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In contrast to the bare-knuckled image that has accompanied Daly as supervisor, those who know him describe someone with a decidedly softer side. "There's this caricature of Chris as a politician that doesn't capture the reality of who he is," says labor union organizer and longtime Daly pal Robert Haaland.
Even some who don't always see eye-to-eye with him politically agree. "Chris can be a double-edged sword, but there's definitely a humble and genuine side that most people never see," says Michael O'Connor, for whom Daly worked as a bartender at the old Justice League (now the Independent) in the Western Addition in the '90s. "I've seen him dive in and help pick up trash after public events. How many elected officials do that?"
Stephanie Hughes, 41, who runs the Lazarus House Healing by Faith Ministry out of her small apartment in the Bayview's Alice Griffith Housing Project, is another Daly loyalist. "I love Chris like he was part of my family and, to tell you the truth, I owe him a lot," Hughes says. She was living with her five children in a Mission Bay scrap yard when Daly, who was making a video documentary about the plight of poor people, helped her on her feet in the mid-'90s.
She credits him with turning her to activism, recalling how he even baby-sat her children in the hallway while she attended Housing Authority meetings. He still comes to the Bayview occasionally to shoot hoops with her youngest son, she says. "Pardon me for saying it, but there aren't many white boys coming around here to do that, let alone a county supervisor."
Those familiar with Daly suggest that his grassroots background explains much about his role as supervisor, including his volatile public temperament.
It's a reputation that Daly burnished early, in an obscenity-laced shouting match with former Mayor Brown in 2001 after Daly showed up in the mayor's office with an uninvited delegation from the Coalition on Homelessness. Their icy relationship had just begun to thaw in 2003 when Daly, serving as ceremonial interim mayor for a day while Brown was out of the country, enraged the mayor by appointing two people of his choosing to the Public Utilities Commission.
"Chris is coming from an environment of street activism where aggressiveness and heated rhetoric is an accepted part of getting things done, and he's a passionate guy," says former aide and close friend Bill Barnes, who is state Assemblywoman Fiona Ma's chief of staff. "It may get him in trouble sometimes, but it's who he is."
Indeed, Daly's famous temper doesn't appear to have hurt him much among his constituency, as even some detractors acknowledge.
"His outbursts may not be all that pleasant, but one reason he has such a strong following [in his district] is because he's seen as combative and not afraid to get into a fight," says political consultant Jim Ross, who worked on Newsom's first mayoral campaign. "It cuts both ways."
Daly sees the temperament issue as a red herring, concocted by political foes and exaggerated by "the local corporate media" to discredit him. "It's true, if I only engaged people the way [state Assemblyman Mark] Leno does, always with a smile, and never a raised voice, it would be difficult for the press to create this caricature of me," he says. "But without the fire, I don't think I'd be nearly as effective."
To his supporters, he's a white knight, taking on causes with little resonance outside the realm of the poor and dispossessed. For instance, he pushed a law to make fire sprinklers mandatory in single room occupancy hotels, and to bar SRO desk clerks from charging residents fees to have visitors in their rooms. Last year, he sponsored an eviction disclosure ordinance to require real estate agents to reveal to prospective buyers whether a tenant has been evicted from a property they're interested in buying.
His agenda has also made him plenty of enemies.
He's repeatedly rankled business interests and property owners while pushing for hikes in the sales tax and the gross receipts tax to help bolster such things as affordable housing and health services for the poor. He riled restaurateurs for pushing — unsuccessfully — for a law (à la Los Angeles County) to have health inspections posted as a letter grade in restaurant windows. And he's angered developers and businesses alike by seeking to limit parking spaces at new downtown developments.
"To me, he's a perpetuator of negativity and confrontation who brings out the worst side of politics," says Nathan Nayman, executive director of the Committee on Jobs, which represents powerful downtown business interests.
Daly's relationship with the downtown community got off to a rocky start. Early in his tenure he stunned a breakfast group of CEOs, including financier Warren Hellman, the Gap's Don Fisher, and real estate magnate Doug Shorenstein, when, after being invited to speak, he delivered what an observer says amounted to "a lecture on the evils of the capitalist system. It was like listening to Fidel."
Daly shrugs off the criticism.
"I'm basically a socialist," he says, unabashedly. "I've read Marx and have an analysis of power and I understand that when you're as openly confrontational to entrenched power as I am, you're going to be demonized."