects from the city after the election.

For their part, 49ers targets complain that the ads are filled with incorrect and misleading statements. Gillmor, who expects to be heavily spent on the race – her campaign slogan is “Leadership Money Can’t Buy” – called the team’s ads “grotesque” and claimed the 49ers were attacking her because that she “held them accountable” for their management of Levi’s Stadium.

“If you don’t pledge your allegiance to Jed York and the 49ers, that’s what you’re going to face,” she said.

The website
– sponsored by the DeBartolo Corporation & Affiliated Entities, including the 49ers – lists the four priorities claimed by Becker. Among them, “making the government transparent”.

“Anthony Becker believes government should be open and accessible to the people it is meant to serve,” the website says. “He will unite our city and end the division that hurts everyone.”

Becker voted against a motion to discuss in open court the 49ers’ proposed lawsuit settlement with the city of Santa Clara. Then, during a contentious closed session of the city council meeting, Becker engaged in “verbal attacks and irrational behavior,” Gillmor said, prompting council member Kathy Watanabe to stand up and to start walking out of the room.

It was then that Becker shouted “F— you!” at Watanabe and made an obscene gesture, according to Gillmor and Watanabe. Gillmor called the police, she later said, “because it was obvious he had huge anger issues”. Asked about the incident the following day, Becker declined to discuss the “material behind closed doors.”

McColloch, a business executive and inventor, said 49ers advertisements criticized him for the problems actually created by the “49er Five,” his tenure for the majority of the pro-49ers board.

“They’re blaming me for a budget deficit when I wasn’t even a board member,” he said. “As far as they went to negative budget, the 49er Five pulled it off, not me.”

Pellecchia, Hardy’s opponent, argues that the 49ers’ ads are based on “any kind of lie you want”. An advertisement accuses Pellecchia, a construction executive, of being “a lobbyist in the pocket of big business” – a reference to his involvement with the local chamber of commerce in 2017.

“I’m not a lobbyist – I’m not on anybody’s team,” he said. “I run because I feel compelled to – I’m just sick of the corruption.”

Both Hardy and Chahal said they knew nothing about the 49ers campaign. “I don’t know what they’re doing,” Hardy said. “I’m running my own little campaign.”

Chahal, in an email to The Chronicle, said he believed special interest money did not belong in politics.

“Fundamentally, I don’t believe that big corporations like the 49ers should be allowed to spend IEs (independent expenses) in local elections, and hope that future campaign finance reform will prevent that,” he said. he writes.

Voters also notice the personalized nature of advertising.

“The 49ers are targeting their ads down to the district level,” said Scott Filler, a neighbor of candidate McColloch. “I only see ads for Raj and against Mayor Gillmor and against Larry.”

On YouTube, Filler said, ads appear “every two to three minutes.” Friends who live in the Hardy neighborhood see ads for this race, he reported, while people who live outside of Santa Clara may not see any at all.

Shanks, who studies the ethical aspects of the city’s relationship with the team, said he fears the spending explosion will corrode local democracy, fostering cynicism about the government.

“It’s got to have a chilling effect on people, unless voters decide they’re not going to pay attention to it,” he said of the publicity barrage. “But I don’t know if it’s possible when it happens to you like that.”

Ron Kroichick is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and Lance Williams is a freelance writer. Email: [email protected] and [email protected] Twitter: @ronkroichick and @LanceWCIR