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Mayor Ed Lee Forced to Apologize to Political Rival Aaron Peskin After Calling His Legislation ‘Gestapo’

“The more appropriate word he intended to use was ‘McCarthyesque.’”

Longtime antagonists Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

 

With all of the actual fascistic behavior going on in America lately, politicians ought to tread carefully when tossing out Nazi terminology in casual conversations. Mayor Ed Lee is learning that lesson the hard way. In a recent text message back-and-forth with several of his top aides, Lee likened legislation from Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a longtime political opponent who also happens to be Jewish, to the secret police of the Nazis, the Gestapo. It was a comparison that left Peskin both fuming and bewildered. “Maybe, for non-Jews, it is hard to understand how hurtful and frightening the use of Nazi terminology is, particularly referencing a Jewish person,” Peskin told San Francisco. “This crosses a line.” 

The episode began on Tuesday when Peskin proposed legislation inspired by hearings regarding the sinking of the Millennium Tower that would have allowed the Board of Supervisors to compel those who testify in front of a board committee to do so under penalty of perjury. Peskin needed eight votes from his fellow board members, but to Lee and his aides' apparent delight, the effort fell just one vote short. “Peskin’s Oath failed 7-4,” the mayor’s liaison to the board, Mawuli Tugbenyoh, texted to Lee and several of his top lieutenants on Tuesday night. 

Lee replied with one word: “Gestapo.” 

The offending text (Mayor Lee's cell phone number redacted).

Peskin, the son of an Israeli mother and Holocaust scholar father, was jolted when the text message found its way to him. “The only way I can interpret it is either equating me or my legislation to Nazi-like behavior.” 

After days of unreturned calls and messages, Peskin today sent Lee and chief of staff Steve Kawa an official letter explaining why he found this usage so offensive. “It has come to my attention that you have compared my Integrity & Honesty Oath legislation to the tactics of the Nazi regime,” Peskin wrote the mayor. “At a time when our federal government bases executive decisions on ‘alternative facts’ and compares our U.S. intelligence to Nazis, we must be better. We are better. ...  If this is true, though, I must ask that you make a public apology to me and the Jewish community.” 

Just hours after receiving Peskin's letter, the mayor did that. “Mayor Lee apologizes for inappropriately and insensitively using the word ‘Gestapo’ to describe Supervisor Peskin's failed legislation,” the mayor's spokesperson Deirdre Hussey wrote in a statement to San Francisco. “He shares the concern of many that this legislation could be used to intimidate, harass and bully members of the public and city staff who participate in the political process. The more appropriate word he intended to use was ‘McCarthyesque.’” Lee has purportedly reached out to prominent members of the Jewish community—but not Peskin—“to apologize for the inappropriate word in this context.”  

That seemed sufficient to Seth Brysk, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League's Central Pacific branch. “It is not helpful when people use Nazi terminology. It downplays the serious nature of the crimes that occurred,” he said. But with an apology made, he said, life should go on as before. “Mayor Lee has been a good friend to the Jewish community. We should all move on.” 

Peskin was less sanguine. While he appreciated the mayor’s press release, he didn’t feel it went far enough—and he claimed the mayor is mischaracterizing his legislation. “It’s disappointing the mayor went on a political attack rather than acknowledge a moral transgression. When he’s accusing public policymakers of being Nazi-like or McCarthyite, it leaves a lot to be desired in the age of Donald Trump. San Francisco leaders should be bigger than this.”  

 

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