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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.
His enemies may rail about Wiener’s supposed conservatism (the ever–hyperbolic Peskin recently told the Bay Guardian that Wiener is “fundamentally a very ideologically conservative person. He’s radical in his conservatism”), but what they really seem to hate is his pragmatism. Ideologically, he’s a tough guy to pin down. Speaking of his former Harvard classmates Chiu and fellow board member David Campos, Wiener quips, “I would say we’re left, lefter, and leftist. We’re all liberal Democrats here. But for some people, that is not left enough.”
Perhaps it is because of his infuriatingly calm and unflappable demeanor that Wiener is so often the target of personal insults. At the November committee hearing on the nudity ban, he was compared to Joseph Goebbels, accused of being controlled by fascists, and called a “regressive,” a “money changer,” and a “disgruntled conservative.” Given that many people would crawl under a table if faced with such attacks, I ask Wiener how he can just sit there and take it. “We were never a family of drama,” he recalls. “I grew up Jewish in a very, very non-Jewish place where there was plenty of anti-Semitism. I learned early on that it’s not helpful to get upset or freak out just because someone calls you a bad name. I was called ‘kike’ on various occasions growing up, and other people got called that and worse.”
Of course, Wiener—the son of a long line of “dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt Democrats”—was never called a Republican before moving to San Francisco. In fact, the subject produces some honest- to-goodness mirth in him. “When I tell [family members] that I, along with Nancy Pelosi, am considered middle-of-the-road in San Francisco, they think it’s pretty funny,” he says. “I’d chuckle when I was called a fascist and a Nazi during the nudity debate, when just a couple of months before I had played a key role in delivering transgender health benefits through Healthy S.F. Only in San Francisco would you be called conservative when you help deliver transgender health benefits and support affordable housing.”
So whom does Wiener consider a role model locally? Clearly, he looks up to his former boss, City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Wiener was an early and staunch supporter of Herrera’s bid for mayor in 2011, and Herrera calls Wiener “one of the hardestworking people I’ve ever met in my entire life.” But it’s much easier to compare Wiener to state senator Leno, whose campaigns he has long supported. “Mark is careful not to be just the gay candidate,” offers Willie Brown. “Scott is the same way. He cares about gay issues, but he is a citywide politician.” And their similarities aren’t confined to identity politics: While both are intensely private about their personal lives, they also keep positively manic social calendars.
Wiener is proud of his and Leno’s common approach to community outreach, saying that “as an elected official, you have a responsibility to be in the community.” But there’s another obvious benefit to going to events and riding Muni to work each day: perspective. It’s no surprise that Wiener’s list of priorities—transit, affordable housing, streamlining regulations—sounds like something heard in every elevator, in every supermarket line, and at every cocktail party in the city.
“I always keep in mind,” Wiener says, “one thing that Mayor Newsom would say when he held mass swearing-ins for commissioners: ‘Just remember when you’re up there making those decisions, you don’t just represent the people who have the time to spend all night at your hearing. You represent everyone, including the vast majority of people who don’t know the meeting is going on and have no time or ability to be there.’ That’s always stuck in my head, because it is so easy to get caught up and be scared because you have 20, 30, 50 people yelling at you, claiming that they are the voice of the community—and you know, by just being in the community all the time, that it’s not true.”
It’s with the non-screaming, non-epithet-tossing silent majority—the kind of people who’d rather spend a day window-shopping on 24th Street than picketing City Hall in their birthday suits—that Wiener is most politically aligned. And for this group, which is growing in strength and numbers in this fast-gentrifying city, his politics are pretty much unimpeachable. Indeed, his bold moves and frequent appearances around town have earned him a sizable fan base. Though Wiener is not normally identified as a gay leader, that didn’t stop users of the gay hookup app Grindr from voting him San Francisco’s “local hero/community advocate of the year” in 2012 (putting him in the company of Barack Obama for Washington, D.C., Anderson Cooper for New York City, and Senator Elizabeth Warren for Boston). Tellingly, only one person, a nudist named George Davis, has announced plans to run against Wiener next year when he’s up for reelection.
Finding a way to survive and thrive in the whacked, intense, and bruising world of San Francisco politics can qualify a person for many things, including higher office. “The best master class for a seat in the [state] legislature is a term on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors,” says Leno, a future alumnus of both. “Here in Sacramento, you see legislators fresh from their school board or the city council in a place with 50,000 people, and, let’s just say, we are much better prepared.”
Leno will be termed out of state office in 2016, and Wiener is already on many politics watchers’ short lists for his senate seat, especially now that Leno’s district has been redrawn to include more moderate neighbors to the south. Still, 2016 is an eternity away in politics, and anything can happen between now and then. Wiener, on message as always, claims to be focused only on making positive changes in his district. “To me, it’s not just about protecting myself in office and being able to climb the ladder. I don’t fight for the sake of fighting. Most of my legislation is uncontroversial or not very controversial. But for things that need to be pushed for, I’m willing to push.”
Scott Wiener still doesn’t want to play army. He’s just trying to build a grand fort. ❒
Everything you didn’t need to know about the D8 Supe
Born: May 11, 1970, in Philadelphia
Pet: Tabitha, a 17-year-old gray cat named after the Bewitched character
High School Sport: Swim team lunch: Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the downstairs cafeteria in City Hall. “When I walk in, the folks there know exactly what I’m getting.”
Getaway: An annual trip with friends to a horse ranch in Wyoming
Weakness: Anything with ginger. Wiener goes on about this subject like he’s Bubba from Forrest Gump—“Ginger ale, ginger cookies, ginger cake….”
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