The Daly Show

Even in a summer of discontent for San Francisco progressives, bad-boy supervisor Chris Daly remains unbowed

Not surprisingly, his critics don't buy it.

"I'd call it perhaps the nadir of Chris Daly's antics, and that's saying something," says Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard, referring to the cocaine remarks. "His behavior over the summer seems to have gotten more and more bizarre. It's almost like watching Paris Hilton disintegrate before your eyes."

There were immediate calls from the mayor's office to censure him, and Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who tried and failed to have Daly censured in 2004 after Daly yelled, "Fuck you!" at a real estate lobbyist during a supervisors' meeting, floated a "code of conduct" measure aimed at Daly. Her efforts, which have yet to garner much support, seek to sanction supervisors for offensive speech.

Yet, if anything, the attempt to muzzle him has made the combative Daly more defiant.

This month, as the deadline for qualifying initiatives for the Nov. 6 ballot approached, Daly scrambled unsuccessfully to garner needed signatures from at least three other supervisors for a "conduct" measure of his own. In a swipe at Alioto-Pier, the board's most conservative member, who has also missed more meetings than any of her colleagues, Daly would have required that supervisors' attendance records be posted along with meeting agendas.

And he took another crack at Newsom.

His measure would have prohibited all managers, including the mayor, from engaging in "sexual relationships" with subordinates. Insiders at City Hall dubbed it the "Newsom-can't-screw-the-secretaries rule." The mayor's camp was indignant. Although the initiative went nowhere, Daly had struck again.

On the surface, there's little to explain such defiance — or, for that matter, Daly's leftist political leanings — from his upbringing. The younger of two sons born to a father who was a mid-level government bureaucrat turned private consultant and a bookkeeper mother, Daly grew up in a nonpolitical household in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C.

His father, Jack, who worked for years at the Department of Energy before taking a job at the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, switched political parties according to his career needs, Daly says. His mother, Gloria — whom a Daly friend describes as "June Cleaver without the chiffon dress" — grew up on a Maryland dairy farm that one of Daly's uncles still operates. Daly jokes that she's mostly voted for losers during presidential elections.

Although his parents met at the University of Maryland during the '60s, Daly says they "totally missed" the protest movement while working their way through college. Neither did they deviate from a traditional path after their sons were born. Although Daly never showed dairy cows at the fair as his brother did, he joined the service-oriented 4-H Club as well as the Key Club at Gaithersburg High School.

As valedictorian of his senior class, he won a full academic scholarship to his parents' alma mater, but turned it down, packing off to North Carolina to attend Duke University. His brother, John, six years his senior, and whom he idolized, had gone there. Plus, even as a teenager, Daly had become (and remains) a huge Duke basketball fan.

His time at college was transformational in an unexpected way.

After five nonconsecutive semesters — punctuated, ironically, by failing a political participation class — he dropped out, having spent more time in off-campus activism than in the classroom. Daly's self-described metamorphosis as an activist for the poor came in 1992, during a summer in Philadelphia organizing for a welfare rights group on some of the city's grittiest streets.

Working with poor people was an eye-opener. Although he had developed "an anti-authoritarian streak" in high school, Daly says that he had "never really thought critically about the relationship between poverty and politics until I got to Philadelphia. It was its own curriculum, exposing how poverty is the necessary outcome of the political economy that we have."

He arrived in San Francisco in 1993 to do similar work in the Mission and Tenderloin for an organization called Empty the Shelters. "Chris is a natural at street organizing; that's where his heart is," says longtime confidant Richard Marquez, a city building inspector. A former Daly roommate (they were tossed out of an apartment together in 1997 on an owner move-in), he and Daly were among the co-founders in the '90s of a now-defunct housing rights group called Mission Agenda.

Daly's social justice work extended beyond housing.

He also became a videographer of sorts, linking up with an activist group to document conditions in San Francisco's poorer neighborhoods. And in a move that didn't endear him to the police — and might help explain his frequent antipathy toward SFPD as a supervisor — he once even staked out cops in the Mission, camera in hand, recording their interactions with immigrants and the poor.

His entering electoral politics occurred almost by accident.

Stoked by Tom Ammiano's unsuccessful but energizing write-in campaign against Willie Brown for mayor in 1999 (in which Daly served as an Ammiano coordinator), progressives were casting about for someone to make a credible run for the open 6th District seat in 2000 when Marquez suggested Daly.

"Although he was willing, his first reaction was that there was no way he could ever win," Marquez recalls. With grassroots backing from the powerful tenants' union, the then-28-year-old Daly won a third of the vote among 17 candidates in the general election, then trounced his mainstream opponent with 81 percent of the runoff vote.

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