Aaron Peskin walks into North Beach's legendary Caffe Trieste, wearing a natty olive suit and acting like he owns the place. Seven years after the neighborhood preservationist was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Peskin has developed the manner of a seasoned politician. He greets Trieste customers by name, and stops by their tables to shake their hands and ask after their friends and family. After the pleasantries with his constituents are done, he makes his way to a small table near the back of the cafe to do an interview with a reporter.
The interview was weeks in the making. Peskin's top aide, David Noyola, had been enforcing what he half-jokingly referred to as a media blackout, trying to keep his boss out of the headlines for a while. The previous month, Peskin took a major hit when the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story based on a leaked confidential letter written by Port director Monique Moyer. The letter, which Moyer sent to the city's Department of Human Resources and Mayor Gavin Newsom's office last August, alleged Peskin had called her at home after 8 p.m. and that he sounded as if he'd been drinking. Moyer claimed that Peskin said he was "done with me," and that he would be "going after me."
Between sips from a bottle of Italian soda, Peskin readily admits to calling Moyer after hours and says it's not unusual for him to call city officials, businesspeople, and private citizens at home at night. He says that he is a strong advocate for policies he believes are good for the city, and he pursues them aggressively at all hours. Human Resources employee Micki Callahan verified that an investigation into Moyer's complaint found Peskin had committed no wrongdoing.
"On top of the city meetings, supervisors, budget, transportation, I am also on the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and there are dozens of other meetings scheduled in my office. It's only at the end of the day that I have a chance to return these," Peskin says, digging into his coat pocket and fanning out about 25 to 30 phone messages. "Politics is a tough business, and sometimes you have to be all elbows."
Bloggers have been speculating that the mayor's office leaked Moyer's letter. The timing of its release was certainly suspicious, and came on the heels of other public dustups between Peskin and Newsom. In November, Peskin criticized the mayor for jetting off to Hawaii the day after a container ship spilled 58,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. Newsom retaliated by pulling out of a trip to China with a group of city delegates that included the board president. Peskin and Supervisor Jake McGoldrick then further embarrassed Newsom by catching him dipping into the budgets of several cash-strapped city departments — particularly the agency that oversees Muni — for more than $1.4 million to fill his office with high-paid senior staffers.
Politics in San Francisco has long been a blood sport, and you can often gauge politicians' power by the stature of their enemies. Given that measure, Peskin is a very powerful guy, because he and Newsom have been going at it like a couple of four-toothed hockey players in a Canuck fishpond league.
Recently, Newsom's political consultant Eric Jaye was quoted in the Chronicle alluding to Peskin's reputation for drunk-dialing city officials and political rivals — after the supervisor introduced a measure requiring consultants like Jaye to report any contacts they have with the mayor or board members. "I don't think I should be required to file a form every time Aaron Peskin calls me drunk at night to threaten me," Jaye sneered, "because then I would have to file reports all the time."
Obviously, the simmering feud between Newsom and Peskin has escalated into war. What's at stake in this battle are four open seats on the Board of Supervisors, and a struggle for who will have greater control over city politics over the next eight years. The November election will determine city policy on issues such as affordable housing, transportation, and development along the waterfront. With millions of dollars in play, the unofficial campaign for control of the board has been nasty, and the target is Aaron Peskin, the man who in some cases wields more power than the mayor.
During his first term, Gavin Newsom avoided the treacherous, nitty-gritty grind of large city politics such as development squabbles and potholes, preferring to make broader pronouncements about gay marriage and universal health care — things most San Franciscans agree on. This safe approach probably played a role in Newsom's sky-high approval ratings, which were immune to a host of problems including a spike in homicides, an underachieving public transit system, and an embarrassing scandal in which he admitted to a drinking problem after an affair with his campaign manager's wife was made public.
"In all fairness to Mayor Newsom, San Francisco has had a string of one-term mayors, and during his first term, he didn't want to spend political capital," Peskin says. "Part of the problem now is he's trying to compensate for not being engaged. Part of this [has to do with] the outcome of the 2008 supervisor's races."
Indeed, Newsom has recently been more willing to throw his weight around. He demanded postdated resignation letters from his department heads during his re-election campaign, and after winning he canned the general manager of the Public Utilities Commission and a host of commissioners who weren't in step with his administration.
Newsom has also stepped up his confrontations with Peskin. That may seem odd since Peskin is termed out at the end of the year, but he has become an easy target because of a laundry list of people who say the supervisor has pushed them around. Among the board president's alleged transgressions: threatening the job of former Peskin aide Wade Crowfoot, Newsom's new director of climate protection initiatives; promising to write the entire Department of the Environment out of the budget; and maintaining a public feud with Newsom's ally on the board, Michela Alioto-Pier.