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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.
Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard thinks Peskin goes too far. "His role is bullying people," he says. "He's known for being petty and vindictive. But when he started going after the mayor's department heads with verbally abusive behavior, he crossed a line, and the mayor is going to defend his department heads."
In the prickly landscape of San Francisco politics, nasty late-night phone calls are a minor offense, some veteran pols say. Political consultant Mark Mosher of Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners says being two parts charm and one part nasty is the coin of the realm. Mosher points out that one of the city's most successful politicians, Congressman Phillip Burton, had a reputation as a holy terror. In fact, Burton's attitude is immortalized on his statue at Fort Mason: There's a note that reads "The only way to deal with exploiters is to terrorize the bastards" tucked into its jacket pocket.
"Phil Burton used to call people at home and tell them to fuck off, and we have the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to show for it," says Mosher, who has done battle with Peskin on behalf of clients including developers Shorenstein Properties LLC. "So I don't have a problem with Aaron Peskin yelling at people. I see it as part of life in the big city."
Burton was a master of minutiae, a gifted politician who became an expert in parliamentary maneuvering and arm-twisting to achieve his political goals. Peskin is also a master of minutiae — in his case, becoming an expert in the city's arcane planning codes. With his seemingly endless enthusiasm for mind-numbing detail, Peskin has carved out a domain in the crucible of the city's power structure — its building and planning apparatus.
Over the eight years Peskin has been in office, the progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors has successfully broken the stranglehold held by the mayor's office on city government by wresting away some important commission appointments. Peskin, as board president, gets to make three appointments to the seven-member Planning Commission, which regulates development in the city.
BART director and Livable City executive director Tom Radulovich says Peskin appointed people to the commission with real planning backgrounds in architecture, urban design, and preservation.
"He understood the planning code, and he was not afraid to bring good planning opinions from different parts of the city," Radulovich says. "He is also an expert at bringing people together on planning issues, because he knows what's possible. I'm really sorry to see that kind of expertise and commitment go."
Peskin's sway over land use in the city has inspired some City Hall insiders to refer to him as the real mayor of San Francisco. The notion has taken the form of a whispered adage that Room 200 is the Office of Big Ideas, and Peskin's office is the Department of Getting Shit Done.
"If I want to build something or tear something down, I go to Aaron Peskin," says developer Lou Girardo, who built the two-story Boudin Bakery complex near Pier 45. "Not only does he have a tremendous knowledge of how to build something, he's the guy who can bring a disparate group of community members, city officials, environmentalists, and hardnosed businesspeople together. He's incredible."
It's an amazing statement considering Peskin's preservationist background. As a member of the powerful Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood association, he led numerous successful neighborhood preservation battles such as saving the historic Colombo Building from the wrecker's ball and designating Washington Square a historic landmark in the 1990s. He also challenged then-Mayor Willie Brown's proposal to build a parking garage in North Beach. Brown prevailed, but in 2000 Peskin wound up riding a wave of anti-Brown sentiment that led to a left-progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors. "There was a sense that it was open season for developers and open season on open space," Peskin says of the Willie Brown era. "And many city neighborhoods — the Mission, the Western Addition, the Excelsior, certainly North Beach — were afraid the uniqueness of their communities were in danger and they wanted a change."
Peskin has a prodigious amount of charm. Even his most bitter enemies temper their criticisms with phrases like "The thing of it is, I really like Aaron." But he isn't afraid of a fight, even when it has meant taking on some of the most powerful developers in town, including some of Newsom's closest allies.