The Daly Show

Even in a summer of discontent for San Francisco progressives, bad-boy supervisor Chris Daly remains unbowed

Beneath the glare of the midday sun, about 150 people have gathered for a ribbon-cutting at the city's newest affordable housing project — sandwiched between a freeway and a rail yard in Mission Bay — and to listen to dignitaries, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, wax poetic about the project's merits.

Among the orators is Newsom's archnemesis, Supervisor Chris Daly.

Unlike the mayor, who has arrived — 30 minutes late — in a black limousine, and looks spiffy in a blue suit and tie, the boyish, 35-year-old Daly projects the air of a bike messenger. He's dressed casually, with open shirttail, and with a document pouch slung over his shoulder, having pedaled his way the two miles from City Hall.

The mere presence of the popular mayor and his über-progressive, quick-tempered antagonist near the same microphone suggests unsettling possibilities. For much of the summer, Daly, has, if anything, intensified what was already a drumbeat of scorn aimed at the man whom the city's progressives resentfully view as an opportunistic interloper into their sphere, whether it be Newsom's support for gay marriage, universal health care, or even his brief appearance in 2004 on a picket line with striking hotel workers.

The animus has become personal, as typified by Daly's well-publicized remarks, before a packed Board of Supervisors meeting in June, that appeared to link Newsom to cocaine use, something the mayor vehemently denied.

There are no fireworks this day. But neither is there a truce.

When it's his turn to speak, the mercurial Daly still gets in a lick. In a private meeting with Newsom barely a week earlier, on the eve of Daly's tortured decision not to challenge the mayor in the fall, Daly made a pitch for Newsom's support for a city charter amendment that would raise real estate taxes as a way to pay for more affordable housing.

The Chronicle portrayed the meeting as an attempted quid pro quo in which Daly suggested he'd stay out of the mayor's race in return for Newsom's support for the measure, something Daly says didn't happen. Considering the mayor's popularity and Daly's high negatives, there's little reason to believe Newsom would have lost sleep over Daly's entering the race. Rumors were that the Newsom camp even relished the idea of Daly's running as a chance to embarrass him — and progressives — in advance of next year's all-important supervisors' races.

In any event, Newsom rebuffed Daly's housing maneuver.

Now, with the 236-unit Crescent Cove apartments at the foot of Berry Street as the backdrop, and with the mayor standing a few feet away, Daly makes an open appeal for the measure. In a barely disguised jab at Newsom, he points to the shiny new apartment edifice and declares, “This is the kind of thing we should be doing more of in San Francisco.”

By almost any measure, it's been a rough summer for Chris Daly.

He caught flak for the cocaine remark. A “convention” he spearheaded to draft a big-name progressive challenger to Newsom in the fall went bust. He was dumped as chairman of the powerful Budget and Finance Committee. He was involved in a highly charged verbal altercation at City Hall with fellow Supervisor Bevan Dufty. And, perhaps most tellingly, he watched helplessly in July as a series of motions he offered related to the city's $6 billion budget were cast aside — with none of his colleagues willing even to allow them to be put to a vote.

“Chris has managed to alienate himself from virtually everyone on the board,” says Board President Aaron Peskin, who, like Daly, was swept into office in 2000 as part of a progressive surge fueled by widespread disenchantment with then-Mayor Willie Brown.

Daly's frustrations reflect those of the city's progressives. Despite a string of electoral successes starting in 2000 that enabled them to claim a solid majority of the Board of Supervisors, progressives suddenly find themselves all dressed up with nowhere to go in the November mayoral election.

After flailing around for a candidate, no heavy hitters among them — including former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, who narrowly lost to Newsom in 2003; current Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi; or Daly — were willing to step into the race against a mayor who commands almost super-human poll numbers.

Even after a double-barreled scandal in late January, when the mayor not only confessed to having had an affair with his former appointments secretary (the wife of a close friend and one-time top campaign aide), but also acknowledged having entered rehab for a drinking problem, his popularity has scarcely ebbed.

“It looks pretty grim,” says Julian Davis, who heads the San Francisco People's Organization, a coalition of community, labor, and other advocacy groups on the left, offering a typical view of the predicament in which progressives perceive themselves.

He and others fear that without a viable candidate to influence the debate in the upcoming mayoral election, Newsom, who is universally expected to cruise to victory against a field of mostly no-name opponents, will veer to the right during his second term in office. “In 2003, after Matt [Gonzalez] nearly won, Newsom had the incentive to at least give lip service to governing more progressively,” Davis says. “That may not be the case the second time around.”

More specifically, progressives are worried about the effect of a Newsom juggernaut a year from now, when control of the Board of Supervisors could well hinge on three open seats in swing districts that sitting progressives Peskin, Jake McGoldrick, and Gerardo Sandoval will give up, thanks to term limits.

It was just such a concern that prompted Daly to call for a so-called Progressive Convention, attended by some 300 people in June, with the promise that, if no recognizable candidate from the left offered themselves against Newsom, he'd do it.

The convention turned into a political version of The Price Is Right, with no progressive standard-bearer willing to “come on down.” Daly waited until after it was over to say he wouldn't run because he and his wife are expecting a baby.


Then, with the filing deadline looming and still no recognizable progressive willing to enter, he once again changed course, huddling with supporters to take stock of his chances. In the meantime, progressives had suffered the indignity of seeing one of their own, Sandoval, endorse Newsom. Acknowledging that he may have been “the least preferable progressive challenger,” Daly, in the end, folded his cards.

His aim, he says, was to coax a viable candidate into the race. (He has since endorsed advocate for the homeless Quintin Mecke.) “But,” he acknowledges, “I probably painted myself into a corner in the press. I was perhaps incorrect in putting myself out there to draw someone else in.”

Despite his being the politician that the city's mainstream power brokers like least, even some of Daly's critics use adjectives like “bright” and “talented” to describe him. Aside from Peskin and fellow progressive Tom Ammiano (the board's longest-tenured supervisor, first elected in 1994), Daly, in 6 1/2 years in office, has been responsible for more legislation than any of his colleagues, City Hall observers say.

He wins kudos as a hard worker, boasts a near-perfect attendance record, and, despite his often headline-grabbing escapades, is a policy wonk with a reputation for poring over the minutiae of practically every item that comes before him.

Yet his often-erratic behavior for an elected official, including an altercation with an SFPD cop during a protest at UC Hastings College of the Law in 2002, and famous temper have made him a lightning rod — and some say, easy foil — for political opponents. “The reality is that, while Chris has been quite effective [on the board], he has squandered some of his effectiveness because of his inability to control his emotions,” Peskin says.

Although Peskin is still a Daly ally, there are signs that the relationship has frayed. In June, Peskin removed Daly as budget chair (and appointed himself to replace him), saying that Daly's quarrels with Newsom over the budget and other matters had become too personal and hindered his ability to get things done. Daly, in turn, accuses Peskin of cutting a deal with the mayor to oust him, something Peskin denies.

But such dust-ups with fellow progressives aren't to be confused with the continual warfare Daly wages against the mayor, whom the fiery supervisor — whose 6th District includes not only South of Market, the Civic Center, and Treasure Island, but also poorer constituents in the Tenderloin and northern Mission — clearly resents. In Daly's view, the mayor is little more than a symbol of the moneyed establishment who largely owes his popularity to a knack for cherrypicking popular progressive causes.

Although then-Supervisor Newsom endorsed Daly during Daly's first run for office, the bad blood between them precedes Newsom's election as mayor. They often sparred when Newsom was on the board, most notably about Care Not Cash, the homelessness initiative that helped catapult Newsom to the mayor's office, and that Daly ridicules. Insiders recall with bemusement his getting under Newsom's skin by chatting him up, in the manner of a baseball catcher, to annoy and distract him during legislative sessions.

On his “The Daly Blog,” which Daly moved off the city's servers in July (and which promises “unedited, uncensored, unadulterated analysis of San Francisco politics”), he is forever mocking Newsom. He chronicles the mayor's every stumble, from his past marital woes and divorce to his more recent alcohol abuse and affair.

The attacks hold little back. In one recent blog post, Daly introduced “Project Chicken Connect,” featuring a graphic of the mayor with a chicken beak and deriding him as “an intellectual lightweight who has problems thinking on his feet.”

But on the Richter scale of broadsides, none has resonated more than Daly's insinuating that the mayor may have had a cocaine habit. Besides drawing the angry denial from Newsom, Daly's remarks were roundly condemned by other elected officials. Even his progressive pals grumbled, some privately, others less so. On the day of their City Hall standoff, Dufty angrily told Daly that he had probably done more than anyone to help ensure Newsom's re-election.

Daly remains characteristically unapologetic.

He says that he was merely illustrating the “hypocrisy” of Newsom's wanting to slash substance abuse programs for the poor while using those programs himself.

He contends that he didn't really accuse the mayor of cocaine use, anyway; that news accounts distorted his words. Rather, he says he was referring to “rumors” that Newsom had used cocaine when he declared, before a supervisors' chamber packed with Daly's affordable housing supporters, that the mayor “artfully dodges every question about allegations of his cocaine abuse.” And he says he was referring to alcohol rehab when he followed up by asking, “Where does Gavin Christopher Newsom get his substance abuse services, and how much do they cost the city and county of San Francisco?”

Not surprisingly, his critics don't buy it.

“I'd call it perhaps the nadir of Chris Daly's antics, and that's saying something,” says Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard, referring to the cocaine remarks. “His behavior over the summer seems to have gotten more and more bizarre. It's almost like watching Paris Hilton disintegrate before your eyes.”

There were immediate calls from the mayor's office to censure him, and Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who tried and failed to have Daly censured in 2004 after Daly yelled, “Fuck you!” at a real estate lobbyist during a supervisors' meeting, floated a “code of conduct” measure aimed at Daly. Her efforts, which have yet to garner much support, seek to sanction supervisors for offensive speech.

Yet, if anything, the attempt to muzzle him has made the combative Daly more defiant.

This month, as the deadline for qualifying initiatives for the Nov. 6 ballot approached, Daly scrambled unsuccessfully to garner needed signatures from at least three other supervisors for a “conduct” measure of his own. In a swipe at Alioto-Pier, the board's most conservative member, who has also missed more meetings than any of her colleagues, Daly would have required that supervisors' attendance records be posted along with meeting agendas.


And he took another crack at Newsom.

His measure would have prohibited all managers, including the mayor, from engaging in “sexual relationships” with subordinates. Insiders at City Hall dubbed it the “Newsom-can't-screw-the-secretaries rule.” The mayor's camp was indignant. Although the initiative went nowhere, Daly had struck again.

On the surface, there's little to explain such defiance — or, for that matter, Daly's leftist political leanings — from his upbringing. The younger of two sons born to a father who was a mid-level government bureaucrat turned private consultant and a bookkeeper mother, Daly grew up in a nonpolitical household in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C.

His father, Jack, who worked for years at the Department of Energy before taking a job at the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, switched political parties according to his career needs, Daly says. His mother, Gloria — whom a Daly friend describes as “June Cleaver without the chiffon dress” — grew up on a Maryland dairy farm that one of Daly's uncles still operates. Daly jokes that she's mostly voted for losers during presidential elections.

Although his parents met at the University of Maryland during the '60s, Daly says they “totally missed” the protest movement while working their way through college. Neither did they deviate from a traditional path after their sons were born. Although Daly never showed dairy cows at the fair as his brother did, he joined the service-oriented 4-H Club as well as the Key Club at Gaithersburg High School.

As valedictorian of his senior class, he won a full academic scholarship to his parents' alma mater, but turned it down, packing off to North Carolina to attend Duke University. His brother, John, six years his senior, and whom he idolized, had gone there. Plus, even as a teenager, Daly had become (and remains) a huge Duke basketball fan.

His time at college was transformational in an unexpected way.

After five nonconsecutive semesters — punctuated, ironically, by failing a political participation class — he dropped out, having spent more time in off-campus activism than in the classroom. Daly's self-described metamorphosis as an activist for the poor came in 1992, during a summer in Philadelphia organizing for a welfare rights group on some of the city's grittiest streets.

Working with poor people was an eye-opener. Although he had developed “an anti-authoritarian streak” in high school, Daly says that he had “never really thought critically about the relationship between poverty and politics until I got to Philadelphia. It was its own curriculum, exposing how poverty is the necessary outcome of the political economy that we have.”

He arrived in San Francisco in 1993 to do similar work in the Mission and Tenderloin for an organization called Empty the Shelters. “Chris is a natural at street organizing; that's where his heart is,” says longtime confidant Richard Marquez, a city building inspector. A former Daly roommate (they were tossed out of an apartment together in 1997 on an owner move-in), he and Daly were among the co-founders in the '90s of a now-defunct housing rights group called Mission Agenda.

Daly's social justice work extended beyond housing.

He also became a videographer of sorts, linking up with an activist group to document conditions in San Francisco's poorer neighborhoods. And in a move that didn't endear him to the police — and might help explain his frequent antipathy toward SFPD as a supervisor — he once even staked out cops in the Mission, camera in hand, recording their interactions with immigrants and the poor.

His entering electoral politics occurred almost by accident.

Stoked by Tom Ammiano's unsuccessful but energizing write-in campaign against Willie Brown for mayor in 1999 (in which Daly served as an Ammiano coordinator), progressives were casting about for someone to make a credible run for the open 6th District seat in 2000 when Marquez suggested Daly.

“Although he was willing, his first reaction was that there was no way he could ever win,” Marquez recalls. With grassroots backing from the powerful tenants' union, the then-28-year-old Daly won a third of the vote among 17 candidates in the general election, then trounced his mainstream opponent with 81 percent of the runoff vote.

In contrast to the bare-knuckled image that has accompanied Daly as supervisor, those who know him describe someone with a decidedly softer side. “There's this caricature of Chris as a politician that doesn't capture the reality of who he is,” says labor union organizer and longtime Daly pal Robert Haaland.

Even some who don't always see eye-to-eye with him politically agree. “Chris can be a double-edged sword, but there's definitely a humble and genuine side that most people never see,” says Michael O'Connor, for whom Daly worked as a bartender at the old Justice League (now the Independent) in the Western Addition in the '90s. “I've seen him dive in and help pick up trash after public events. How many elected officials do that?”

Stephanie Hughes, 41, who runs the Lazarus House Healing by Faith Ministry out of her small apartment in the Bayview's Alice Griffith Housing Project, is another Daly loyalist. “I love Chris like he was part of my family and, to tell you the truth, I owe him a lot,” Hughes says. She was living with her five children in a Mission Bay scrap yard when Daly, who was making a video documentary about the plight of poor people, helped her on her feet in the mid-'90s.

She credits him with turning her to activism, recalling how he even baby-sat her children in the hallway while she attended Housing Authority meetings. He still comes to the Bayview occasionally to shoot hoops with her youngest son, she says. “Pardon me for saying it, but there aren't many white boys coming around here to do that, let alone a county supervisor.” [page]

Those familiar with Daly suggest that his grassroots background explains much about his role as supervisor, including his volatile public temperament.

It's a reputation that Daly burnished early, in an obscenity-laced shouting match with former Mayor Brown in 2001 after Daly showed up in the mayor's office with an uninvited delegation from the Coalition on Homelessness. Their icy relationship had just begun to thaw in 2003 when Daly, serving as ceremonial interim mayor for a day while Brown was out of the country, enraged the mayor by appointing two people of his choosing to the Public Utilities Commission.

“Chris is coming from an environment of street activism where aggressiveness and heated rhetoric is an accepted part of getting things done, and he's a passionate guy,” says former aide and close friend Bill Barnes, who is state Assemblywoman Fiona Ma's chief of staff. “It may get him in trouble sometimes, but it's who he is.”

Indeed, Daly's famous temper doesn't appear to have hurt him much among his constituency, as even some detractors acknowledge.

“His outbursts may not be all that pleasant, but one reason he has such a strong following [in his district] is because he's seen as combative and not afraid to get into a fight,” says political consultant Jim Ross, who worked on Newsom's first mayoral campaign. “It cuts both ways.”

Daly sees the temperament issue as a red herring, concocted by political foes and exaggerated by “the local corporate media” to discredit him. “It's true, if I only engaged people the way [state Assemblyman Mark] Leno does, always with a smile, and never a raised voice, it would be difficult for the press to create this caricature of me,” he says. “But without the fire, I don't think I'd be nearly as effective.”

To his supporters, he's a white knight, taking on causes with little resonance outside the realm of the poor and dispossessed. For instance, he pushed a law to make fire sprinklers mandatory in single room occupancy hotels, and to bar SRO desk clerks from charging residents fees to have visitors in their rooms. Last year, he sponsored an eviction disclosure ordinance to require real estate agents to reveal to prospective buyers whether a tenant has been evicted from a property they're interested in buying.

His agenda has also made him plenty of enemies.

He's repeatedly rankled business interests and property owners while pushing for hikes in the sales tax and the gross receipts tax to help bolster such things as affordable housing and health services for the poor. He riled restaurateurs for pushing — unsuccessfully — for a law (à la Los Angeles County) to have health inspections posted as a letter grade in restaurant windows. And he's angered developers and businesses alike by seeking to limit parking spaces at new downtown developments.

“To me, he's a perpetuator of negativity and confrontation who brings out the worst side of politics,” says Nathan Nayman, executive director of the Committee on Jobs, which represents powerful downtown business interests.

Daly's relationship with the downtown community got off to a rocky start. Early in his tenure he stunned a breakfast group of CEOs, including financier Warren Hellman, the Gap's Don Fisher, and real estate magnate Doug Shorenstein, when, after being invited to speak, he delivered what an observer says amounted to “a lecture on the evils of the capitalist system. It was like listening to Fidel.”

Daly shrugs off the criticism.

“I'm basically a socialist,” he says, unabashedly. “I've read Marx and have an analysis of power and I understand that when you're as openly confrontational to entrenched power as I am, you're going to be demonized.”

He's also had the last laugh, politically, handily winning re-election in 2002 and 2006. Much to their chagrin, the dynamics of district elections have made Daly practically impervious to his political enemies. Although widely viewed as unelectable to citywide office, he remains a potent force at City Hall by ruling the roost in his district. In 2006, that translated to his garnering fewer than 9,000 votes.

His victory last year over challenger Rob Black was especially frustrating to his detractors, who saw Daly as potentially vulnerable for having cut deals with Rincon Hill high-rise developers. His foes hammered him for what they saw as his contradictory stance in accepting campaign cash from big developers he once railed against, while extracting concessions to transfer millions of dollars in so-called “community impact fees” to the coffers of Daly-approved charities in his district. Those same charities, his critics allege, supply the foot soldiers for Daly's political causes. Daly's argument: The high-rises were inevitable and it was better to capture benefits for the public good.

His foes ended up frustrated. Despite Black's being well-financed and enjoying the endorsement of the mayor, Daly still won by 10 percentage points.

Attired in gray sweats with “Tenderloin” emblazoned on the chest, Daly is rough-housing with son Jack, 3, in the living room of his condo while chatting on the cellphone wedged between his ear and shoulder.

His brother, John, a South Carolina radiologist — and his polar opposite, politically, as a card-carrying Republican defender of George W. Bush — has called to wish him a happy birthday, Daly's 35th. (The brothers remain close, thanks to a mutual pact not to discuss politics, friends say.)

The unpretentious condo, purchased with the help of a loan from his parents, is up three flights of stairs in a nondescript security building that opens onto an alley-wide street in the Mission. The downstairs consists of a kitchen and combination living/dining area which, if not for scattered toys, would appear more Spartan than it is. A well-worn sofa and loveseat sit in front of an oversized cabinet that hides a television.

The supervisor shares the home with his wife, Sarah Low Daly, 29, who is seven months pregnant with the couple's second child. By all accounts, she's a prominent force behind her husband's political persona.


“Chris and Sarah are kindred spirits; he doesn't do anything without her approval,” says a Daly confidant, who didn't want to be identified. A Daly colleague at City Hall recalls how Sarah Daly has been known to even call her husband to egg him on during legislative debates while watching the supervisors' proceedings on TV from home.

She's certainly no shrinking violet.

At a victory celebration after Daly's re-election last November, she took to the stage at DNA Lounge to lambaste her husband's political tormentors, including the police union and a local plumbers union. But her choicest words (captured on a video that turned up on YouTube but was later removed) were reserved for restaurateurs who've sued to block the city's universal health care, which Chris Daly has long favored. “To the mother-fuckers who don't want to pay people a living wage at the Golden Gate Restaurant Association,” she shouted, “fuck you!”

Yet Sarah Daly declined to be interviewed for this article, citing her husband's wishes. Ditto for Daly's parents, who, despite having retired to an exclusive golf-course community in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, dutifully descend upon San Francisco each election cycle to help their son stump for votes.

During the run-up to last year's election, Daly's father was usually the first person to show up at campaign headquarters, arriving at 5 a.m. each day to sweep the floor, says Bill Barnes, the former Daly aide. Daly's mother, along with Sarah, helped prepare nearly 400 sandwiches for volunteers on election night. But it hasn't all been pleasant. Sources close to the supervisor say that, despite his propensity to dish it out, Daly is super-sensitive with regard to his family and was chagrined after both his wife and parents were subjected to verbal abuse on the streets during the last campaign.

Daly cites such concerns in explaining why he prefers that his wife and other relatives not give interviews.

“My family has taken enough hits,” he says. “I'd just as soon not increase their exposure.”

He also cites his family as the main reason he chose to stay out of the mayor's race.

But his critics are skeptical.

“They didn't field a candidate,” says Newsom political consultant Eric Jaye, referring to Daly and the progressives. “It's pretty hard to spin that, particularly when you promised repeatedly that you would.”

Yet, despite his overwhelming popularity, the man who is most often the recipient of Daly's scorn — the mayor — could be forgiven for breathing at least a small sigh of relief that his tormentor chose not to run.

“Although we're confident that Mayor Newsom would have prevailed by a wide margin, it wouldn't have been pleasant,” concedes Nathan Ballard, the mayor's spokesman. “Chris Daly personalizes everything.”

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