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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.
Of course, it’s not just the way Wiener has chosen to legislate that gets activists’ knickers in a twist—it’s what he has decided to focus on. Put in startup-speak, Wiener is platform-agnostic. He has no problem switching from the highbrow (tenancy-incommon reform, CEQA process streamlining) to the lowbrow (city-run tree pruning, street-furniture cleanups, booting naked guys out of the Castro). Perhaps his efficient approach would be less bothersome if he chose safer—or simply fewer—issues to tackle. “Taking on nudity, food trucks, camping in plazas, taxi service, and historic preservation, he gets the goat of the people on the left,” says board president Chiu, who has known Wiener since both attended law school at Harvard.
It’s for that very approach, however, that many San Franciscans applaud Wiener. “Legislatively, he has not been shy to address more challenging issues facing the city. It shows his fearlessness,” says state senator Mark Leno. “Fear can freeze some people and prevent leadership.” Radulovich explains the difference thusly: “For Scott, if the issue is right and in line with his values, he’ll go for it. Other supervisors are making the calculation, ‘Will I get in trouble? Will I be popular?’”
Asked why he’s not afraid to touch the sticky subjects, Wiener responds in typically vanilla fashion: “I’ve chosen to be a public official. If I’m just going to be a bump on a log and be timid and not actually push to make change, then why am I doing this?” Grinding through controversial proposals can be a risky path, of course, but if one’s goal is to propel oneself to citywide prominence, it’s an extremely good course of action. Then again, Wiener doesn’t seem to be modeling himself on particularly flashy folks.
His political heroes, Wiener tells me, aren’t the controversy-seeking Jerry Browns and Chris Christies of the world, or the headline-hungry Willie Browns and Gavin Newsoms. Rather, they are a pair of fellow New Jersey Democrats: the wonky and aloof (and also very tall) Bill Bradley, best known for revamping the federal tax code, and Jim Florio, “who was elected governor of New Jersey in the late ’80s during a horrible budget time, a recession, and he had to do the right thing and raise taxes. He needed to. And they tossed him out of office.”
Like many San Francisco transplants, Wiener has a perspective formed far from our lovely bubble by the bay. His family is tight-knit. His mother is an optician and a former biology teacher; his father is an optometrist. When he talks about growing up, alongside his younger sister, Melissa, now a doctor in New York, a pattern emerges: one of sincerely held beliefs backed by a methodical work ethic. Upon arriving as a freshman at Duke University, Wiener discovered that there was no longer a club for college Democrats. Instead of cursing his fate, he got together with some friends and started one. As a law student at Harvard, he helped lead a boycott to keep students from interviewing at the law firm Sidley Austin after one of the firm’s partners went before the Supreme Court to defend a homophobic law passed in Colorado. “I was sort of a rabble-rouser,” he tells me, though he admits that he sat down and spoke to firm representatives to explain his position in a civil manner. They agreed to disagree.
Soon after Harvard, Wiener moved to San Francisco, where he worked for the late, great law firm of Heller Ehrman. His focus was civil litigation, representing companies that were suing other companies. But the firm was also famous for allowing its associates to do lots of pro bono work, and Wiener did that, too. In 2002, he left the firm to join the city attorney’s office and then ran for the Democratic County Central Committee. He got his first taste of political chicanery in 2006 when, as the DCCC chairman, he selected his friend David Chiu to fill a committee vacancy, only to be doublecrossed when Chiu voted to oust him as chairman. Chiu’s vote—the deciding one in the election, it turned out—went to Aaron Peskin, whose endorsement Chiu sought as he gunned for the soon-to-be-termed-out District 3 supervisor’s seat on the board.
After all that drama, one would expect there to be serious animus between Wiener and Chiu. Willie Brown, for one, faults Wiener for not actively seeking revenge on his once and current colleague. “I wish he’d be tougher on dealing with people who have wronged him,” says the ex-mayor. But if there is any lingering bad blood between the supes, Wiener won’t cop to it. You could say, though, that this absence of rancor speaks less to the lawmaker’s better angels than it does to his single-minded determination to get things done. Chiu is a vote, and Wiener needs votes. While Wiener lobbied hard behind the scenes to succeed Chiu as the next board president in January, he knew better than to take the fight public. Wiener ended up seconding the nomination of Chiu for board president, and Chiu responded by appointing Wiener head of the coveted land use committee.
Tit. Tat. Keep it moving. Keep it moving. Keep it moving.