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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.
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.
Peskin has exerted most of his muscle on the Embarcadero, a stretch of waterfront that extends from Fisherman's Wharf to AT&T Park. He has been the driving force behind some development projects such as the $54 million development of Piers 1 1/2, 3, and 5, which includes cafes, shops, and offices; at the grand opening, the developer, Simon Snellgrove, thanked a long list of supporters. Peskin was first on the list, long before Newsom.
But Peskin is better known for stopping development on the waterfront, for which he is both heralded as a savior and excoriated as an obstructionist.
In one controversial project, the Mills Corporation proposed a $218 million office park and mall on Piers 27, 29, and 31. The plan called for 20,000 square feet of office, retail, and restaurants, as well as an 110,000-square-foot YMCA. Peskin, alongside environmentalists like David Lewis from Save the Bay and businesses at Pier 39, criticized the proposed design, claiming it had too many buildings and insufficient public access.
Newsom campaign manager Eric Jaye represented Mills Corporation as a lobbyist. He says Peskin blocked the plan simply to please the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, whose bay views would be obstructed by the new development.
Jaye also claims Peskin has misused his position by attacking his opponents, and says that he has experienced firsthand Peskin's wrath: "I have been punished, but I have not been silenced." (Jaye stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the mayor for this story.)
According to Jaye, a group of Pier 39 stores, worried about losing business, contributed $10,000 to Peskin's board ally Supervisor Geraldo Sandoval, allegedly for his vote against the Mills pro-ject. When the project was facing tough opposition from the Board of Supervisors, Jaye says he advised Mills to fight by taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times suggesting that the board was corrupt. The ad ran with a picture of a rat trap baited with cash.
"Peskin was outraged," Jaye says. "He told me he was going to have my job, and shortly afterward Mills let me go, saying privately that Peskin had insisted."
Sitting in Caffe Trieste, Peskin shakes his head and laughs at Jaye's account. He says this is the first he's heard about any contribution from Pier 39 businesses to Sandoval. (Sandoval had no recollection of any such contributions, either. "At any rate, contributions don't influence votes, because that's what puts you in jail," he says. "I don't know anyone around here who would do that, because it's stupid.") Peskin points out that Mills had been spanked in the press for contributing $53,000 to two members of the State Lands Commission, which oversees waterfront development, and to then–state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who advised the commission.
Peskin also says Jaye's full-page ad in The New York Times backfired. "I already had six votes to reject the Mills plan, but the ad was so offensive that I picked up three more, and the Mills project went down by a nine-to-one vote," says Peskin, who keeps a copy of the Times ad signed by Jaye. "They probably realized Jaye had given them bad advice and canned him. I wish I could take credit for Eric losing a job, but I can't."
After Mills left town, Shorenstein Properties LLC — a partnership led by multimillionaire real estate magnate Walter Shorenstein — came in with another proposal to build a scaled-down project. But there have been design squabbles, many with Peskin, who has additional authority over the project with his vote on the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Board. The project is in trouble owing to a controversial four-story office building that doesn't confirm to state height limits. The three piers' underpinnings have rotted more than was expected, which will add millions to the project's cost. Shorenstein is expected to make another design proposal later this year; it's uncertain how it will be received.
Jaye says the board president's role in undoing or stalling projects on the waterfront is just one example of Peskin's inordinate power over development — and developers — in San Francisco. Jaye points to Proposition A as an example of Peskin's political juice. In November, voters approved the transit and parking reform legislation, which, among other things, restricted the number of parking spaces for new developments. That provision put it at odds with powerful Newsom backer Donald Fisher, the billionaire owner of The Gap, who sponsored and paid for Proposition H, which proposed to greatly increase the allowed parking in new downtown developments. That runs counter to current trends in urban design that emphasize reduced parking.
Peskin was able to raise more than $500,000 for Proposition A, much of which came from real estate interests. Jaye claims that Peskin called developers, land owners, and real estate agents and asked them to contribute, with the tacit understanding that their projects might be delayed or scuttled if they chose not to. "When you get a bunch of real estate people putting up a half-million dollars to an antiparking measure, something they normally would support, that's power," Jaye says.
Peskin scoffs at the suggestion that he shook down developers for contributions. Peskin and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a Newsom appointee, were the chief architects of the proposition, and both helped raise money for the campaign. The proposition had long-term benefits for the city, Peskin says, so real estate interests, unions, and environmental and urban design groups contributed to the campaign because they wanted to be on the right side of the legislation.
"Sure some of the contributors wanted to buy influence or access, but that's nothing new," Peskin says. "What the mayor's people are upset at is that a lot of the contributors were the same people who contributed to Care Not Cash, Newsom's homeless proposition in 2002. The rabble neighborhood supervisors aren't supposed to be getting those kinds of contributions from those kinds of contributors."
But Jaye did get some traction on one of his recent criticisms of the board president. Jaye tagged Peskin, a bike enthusiast who urges the use of public transit, for owning some Chevron stock. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently named the Chevron refinery in Richmond the third-largest polluter in the Bay Area for releasing 1.2 million pounds of toxic material into the air in 2006.
Peskin said he recently discovered he owned $4,600 worth of Chevron stock, which he claims was purchased for his self-employed wife's pension fund by the person who manages the account. "As soon as it was called to our attention, we dumped it," he says.
While the mayor's henchmen exaggerate Peskin's exploits, one well-publicized blow-up with Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier shows Peskin can be vindictive.
In October, Alioto-Pier proposed a charter amendment that would create minimum appointment standards for Rules Committee members. The board approved the amendment by a 7-4 vote, but immediately afterward, Supervisor Tom Ammiano suddenly realized he meant to vote against it. So the board members took the vote again, expecting the amendment would still pass 6-5. But out of the blue, Peskin also changed his vote and the amendment failed.
Afterward, Alioto-Pier asked Peskin why he voted against the measure. She says he answered with the now-famous line, "Payback is a bitch," because he was mad that she didn't support Proposition A. "I know everybody tells me this is politics and I shouldn't be upset," she says, "but when you use terms like 'Payback is a bitch,' you're not moving forward the business of the city and county of San Francisco."
Peskin says he was on the fence about the charter amendment, and simply changed his mind between the two votes. He also says he has no recollection of making the "payback" comment, which is slightly suspect given that his mind is a steel trap when it comes to minute details in the city's byzantine planning codes.
After the incident, Alioto-Pier wrote to City Attorney Dennis Herrera questioning the legality of Peskin's vote and comment, saying she felt it was political retribution. Herrera responded to her complaint, saying there was nothing illegal about what had happened in the amendment vote.
But Jaye says the supervisors do a lot of questionable voting that often flies below the radar. "'Log rolling,' trading votes for favors, has become common at City Hall," Jaye says. "'If you do X, Y, and Z, I'll vote for your deal.' That's illegal, and nobody is ever prosecuted." Both Jaye and Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard hint at something unethical in the relationship between Herrera and Peskin.
Neither Jaye nor Ballard will go as far as to say Herrera is covering for Peskin, but they both say the supervisor and city attorney have been close for decades, dating back to their college days at UC Santa Cruz.
"Herrera and Peskin are best friends," Ballard says. "They went to school together and share the same political consultant, Jim Stearns."
But if Ballard and Jaye meant to suggest indirectly that Herrera is weighing his opinions in his old buddy's favor, that implication has a major flaw: Herrera attended Villanova, an Augustinian university in Pennsylvania. Herrera said he did not meet Peskin until 2000, around the same time he first met Newsom.
"Dennis is a friend, but I can tell you, he doesn't do shit for me," says Peskin, who appears to be amused by the rumor. "And besides, if I was involved in something illegal, that's the purview of the district attorney's Office, not the city attorney. ... By the way, it is true that I did go to kindergarten through third grade with Kamala Harris."
Both mayoral reps backpedaled on the claim. Ballard says he couldn't remember making the comment, and that perhaps he meant to say Peskin went to grammar school with Harris. Jaye says he can't remember where he heard it, but he had no trouble believing it because the two men are such good friends.
A couple of weeks ago, the Chronicle reported that a new poll by David Binder showed Newsom's approval rating slipping eight points from a year ago to 67 percent. That's still amazingly high for a big-city mayor, and although Newsom's ratings have dropped slightly, they're still markedly higher than the Board of Supervisors' polling numbers, which were at a 45 percent favorable rating in January.
With his high polling numbers, Newsom is in a favorable position to do public battle with Peskin. While his ratings may take a hit, he stands a good chance of establishing a beachhead on the board for his chosen supervisorial candidates.
Peskin says he's well aware of the strategy of the mayor and his business allies: Vilify the board president and paint the board majority as a band of out-of-touch, corrupt politicians. "In 2000, we came in as reformers of the Willie Brown administration," he says. "Now the mayor will try to make his candidates 'reformers.' It's the oldest game in politics. There's no question they are trying to take a page from the reform book."
Currently, Peskin's progressives hold a loose 7-4 majority on the board. If Newsom-supported candidates can capture two seats, the mayor will have a working majority for the first time in his tenure.
The seats in play are currently occupied by lefty incumbents who are termed out: Peskin, Jake McGoldrick (who represents District 1, the Richmond) and Geraldo Sandoval (who represents District 11, which includes the Excelsior, the Ingleside, and Merced Heights). Peskin's District 3 promises to be one of the most hotly contested. Ten potential candidates have already announced their intentions, and more are likely to follow. Peskin has endorsed David Chiu of the Small Business Commission for his seat, but says he may still support others as they come forward.
Newsom has yet to endorse any candidates for the three open seats, although he's expected to weigh in before the candidate filing deadline on Aug. 8.
One factor in Newsom's favor is that there seems to be nothing unifying neighborhood candidates in the same way Brown's out-of-control development policies did in 2000.
State Senator Carol Migden, a former S.F. supervisor and veteran of hardball city politics, says she is not seeing much passion or talent coming forward from the neighborhoods to fill the board's open seats. "These are supposed to be coveted seats; you'd think people would be jumping over each other," she says. "Maybe they need another Willie Brown to get them motivated."
Peskin says that after his term is up, he will return to work with his wife, Nancy Shanahan, at the water-rights nonprofit they run. He says he never had any political ambition before he was elected, and he has little more now.
But watching him standing on the corner outside Caffe Trieste, it's hard to imagine him doing anything else. Seemingly all at once he checks text messages on his Treo, answers a reporter's questions, and schedules a shoot with a photographer, all while greeting passing constituents.
"I was never class president in school, and if someone told me I'd be a San Francisco supervisor, I would have told them they were crazy," Peskin says. "When Tom Ammiano asked me to run in 2000, my wife didn't think it was a good idea. I told her not to worry because I'd never get elected."
Dusk has fallen, and Peskin has to run off to another meeting. He starts to leave, but before he disappears into the bustling throng, he wants to repeat one last point.
"Really, I am not thinking about a political future right now," he insists. "I've always been a free spirit. ... Well, all right, I'm a very intense, driven, type A personality, but I've always been fine taking what comes." He turns jauntily into Columbus Avenue with a final "Toodle-oo!"