In summary

The State Building and Construction Trades Council placed a Facebook advertisement which members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus objected to. The union retracted the ad and issued an apology, but the incident illustrates the fraught tensions at play in state housing discussions.

After Jewish state lawmakers accused the state construction workers union of running a political advertisement evoking anti-Semitic stereotypes in its a depiction of a Jewish state senator, the powerful labor union has issued an apology and withdrawn the ad. 

The controversial Facebook ad, placed by the State Building and Construction Trades Council, features an image of Sen. Scott Wiener, Democrat from San Francisco, against a backdrop of a Monopoly game board, clutching a handful of Monopoly cash. 

Designed in-house by the union to oppose a bill sponsored by Wiener, the photoshopped ad links to a website by a separate advocacy organization that accuses Wiener of “selling out” to developers and the real estate industry.  Jeremy Russell, a spokesperson for the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, called the ad “cringeworthy.” 

“Everyone wants to be careful not to use that term (anti-Semitism) too lightly. But there’s not a question that (the ad) touched on anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes,” said Sen. Ben Allen, Democrat from Santa Monica and chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus. “So at the very least the folks who put it up ought to be made aware of how problematic moving in that direction is.” 

Robbie Hunter, president of the building trades union, initially disputed the characterization of the ad as anti-Semitic and charged Wiener with trying to distract attention away from SB 899, a bill that would allow churches and other religious organizations to more speedily develop low-income housing on their property. 

Construction workers’ unions want union-level wages and union-trained workers attached to those projects — additional costs low-income housing developers loathe. 

“We are certainly not about putting anybody down, but people that do the wrong things sometimes try to hide behind any issue they can hide behind,” said Hunter. He added that his organization had designed several other ads with other non-Jewish lawmakers featuring the same Monopoly backdrop, but never ran those ads publicly. 

But the following day, the ad was removed from Facebook and the State Building and Construction Trades Council issued an apology. 

“To any individual or community offended by our ads highlighting Scott Wiener’s anti-worker legislation, we are sincerely sorry as it was never our intention to offend in any way — and we have removed the ads in question,” read the statement.  

The building trades, which donate heavily to Democratic candidates and the state Democratic party, have a reputation for aggressive political tactics. A fallout with Gov. Gavin Newsom last year led to Hunter’s group running digital ads all but accusing Newsom of indifference to the deaths of blue collar workers.

The state construction workers’ union and Wiener, a high-profile pro-housing force at the Capitol, have had a complicated, often fraught relationship since his election to the state Senate in 2016, cooperating on some high-profile bills while at odds on others. 

Wiener, who faces a competitive re-election bid this year, said that he considers construction workers unions an ally on many issues and that he doesn’t think Hunter intended the ad to be anti-Semitic.  

But he added the Jewish community is deserving of some type of apology.  

“A certain kind of ad can be offensive in one context, and not the other,” said Wiener. “And the reality is that for as long as there have been Jews, there has been slander against us, that we are money-grubbing, greedy and trying to control the world. And that’s what makes it anti-Semitic.”

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Matt Levin was the data and housing dude for CalMatters. His work entails distilling complex policy topics into easily digestible charts and graphs, finding and writing original stories from data, yelling...