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The Daly Show Las Vegas

Former supervisor Chris Daly’s meandering path has led him to a new post in Nevada. Can Sin City handle him?

 

The gleaming monoliths sprouting from the urban jungle of modern-day SoMa are, for good or ill, a legacy of Chris Daly. The former F-bomb-dropping progressive supervisor and self-proclaimed “designated asshole” of San Francisco politics once brokered the deals that made the cranes fly downtown. But that was years ago, and the decade of his dominance in District 6 is starting to drift from memory. And now he’s a world away—in North Las Vegas, to be precise, a dust-choked, near-bankrupt city of 231,000 that serves as a borderland between the flashing neon lights and the mountainous desert. It’s here, in a too-hot, too-small room inside a no-frills conference hall along with hundreds of local union organizers, that Daly is clocking in. Las Vegas is now his de facto home.

Daly, a gray-bearded version of the baby face who took office at age 28, is now political director for the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), a union that represents 24,000 teachers and school staffers in the Silver State. It’s a job that’s about as easy as drawing to an inside straight: Depending on how the data are sliced, Nevada ranks between 47th and dead last in public education. And while 19 percent of American high school students fail to graduate on time, in Nevada, it’s 29 percent. Despite a new tax pushed through by its Republican governor, the state continues to languish near the bottom in per-pupil spending and struggles to attract enough teachers to staff its classrooms. Sitting in Sunrise Coffee (Sin City’s closest approximation to Blue Bottle) over a mug of whatever the barista opted to pour him, Daly is in an expansive mood. “California was starting to feel a little small to me, so this is good,” he says over the roar of jets from nearby McCarran International Airport. Even so, Vegas is a strange fit for him: “I’m playing a little bit of catch-up.”

And Vegas is playing a little catchup with Daly. Most of his new colleagues have yet to hear the old tales of Daly shenanigans: his brinkmanship with Mayor Gavin Newsom, which grew so toxic that board president (and nominal progressive ally) Aaron Peskin summarily kicked Daly off the powerful budget committee; the meeting during which Daly described Newsom as a coke fiend; the time that Daly and Mayor Willie Brown nearly came to blows; Daly’s tirade after realizing that the progressives didn’t have the votes to prevent Ed Lee from succeeding Newsom as mayor. (“It’s on like Donkey Kong,” he’d fumed. It wasn’t.) 

Chris Daly and his wife Sarah Low Daly acclimate to the Las Vegas lifestyle.

Photo: Courtesy of Chris Daly

His reputation, Daly insists, hasn’t preceded him here. Much. “People have read my Wikipedia page, which is not good,” he says. “So I went on to correct some of the—what would you call them?—misstatements of fact that were written by Newsom campaign operatives in 2007. Now my page has this big disclaimer on top that says it may be edited by the subject and that it’s no longer ‘objective,’ because the subject is the source of material and it’s not what [Chronicle columnist] C.W. Nevius felt like writing that day.”

Since his departure from the board, Daly’s career has been, depending on your point of view, an admirable exercise in following one’s ideals or a downward slide into the land of a million Elvises. He purchased the ill-fated Buck Tavern (aka Daly’s Dive) on Market Street in 2010, weeks before he left the board, to carve out a career as a publican. Then came union organizing, most recently with San Francisco’s powerful SEIU Local 1021. He played a key role in the Bay Area–wide push to raise the minimum wage in San Francisco, Oakland, and Emeryville.

So, Daly kept a hand in city politics—until he didn’t. Peskin’s 2015 supervisorial run was the first significant campaign in “15 or 20 years,” Daly says, in which he was largely uninvolved. (He did, however, manage to get himself quoted in the Chronicle by warning Peskin nonsupporters that they’d face retribution—thereby going 100 percent against the campaign’s message of a kinder, gentler Peskin and earning a diagnosis from the Peskin camp that he was “out of his fucking mind.”)

You can be labeled your own worst enemy only so many times before people don’t want you around. Daly’s bellicosity overshadowed his legislative acumen and political deftness long ago—for years he served as a profane bogeyman, trotted out by his political enemies to mortify citywide voters. So it’s easy to forget that, as he might put it, he used to get shit done in San Francisco. He shepherded the massive Rincon Hill development through the political gauntlet in exchange for $75 million from the developers for community funds, championed paid sick leave, and mandated fire sprinklers in single-room-occupancy hotels. Although even his allies wearied of his agitation, he was the ne plus ultra of Newsom-era progressives, especially regarding his opposition to what they saw as the erstwhile mayor’s years of governing by press release. 

But eventually Daly’s personal life pulled the rug out from under his political life, and he and his wife left San Francisco for a typical reason: their kids. In 2009, he succumbed to the child-rearing advantages of living on the same block as his in-laws and purchased a home in the outer-ring Bay Area city of Fairfield (he aims to see his wife and kids there “as often as possible” while working in Nevada).

Whether San Francisco politics misses Daly would be good fodder for a panel debate. But Daly does not miss San Francisco politics. “Maybe it has to do with my philosophy of change and where I think power actually is,” he says. Pointing out that he worked with a homeless advocacy group in the Mission before becoming supervisor, he says, “I see real power in communities and everyday people. I feel very comfortable with my trajectory back into labor.” His playbook in Nevada will likely draw from a classic tax-and-spend liberal position, in part because the state taxes so little and spends so rarely (to Daly’s distress, 79 percent of voters shot down an NSEA-backed tax hike in 2014). He’s also going to be playing defense on a school-voucher program, passed during the most recent session of the legislature, that’s currently tied up in state court. “We are rebuilding the political strength,” he says. “I’m not sure what that will look like yet.” 

Uncertainty, though, is a certainty for Daly. He’s hoping to find a place to crash in Vegas for between $500 and $800 a month; until then, he’ll be shuttling between Fairfield and a smoke-filled hotel room that sets him back $21 a night (not counting video poker). The prices are reminiscent of last-century San Francisco, when Daly arrived in the Mission as an idealistic Duke dropout hoping to change the world. It’s been years since he’s been a San Franciscan, but he still considers the Mission his home—albeit one that he barely recognizes. “Do we really need another coffee place?” he asks acerbically—while seated in a Las Vegas version of a San Francisco coffee place. It’s never clear whether Daly left his city behind or his city left him behind. Or both.

Whatever the case, Daly’s next act is taking place far from the Bay Area. He pegs his odds of moving back to San Francisco—and its politics—as low. Not nearly as low as opening up the Buck Tavern 2.0 in Vegas, but neither option, he says, is “in my short- or medium-term plans.” But he’s only 43. Plenty of time for the long run. Plenty of time to get shit done.

 

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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