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San Francisco Giant
Melissa Griffin | Photo: Timothy Archibald | February 13, 2013
Supervisor Scott Wiener isn't just City Hall's tallest tenant. He's also rapidly becoming its most effective lawmaker.
“I was always the tallest kid in my class,” Scott Wiener recalls. Eventually topping out at 6 feet, 7 inches, the future lawyer, community leader, and politician grew up—and up—in Turnersville, New Jersey, back “when it was still sort of a farm town.” “Did you play army when you were a kid?” I ask, assuming that the favored pastimes in Wiener’s rural neighborhood were the same as in mine. “We didn’t play army,” he says. “We played a game of who could build the more elaborate, bigger fort. I was pretty darn good.”
Fast-forward 30 years, and as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Wiener, 42, is still the tallest in the class—and he’s still pretty darn good at manipulating his environment. In just over two years on the board, the rail-thin, NBA-tall Wiener has become both the city’s Mr. Fix-It and the fringe left’s Public Enemy No. 1. He has demanded quarterly hearings with the MTA to discuss improving the city’s abysmal taxi service, simplified parking taxes for small property owners, paved the way for micro-apartments, streamlined the restaurant permitting process, and, yes, with exceptions for certain events, banned public nudity. For these and other “moderate” legislative acts, he’s been called a Nazi, a Republican, and worse. He’s the only supervisor with the distinction of having an entire community group in his district arrayed against him: It’s called Wiener Watch, and its stated aim is to “plan and execute creative, public actions that target Supervisor Wiener.” The anti-Wiener hysteria is the tingling sensation that lets you know he’s working.
That so much ire could be incited by such a staid, dispassionate fellow, who is neither a particularly charismatic politician nor a polarizing ideologue, is fairly surprising. Even the most wizened San Francisco political animals don’t quite get it. “He has championed things that don’t stamp him necessarily as a visionary politician,” says former mayor Willie Brown, who, like Wiener, has long been derided as a servant of big-time developers and a steward of rapacious capitalism. However, Brown is not so sure that the younger man even has a clear vision for the city. “At the moment, Scott is best known for the nudity ban,” says Brown. “He’s done a number of other things, but at the moment, I can’t recall them.”
Wiener’s low public profile hasn’t stopped him from becoming perhaps the most divisive supervisor since Aaron Peskin and Chris Daly were roaming City Hall. In a place where government often values process over product (as in, the more “planning meetings” you’ve held with “stakeholders,” the more successful you are), Wiener has earned both enemies and acolytes by pushing through legislation and taking on controversial subjects with remarkable tenacity. He may not be the president of the Board of Supervisors or its most prolific lawmaker (David Chiu holds both honors), but he is arguably its most influential and important member. And with battles looming this month over condo-conversion legislation and environmental review reform, plus his new roles as the chairman of the powerful Land Use and Economic Development Committee and the de facto leader of the board’s fight against chronic Muni underperformance, it’s likely that Wiener’s stature will only increase.
Aside from his neck-craning height, what is most noticeable upon meeting Wiener in his sparsely decorated (he prefers the descriptor “minimalist”) City Hall office is the sense that he loves being a supervisor—not in a “Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch” way, but in an earnest, Harvard Law student, “we are the change we were waiting for” way. The conventional wisdom of local politics is that people get on the Board of Supervisors in order to get off the Board of Supervisors as quickly as possible. It’s the ultimate political stepping-stone, a fine training ground for the klieg lights and historic fights of Washington (see Feinstein, Dianne) and Sacramento (see Leno, Mark, and Ammiano, Tom). For the average San Francisco supe, the issues are a good deal less grand. “Everything is so personal for constituents,” Wiener says. “When you’re in Sacramento, you’re fighting for broad issues like universal healthcare and mass transit, but when you’re in local government, it’s a fight over whether certain trees get removed or whether someone gets to do an extension on his house. It’s an emotionally challenging job.”
Whether by training or by coincidence, Wiener’s personality seems preternaturally suited to riding that roller coaster. His demeanor is exceedingly restrained. He gestures slowly and speaks directly, seeming at times as if he’s in “power save” mode, reserving his energy in case of emergency. “Straightforward” is a description used by a number of people who’ve worked alongside (and sometimes against) him. “Excitable” is not. He doesn’t drink to excess, he has only a few close friends, and he prefers walking over riding a bike. He’s a single gay man who represents the Castro, but he’s on no one’s “most eligible bachelor” list (his dating life, he’ll be the first to tell you, isn’t as robust as his legislative agenda). He agreeably took a $70,000 pay cut when he left the city attorney’s office to join the Board of Supervisors. He so rarely drives his car that he gave up his parking spot at City Hall, preferring to take Muni everywhere he goes. For exercise, he practices yoga. For “fun,” he attends up to five community events a night.
Indeed, the common perception of Wiener as a political automaton who’s built an inordinately ambitious agenda for a first-term representative is largely correct. He’s doing so much, so fast, in fact, that the makings of what you might call a Wiener Doctrine are starting to take shape. If Bill Clinton’s approach to issues was triangulation, Wiener’s philosophy can be described as “untangulation”—refusing to get bogged down in red tape, activists’ shenanigans, or general procedural BS. He’s willing to listen to opposing points of view, but if all he needs to pass a law is six votes, he’ll settle for exactly that many. As his sometime opponent Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City and the president of BART’s board of directors, says, “Scott’s favorite term is ‘We’ll agree to disagree,’ and his vibe is ‘Keep it going, keep it going, keep it going.’”