The Revolution is Canceled

How the grand plan for district elections could backfire

Peskin, the prototype of a district-election candidate, also faces a tough fight. He has a strong following in North Beach, mostly inhabited by young renters, and in certain left-leaning parts of Telegraph Hill. But his role as a gadfly is likely to offend more conservative voters in Nob Hill and Russian Hill, and his ties to Ammiano could work against him in Chinatown, where there is still strong support for Mayor Willie Brown.

The other two top contenders in the race will almost certainly try to use these weaknesses to their advantage. Meagan Levitan, a bland but polished candidate who will offend fewer voters, is aiming for the district's moderates and conservatives. Alicia Becerril, a weak incumbent with enough money behind her to mount a potentially harmful soft-money advertising campaign, will probably try to capitalize on Peskin's connection to the Ammiano contingent, while forming a base of support in Chinatown with the help of the mayor's connections.

Like other districts across the city, the race comes down to a competition for the middle. The Peskins, who stand by their convictions, run the greatest risk of having their views used against them, while candidates like Levitan and Becerril, who can run solid campaigns and stay out of the line of fire, have the best chance of walking away with it all.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The Activist

Aaron Peskin can't walk five feet down Columbus Avenue without running into someone he knows. As he makes his way through the crowded sidewalk, he's constantly calling out to people, shaking hands, slapping high-fives, schmoozing. He's like the kid in high school who has to say hi to every last person he passes in the hall, not in some sad effort to join the popular crowd but because he genuinely likes people.

The president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers has made his name as an activist who can scrabble with big developers and actually win. Dubbed the "Ayatollah of North Beach," Peskin organized neighbors to block a Rite Aid store from moving in across from Washington Square. He also personally sued San Francisco City College to prevent it from demolishing the historic Colombo Building and won. In the oldest district in San Francisco, nothing is as important as preserving the neighborhood's character, and Peskin has delivered.

It's August and he has already been campaigning for months, bringing the same obsessive energy to his run for supervisor as he has brought to neighborhood skirmishes in the past. His signs dot the windows of local merchants and apartments high above the street. He has been passing out literature, translated into Chinese, at the Night Market in Chinatown on Saturday nights. Retail politics. Wearing out the shoe leather is what district elections are all about, and Peskin has gotten a huge head start over his opponents.

The crew greets him warmly at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store, a cafe famous for its eggplant sandwich. Peskin orders a round of House Camparis, a blend of vermouth, bitters, and a twist of lemon. Then he orders another. "An afternoon in North Beach is an even more beautiful place after a couple House Camparis," he says.

If district elections were intended to replace the empty suits in City Hall with real people, Peskin is the man for the job. In fact, the 36-year-old activist bought the first suit he has ever owned specifically for this campaign. He still gets excited when he sees his name in the newspaper. He likes to drop names. Big names, small names, it doesn't matter. For all his experience fighting neighborhood battles, thus far Peskin has been limited to pressing his face against the glass of the city's political establishment.

Now he wants in. But to get there, he has had to clean up his act. Buy a suit. Get a haircut. Hire a campaign manager, a field director. He has tried to find common ground with people he has never had to talk to before, and sought to make inroads with other political camps. He asked for an endorsement from Assemblywoman Carole Migden, a loyal foot soldier for the Brown-Burton machine, and got it.

He hasn't completely found himself yet, however. "Sure, a leap still has to be made," he says. "I've shown that I have an understanding of how government works. Now I need to show that I can govern." He pauses for a moment, watching the tourists float by the window. His eyes wander to the signs on the street with his name on them. "I mean, who am I?" he asks. "Who the fuck am I?" He points to a sign in an insurance office across the street. "My name is in the window of Jack Lee Fong Insurance. Is that amazing or what?"

The Professional

Long before Peskin ever considered running for supervisor, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers organized a big dinner to discuss district elections. They invited Frank Gallagher, then a political columnist for the San Francisco Independent, to talk about how this new electoral process would play out.

Gallagher is a garrulous City Hall insider who doesn't mind getting in someone's face once in a while, just for kicks. As Gallagher describes it, he began telling the group about how incumbents would move to different districts so they wouldn't have to run against one another. Even new candidates would move around to get the best shot at winning a seat on the board, he said.

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