Body Politic: Scott Wiener Strips Down City Bureaucracy

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.”


In recent decades, San Francisco politics has been driven as much or more by what you're against as what you're for. Opposition to the runaway development and rampant cronyism of the Willie Brown era galvanized the “progressive revolution” of 2000. Brown's handpicked successor, Newsom, continued to serve as bogeyman for the city's left, while the bombastic Peskin and profane Chris Daly returned the favor for moderates. Politics became vitriolic and personal, and these embittered men had oversize personalities and vitriol to spare. Their battles were as nasty as any on the floor of the Taiwanese parliament, minus the chair-swinging (though it did get close).

As much as Wiener has become a lightning rod for controversy, he does not neatly fit this mold. It's hard to take umbrage at his personality when his personality is opaque. He is not a charismatic or dynamic figure like Brown, Newsom, Daly, or Peskin; Wiener's extended, wonky discourses are delivered in the monotone of a man dictating his name on an outgoing voicemail message. And while Wiener is, plainly, a political striver, colleagues see him as less conventionally political than most.

“Scott's real skill is, I have never seen him cave on his principles,” says former moderate Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. Adds Olague, “What makes him effective is also why so many people don't like him. He's not political; people go to him with legislation, and if he likes it, he'll get it through. If you put that legislation on another supervisor's desk, they'd probably bend to political pressure. It'd still be sitting on their desk.”

Wiener has managed to pick and choose issues that confound cardboard notions of what it is to be progressive or moderate — leading to deeply bizarre political battles. He targeted the insidiously connected Academy of Art University's longstanding practice of cannibalizing rent-controlled housing and converting it into lucrative, four-to-a-room dorms, yet also pushed to enable the creation of towering rabbit warrens of 220-square-foot “micro-units” to house the ascendant, moneyed, single techies permeating San Francisco. Wiener managed to pull off the mind-blowing feat of simultaneously angering the tenant-crushing Academy and every last tenants-rights group in the city (which have doubled down against him due to a pending condo conversion ordinance they portray as a means to erode rent control and evict tenants).

Depending on how one spins it, this was an act of inspired political independence, recklessness — or both. It was certainly not the behavior of someone receiving a late-night phone call telling him how to vote. “Scott is his own man,” concedes Peskin. “He is not a wholly owned subsidiary of anyone.”

Last year, Wiener tangled with the Academy and bucked the mayor and PG&E by siding with CleanPowerSF, providing the board with a veto-proof majority. And in a move his opponents spun as a swipe at the city's service providers, Wiener unsuccessfully attempted to force nonprofits to pay transit mitigation fees to Muni.

“What was really at issue is whether big, powerful nonprofits like the hospitals would be paying a transit impact fee,” explains Rafael Mandelman, Wiener's progressive opponent in the bitterly contested 2010 race for District 8 supervisor. No city progressive would argue the California Pacific Medical Centers of the world shouldn't pay for transit impacts brought about by their massive development projects, “but they don't,” Mandelman continues. “Scott was trying to change that. So who's on the left and who's on the right now? Academy of Art, PG&E, the Hospital Council — that's about as powerful as it gets.”

Two years ago, Wiener was the Chamber of Commerce's preferred legislator. Last year, however, it ranked him in the middle of the pack, behind Jane Kim. But they're still thrilled to have him over for power breakfasts to talk shop. Scott Wiener is independent, but he's still Scott Wiener.

Reviewing Wiener's attempts to “streamline” or “reform” city rules, patterns emerge. His gambit to rejigger the city's ballot initiative process would have given the Board and mayor the power to undo voter-approved measures. His attempt to revamp the campaign consultant ordinance would have allowed the dysfunctional Ethics Commission and supervisors to alter rules governing their own political consultants; currently only voters can enact those changes. Wiener's ongoing attempts to modify the city's approach to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) would require development critics to cede more unchecked responsibility to a Planning Department those critics feel is beholden to developers (and which let the Academy of Art brazenly flout city rules for decades). “What we have,” says Larry Bush, a veteran politico who has clashed with Wiener on Ethics Commission matters, “is a repeated practice of reducing what the public can see.”

Perhaps Wiener was destined to write the anti-nudity ordinance.

Scott Wiener grew up as a tall, lanky, unathletic, closeted Jewish boy in what his longtime political strategist David Latterman calls “the yee-haw part of south Jersey.” In 1997, after graduating from Duke University and Harvard Law School, he headed to San Francisco, a place where, as Wiener puts it, “you can go and be who you are.”

Just who Wiener is is open to debate. He does not make himself easy to know. Wiener is a remarkably controlled individual; friends and colleagues of two decades who have been by his side as he suffered setbacks as a high-profile gay activist and politician say they've never seen him lose his composure or even raise his voice. Wiener has, extremely publicly, been betrayed by his so-called political friends; his actual friends are largely nonpolitical. Wiener tightly compartmentalizes his life. He politely requested SF Weekly not contact his family back East. The one close friend who spoke with us is his former law school roommate, Adam Cohn. Wiener, Cohn says, is not the social misfit he is portrayed as — though Wiener has lugged hardback Robert Caro biographies of Lyndon Johnson to the beach as summer reading. “When they first meet Scott, people make the mistake of thinking he's too uptight or too serious. But he's not,” says Cohn. “He is very comfortable in his skin and very comfortable with other people.”


The supervisor's friends enjoy a side of him that evidently isn't on display for his colleagues on the board. Fellow supes say they can't recall Wiener ever cracking a joke. Wiener's staffers note he's an insomniac who has been known to send out cogent and grammatically correct policy-related text messages at midnight, 3, and 6 a.m. Wiener's board colleagues know this. Says one, “There's no spouse. No kids. No movies. No book club. No Warriors. No nothing. This is it. Morning, noon, night. It's all he does. And he loves it.”

Wiener does not deny this (though he does have a fondness for schlocky horror films). He admits to working 80 hours or more, seven days a week, with up to a dozen events to attend every weekend. “I have been dumped by people not willing to be a politician's spouse,” he says. “That's fine. It's not for everyone.”

The supervisor's prorated hourly take puts him well behind a city janitor. He is earning far less than he did as a city attorney, which, in turn, was far less than he did as a private litigator (“My mother says I'm downwardly mobile”). When asked what, after all of this toil, he hopes his legacy will be, he does not rattle off the iconic accomplishments of his predecessors: Healthy San Francisco, the minimum wage ordinance, paid sick leave. Within seconds, Wiener is touting his measures to simplify the city's regulations for operating restaurants or secondhand shops, or the proposed widening of the sidewalks on Castro — “a dream of the community for 15 years.”

Between cranking out work texts in the wee hours, perhaps Wiener is dreaming about pavement. While the supervisor himself is larger than life, his chosen policy areas are not. But that works in his favor. Right now, San Franciscans aren't complaining.

“Things have reached the point — and not only locally — that the average Joe Citizen longs for someone quiet, competent, and with a capacity to govern and solve problems. Someone who shies away from the big issues and actually gets things done,” says S.F. State professor emeritus Rich DeLeon, the dean of local political scientists. The first decade of this century featured large-scale San Francisco social policy changes — and high-decibel politics. Wiener offers neither of these, and, for good or ill, that's what today's San Franciscans reward. Despite the overt machinations of powerful political sharks and a persona as tantalizing as dry oatmeal, Mayor Ed Lee easily fended off all challengers. Lee and Wiener are not political twins — but “he gets it done” is an attractive mantra to affix to oneself these days.

“The window of major policy revision is mostly closed. Now it's moving from outward-looking to inward-looking,” continues DeLeon. “I think San Francisco seems to be happy with its more pragmatic, business-oriented, jobs-oriented agenda and the kind of people who can work with that.”

Wiener can work with that. The tall young man riding shotgun in Peskin's car would struggle to be elected in the San Francisco of the day. Peskin's raison d'être of preserving neighborhoods and extracting concessions from developers resonated with a populace wary of the rampant corruption, displacement, and uncontrolled development of the Brown years. But those voters have, in large part, been offset by affluent newcomers amenable to Wiener's quality-of-life politics and policies friendly to both development and business. Growth isn't a dirty word for them. They are growth.

Wiener looks forward to the 2,000 or so housing units slated to sprout in his district between Castro and Octavia alone (making him the rare pro-development supe unafraid to push for construction in his own district). Residents settling in San Francisco due to Wiener's land-use policies are likely to be amenable to such policies. Along with a growing tally of residents in District 8 and citywide, they'll ask why the city shouldn't cater to business coming off a recession. Why shouldn't the city ease businesses into those vacant storefronts — and panhandlers or obnoxious exhibitionists out of the public spaces?

Wiener can work with that. “The prevailing attitude in San Francisco is that if you promote business, development, and the tech industry, you'll be serving everyone,” admits Supervisor John Avalos. The progressive stalwart is candid in his assessment of Wiener: “The city has come to him.”

Scott Wiener irrevocably transitioned from the politician he was to the politician he is in 2008, when he met with Peskin in the president of the Board of Supervisors' North Beach abode. Wiener, then the head of the San Francisco Democratic Party, was given an ultimatum. He could retain his position as Democratic chair if and only if he agreed to a series of terms favorable to Peskin and the party's progressive wing. These stipulations were non-negotiable, and Wiener refused them. Peskin set about swaying members of the party to dump the incumbent and install him. And, via an 18-16 vote, he succeeded. Wiener's Harvard chums David Chiu and David Campos — both of whom he'd aided politically — flipped on him. After the vote, Wiener shook hands with erstwhile supporters who'd betrayed him, sighing, “People continue to disappoint me.”

So, not quite five years down the road, it's hardly surprising that even left-leaning groups seek out Wiener as a legislative co-sponsor specifically because he won't shy away from conflict with Peskin. Wiener is not conflict-averse.

On issues where every last stakeholder desires change, he's happy to hug it out, orchestrating countless meetings and kicking around draft proposal after draft proposal. But in situations where “you know groups of people don't want legislation to happen, period, and will do everything they can to sabotage it,” he says, Wiener removes his velvet glove. His proposed ordinances are crafted largely sans negotiations, and are effectively “opening offers,” which “forces the other side to negotiate,” says the former litigator.


“He throws everything but the kitchen sink in there,” notes transportation and environmental activist Tom Radulovich. “That creates rancor. But it works.” Radulovich, in fact, has been happy to pass material to Wiener, whom he characterizes as “a very effective legislator.”

“Scott doesn't have a lot of patience for the San Francisco layers of progress — the 'We had 400 meetings about this' thing,” continues Radulovich. “Once Scott sets his mind on what he's gonna do, that's what he does. Other supervisors get bogged down or scared when someone says, 'Oh, you should have 400 meetings.' Scott's boldness and impatience can be a virtue. He'll often say, 'It's been through enough process, it's gotta be fine by now.' The Peskins of the world live on process. This is why he and they clash.”

In the short term, Peskin's 2008 usurpation paid off handsomely. Every cause or candidate the local party endorsed or directed resources toward came up aces; progressives swept the '08 Board elections. Two years later, however, the Midas touch evaporated. And Wiener had, methodically, been canvassing District 8 all the while. “This guy had been knocking on doors for two years. Two years! Nobody does that,” says Peskin. “I gotta tell you — this guy works his ass off.” Wiener knocked on more than 15,000 doors on weekends, evenings, and lunch breaks between 2008 and '10. He wrote up 24 monthly campaign plans in the two years prior to the election. And he handily bested Rebecca Prozan, as well as anointed progressive and Democratic Party choice Mandelman.

“Progressives have the unique ability of turning potential friends into enemies and creating tests that people fail. Then we rail against them and make them even worse,” says Mandelman. When Wiener bucked the Chamber of Commerce, they were still happy to break bread with him at clubby breakfast meetings. But when the younger Wiener didn't adhere to every commandment carried down from the progressive mountain, he was purged. “Scott took what could have been a devastating setback and made it into a cause célèbre,” continues Mandelman. “In the process, we turned an ally into an opponent.”

Attempts to squash Wiener in '08 only made him stronger. The progressives who rail against him and his vision for the city can take some credit for empowering Wiener to be in a position to enact it.

The packet of accomplishments Wiener hands out to those curious about how he spends his days is 10 pages long. Even politically studious voters may not be aware of the broad swath of subjects Wiener has addressed, or the intense minutiae he wallows in. He's clearly doing things — but it's such a range of things that it's difficult to explain to voters just what he's doing. Wiener is, simply, a doer.

On the highly contentious issues he's taken on — preservation, CEQA — he's forced small groups of entrenched activists to explain, in highly technical terms, why the status quo should be maintained for intensely complex processes no one could argue work well. Wiener, meanwhile, takes the easier path of claiming he's simply trying to reform a broken system. In his high-profile anti-nudity battle, it's easy for him to maintain his desired image of the adult in the room when his opponents petulantly remove their clothing or brag on the Internet about attempts to ambush Wiener and photograph his genitals, perineum, or anal region.

But the skills that allowed Wiener to become a prolific legislator among his peers have not worked their magic on voters. Two of the three charter amendments he's placed on the ballot have been rejected. Most notably, Proposition E of 2011 was snubbed by 67 percent of voters despite its foes raising just $13,200 to combat it (tech investor turned moderate cash machine Ron Conway pitched in $10,000 toward the measure). In short, Prop. E would have enabled future Boards of Supervisors or mayors to amend or repeal future voter-enacted measures. Wiener will be the smartest guy in almost any room he walks into — but it's asking a lot of voters to essentially cede this point by allowing him and other elected officials to undermine measures they ratified at the ballot box. “I got my rear end handed to me on Prop. E,” admits Wiener. “Voters always ask me, 'Why can't you guys do your jobs?' So I proposed a policy to see if they really meant it. … We have a dysfunctional ballot system. I thought it was important to propose reform.”

That sounds about right. Even in losing, Wiener can claim he was attempting to reform a broken system, while his opponents battled to retain the unworkable status quo. His subtle efforts to change the city's rules, akin to altering a few lines of coding within a vast program, could lead to drastic changes. But few can be bothered to parse those details. And, even when Wiener fails, he's never gotten into a wreck serious enough he hasn't walked away from it. Nothing has even slowed him down.

“Ninety-nine of 100 voters won't have a clue what [Prop. E] was about,” explains Latterman, Wiener's longtime strategist. “I've said this to Scott over and over again: It doesn't matter if you lose or win. People will remember you did something. Here's the guy who's doing something.

“They've heard of him. He does shit. And they respect him.”

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