Photo illustration by Audrey Fukuman with photograph of Scott Wiener by Anna Latino
The wall thermometer says it's barely 55 degrees inside the Glen Canyon Recreation Center. The assembled community members wear socks with their sandals. But then, they likely would have anyway.
A hapless neighborhood association president has the piteous duty of moderating a presentation by city officials justifying the removal of aging trees to residents who liken eucalyptus groves to cathedrals. He starts by laying out ground rules for the night's festivities, beginning with the common-sense suggestion that speakers should be allowed to speak.
"I think we should have interruptions," interrupts a woman in the crowd. "Why," stammers the moderator, rocked back on his heels, "would you want interruptions during the presentation? The concern is —" He is interrupted again: "They'll have more time than us!"
Another audience member chimes in. "I think the questions should actually be questions." Sandals hit the floor; audience members rise in indignation. "No! I object! A lot of people want to make statements. We should be heard!" A woman peers at the door. "Is Supervisor Wiener here yet? Which one is Supervisor Wiener?"
The latter is a question asked rarely, and never twice. Scott Wiener is 6-foot-7 and has the physique of an exclamation mark. His elongated features and piercing stare give him the appearance of an Eastern Orthodox icon in the flesh, and his de facto blank expression makes him appear utterly forlorn — until he smiles, and appears even more so. This is how he spends his evenings.
Over the next several chilly hours a San Francisco ritual is acted out. Concerned community members — "stakeholders," in government-speak — express grave concerns over attempts to alter the status quo. Statements are made. People are heard. Following the familiar script, after countless similar stakeholder meetings, delicate compromises are meticulously crafted at the glacial pace befitting any alteration to the fabric of our unique city.
Or not. Within days, men with chainsaws are razing the eucalyptus cathedrals. "This isn't the proverbial tree falling in the forest when no one is there," Wiener tells an attendee at the meeting. It was high time to stop talking and start cutting.
"He'll consult people. It's not that he doesn't consult people," says former Supervisor Christina Olague, who worked both with and against Wiener during her tenure. "But when he doesn't agree ..." she laughs. "That's it, man. That's it." For those who venerate this city's political process like a cathedral, Wiener is the man with the chainsaw. "He decides what he thinks is right," continues Olague. "And he just pushes it through."
Wiener, 42, earned a place in the national limelight last year when he pushed through legislation forbidding people from exposing their "genitals, perineum, or anal region" in most of the city. For much of the nation, San Francisco still exists as the embodiment of Scott McKenzie's eponymous 1967 anthem — ours is the city of "gentle people with flowers in their hair." Now a gay technocrat with a phallic name was railing against an "almost daily ad hoc nudist colony" that fit right in with the nation's quirky image of San Francisco. Incensed nudists could be depended upon to deliver semi-coherent speeches and regularly peel off their clothing. It certainly made for good copy.
McKenzie died last year. We're living in a vastly different San Francisco, where a transformative tech boom has driven rental and property rates to obscene levels. In an increasingly affluent and self-absorbed city, there's an opening for a politician less concerned with making San Francisco a city on a hill than working on the pipes beneath it. This is Scott Wiener's time, and we're living in Scott Wiener's city.
"Scott is the median of San Francisco politics right now," says University of San Francisco political science professor Corey Cook. "He's a generally pro-development supervisor focusing on quality-of-life issues when the city is generally pro-development and focusing on quality-of-life issues. The allies he has picked up are certainly more politically powerful than the enemies he has created. Right now, Scott's on the crest of the wave."
A decade ago, when San Francisco was awash in the radically different political wave of the "progressive revolution," a wet-behind-the ears Supervisor Aaron Peskin offered a ride to a holiday party to Wiener, then a wet-behind-the-ears deputy city attorney. They were an odd couple — Peskin a short, driven man who made his bones as a preservationist; Wiener a tall, driven man who had his eyes on change. Peskin would go on to serve as board president and in large part run San Francisco when Mayor Gavin Newsom couldn't be bothered to. (Four years out of office, he is still very much a progressive shot-caller.) Wiener, meanwhile, had ambitions of his own.
"He told me right then and there he wanted to be a supervisor, then a state or federal elected official," recalls Peskin, now Wiener's most vocal clothes-wearing critic. Sizing up his passenger, Peskin didn't think much of Wiener's chances. "Let everyone have their dream." But Peskin was wrong. And now Wiener is at the legislative wheel of the entire city, with the rest of us along for the ride.
Most San Franciscans won't run afoul of Wiener's anti-nudity ordinance. Yet the supervisor's passed or pending legislation touches on the city's most elemental subjects: housing, development, transportation. Wiener has emerged as the most capable legislator on the board. Even his ideological opponents funnel him material, because they know he'll work aggressively to ram it through — hastily, and with minimal compromising.
Scott Wiener, a man who has been chewed up and spit out by this city's political process, has less reverence for it than most. Those who embrace rituals meant to extract concessions while slowing (or outright halting) change have little use for Wiener's efforts at "streamlining" or, worse yet, "reform."
In Wiener's San Francisco, the lyrics to McKenzie's song may not be so ill-fitting after all: "There's a whole generation with a new explanation — people in motion, people in motion."