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The Gloves Come Off in North Beach

How the brutish supervisor race between Julie Christensen and Aaron Peskin is a taste of what's to come in 2016's citywide election.

 

Aaron Peskin plops down at a small table at Caffe Trieste, closes his eyes, and emits a deep breath. As his beard grows whiter and his face more sunburned, he is taking on the mien of a castaway. “You’ve been on holiday, haven’t you?” asks a man sitting at the next table. Peskin grins politely. Nice guess, but wrong. In fact, it’s hard to be more wrong.

Ever since he quietly told friends back in January that he was going to once again throw his hat into the electoral ring, Peskin has been running for his political life—and that of the city’s tattered left. He’s never had to campaign this hard before. He is out in the elements for hours each day, politicking for his once and, he hopes, future job of District 3 supervisor. It’s an effort that is increasingly turning out to be no holiday.

Even before Peskin declared his candidacy to represent the district, which encompasses North Beach, Chinatown, and Telegraph Hill, operatives backing incumbent supervisor Julie Christensen confided that they were relishing the opportunity to wield his history against him. During his stint as supervisor, from 2001 to 2009, the diminutive, formerly black-bearded politician became well-known for his combative style: hectoring late-night phone calls to city employees, vitriolic public feuds. Christensen’s apparatchiks plan to resurrect those stories about the “Napoleon of North Beach” and beat Peskin with them like a piñata.

Framing Peskin as a cantankerous coot and a get-off-my-lawn obstructionist is perhaps the key component to a Christensen victory come November. In an internal memo obtained by San Francisco, a pollster hired by the Christensen campaign highlights voters’ impressions of Peskin, the most negative of which you can bet will be deployed in attack ads. “Especially damning was [Peskin’s] past behavior towards colleagues, agency heads, and constituents. No one likes a bully,” the report reads. “Peskin also took large hits for his obstructionism on popular neighborhood projects and past ethics concerns.”

As election season shifts into high gear, the infrastructure to deliver more of these large hits against Peskin is being assembled. Mayor Ed Lee, who appointed Christensen to her seat in January over the vociferous objections of influential figures in the district—most notably, Lee’s erstwhile Chinatown ally Rose Pak—is applying pressure wherever possible. Ample reservoirs of third-party cash are being amassed. Lines are being drawn and favors called in. For residents of District 3, the feeling in the streets, which are glutted with “We Need Aaron!” and “Julie Christensen Gets Things Done” placards, is of a gathering storm.

And yet, this is a peculiarly insular storm. Perhaps only one in three registered voters in District 3 will end up filling out a ballot in November’s off-year election. But those few who do—and it may require only 6,000 votes to win—will have an outsize say in the direction that the city takes in the coming year. At stake is control of an increasingly polarized Board of Supervisors, which currently leans six votes to five in favor of Lee’s moderate faction. Should Peskin be reinstalled on the board, it would mean the return of the often-rudderless progressive caucus’s savviest leader—and with him, the potential to significantly disrupt the second-term agenda of the mayor and his powerful backers.

With Peskin again working legislative magic and calling progressive shots, Lee and his allies could run into any number of difficulties as they pursue their platform of steady economic growth, widespread development, and jobs, jobs, jobs. A Peskin victory over Christensen could also augur a progressive insurgency leading up to the much more heavily contested 2016 elections, when city voters will choose supervisors in six districts. The potential exists for a political sea change in San Francisco that harks back to the Progressive Revolution of 2000.

This is, in large part, why Peskin looks so weather-beaten at Caffe Trieste. It’s why city hall’s attack dogs have been unleashed, and why the race for Christensen’s seat is becoming increasingly nasty. In the coming weeks, the future of San Francisco will again be decided, and it will all go down right here in District 3—the Fort Sumter in this city’s escalating Civil War.

 

On a balmy Friday morning in August, a large crowd of well-dressed, elderly Chinese men and women file into the red-, yellow-, and green-hued headquarters of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Stockton Street. The central seat at the dais is reserved for Mayor Lee. As has become de rigueur whenever the mayor ventures into Chinatown these days, a place at the table is also secured for Julie Christensen. An association official notes this approvingly; Lee and Christensen, he says, “have a Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers thing going on now.”

Great things will come to Chinatown, the mayor announces, due to his special relationship with the woman to his left, but she needs Chinatown’s full support this November. The message is met with enthusiastic applause. This is a dramatically different reaction than the one provoked back in April when a handful of the city’s prominent politicos and serial donors were summoned by email to the Hanson Bridgett law offices for what many assumed was a pro forma fundraising breakfast meeting. Instead, they were met by the mayor; his chief of staff, Steve Kawa; his special adviser, Tony Winnicker; and his best-financed (and loudest) backer, Ron Conway, who allegedly warned everyone that aiding Peskin over Christensen could hinder their ability to work in this city. The threat was not just implied: It was loud and clear. Multiple attendees further claim that Conway said he’d backfill Christensen donors in order to obscure his influence. 

Christensen was not in attendance, nor were any of her staffers or official campaign personnel; what happened in April was certainly not undertaken on her initiative. Her “laser focus,” she maintains, is on serving the district and winning her seat for another year (the victor in this year’s election, triggered by David Chiu’s ascension to the California State Assembly last year, will have to run again in 2016). In her conversations with San Francisco, Christensen displays a formidable intellect and deep fluency in the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day arcana of District 3. Yet smarts and hard work alone can’t guarantee success on Election Day.

This becomes evident on a recent brisk stroll with Christensen across North Beach, when something strange happens: nothing. Nobody stops us or even appears to make eye contact with the sitting supervisor. This does not happen when walking about with Peskin, who is stopped so often that you soon forget where you were heading in the first place. Christensen, by comparison, walks with a healthy pace and a determined stride, uninterrupted by the parade of Frank Capra characters who buttonhole Peskin. She does stop, however, to admire the walled-off construction zone that is the Joe DiMaggio Playground. “There’s my playground!” she exclaims with unbridled joy. For 16 years as a neighborhood activist, Christensen cajoled this previously underwhelming site into its soon-to-be-verdant form. And now, she says, “it’s supposed to open by the end of the year.” Might it, perhaps, open sooner? Before November’s election, say? “Maaaaaaaaybe,” she says teasingly. “No pressure!”

Asked what brought her to this city in 1979, Christensen replies within a nanosecond, “Despair!” and laughs uproariously. In something of a San Francisco trope, she escaped a faltering young marriage, a stultifying job, and Dallas to find love, success, and refuge in the Tales of the City–era city. Decades later, after another fizzled romance (“Do you see a theme here?” she asks wryly), Christensen threw herself into community activism with the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association and planted 355 trees throughout the city—including one in front of a condo at Filbert and Medau inhabited by a thirtysomething Aaron Peskin. (It’s still there, though Peskin and his wife have since moved up the hill.)

For decades before her belated entry into public service, Christensen worked in the realm of interior design; her specialty was space planning, which involves logistically fitting a building’s insides into its architectural shell. The work often presented a maddening jumble of interlocking problems: What departments need to go next to each other? What areas have to be secure, and which can be publicly accessible? How much storage is needed? How much growth in staffing can be expected in the near and far future? While employed by the renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Christensen space-planned both the Federal Reserve Bank and the nearby tower at 101 California Street. The latter was a particular challenge—with a circular building, she says, you have to literally fit “square pegs into round holes.”

The phrase could well serve as an analogy to legislative work. And Christensen does, indeed, take a designer’s worldview into government—for good and ill. As is true of so many politicians, her positives also double as her negatives. Established city politicos describe her as smart and supremely confident. While those assets, coupled with her designer’s mindset, can inspire innovative thinking, they can also lead her to act, as one veteran government player snipes, as if “every political or regulatory problem is only a problem by virtue of her not having had an opportunity to offer a solution to it.” Her approach, some insiders say, left a trail of bruised feelings even before she matriculated to City Hall: “She really turned everyone off when she came into a room and…would tell an architect how to design a building,” says a longtime acquaintance.

In June, during the tempestuous hearing for Supervisor David Campos’s Mission development moratorium emergency measure, Christensen informed the gathered throng that she had already decided to vote against the legislation. Her announcement was made before eight hours of contentious debate among board members and heart-wrenching public testimony regarding displacement in the Mission. “That was stupid,” she now admits. But she adds that she “detests political theater,” and, make no mistake, the summer showdown regarding the Mission moratorium was pure political theater. It figures to be a mere opening act, however, to the drama to come.

 

Put on the spot, Peskin and Christensen, politicians both, describe their relationship as “cordial.” But both are, to varying degrees, fighting a losing war with the dictionary. There is not a hell of a lot of love lost between the two rivals, say members of both camps. And yet, in the not-too-distant past, their relationship inspired different descriptors. “We used to say that Julie was like Aaron’s second wife,” reminisces former Telegraph Hill Dwellers vice president Marc Bruno. “She was in his office constantly.”

Christensen’s scrapbooks contain no shortage of gala openings of playgrounds and other amenities that she helped erect during Peskin’s tenure. But now she recalls her interactions with then-supervisor Peskin in terms befitting an ex-spouse: “I would tackle intractable problems,” she says. “I would struggle with problem solving in the design phases, build community support, write grants, lobby for funding. And Aaron would cut the ribbon.” No, on second thought, she says, Peskin did more than that: He would occasionally “secure my place at the table in a discussion.”

Relayed this quote back at Trieste, Peskin freezes, his coffee cup midway to his lips. He holds this awkward pose for a good 10 seconds before shaking his head and saying, “Uhhhhh, OK.” Peskin thinks fast and talks fast, but now he speaks slowly and purposefully, his diction resembling that of someone in a hostage video: “No. No. I’m not going to go there. I don’t want to do a tit for tat with Julie. It’s just not worth it.”

Serving as the intermediary for Peskin and Christensen, it turns out, makes one feel like a child of divorce. And, accordingly, Peskin knows all too well that any display of anger or aggression will only play into ongoing efforts to portray him as a mean-spirited, short-tempered bully. So he closes his eyes and exhales deeply. He assesses Christensen’s achievements in street and playground improvements: “Sometimes feelings were bruised. But work was done.” It is the most cordial answer he can muster.

 

“There ain't no devil,” sings Tom Waits, “there’s just God when he’s drunk.” Aaron Peskin’s strengths, like Christensen’s, also double as his weaknesses. His obsession with detail and the fervent energy that fueled marathon bouts of negotiating and reams of legislation also propelled him to occasionally act inappropriately and even destructively during his eight years in office. He had a penchant for placing late-night phone calls to allies and enemies alike, in which, one frequent recipient recalled, he was wont to say “crazy shit.” Some recipients have claimed that Peskin sounded inebriated during the calls. At the time, he told reporters that booze “might add to a feeling I already have, but I can let people have it without having a drink.”

These shenanigans remain an albatross around Peskin’s neck—as does his reputation for blocking development projects and colleagues’ legislation. In fact, that rap has long overshadowed his genius at getting things done. Peskin likes to remind people who label him an obstructionist that he found enough consensus to pass 205 resolutions and ordinances during his tenure on the board. “Aaron could get six votes to make Wheaties the official cereal of San Francisco,” then-supervisor Bevan Dufty told the Chronicle in 2009. He pushed through the up-zoning of Rincon Hill and the rezoning of vast swaths of San Francisco. As board president, he shepherded through the legislation that enabled the 12,000-unit Hunters Point Shipyard development, which constitutes a huge chunk of the new housing that Mayor Lee has promised in the near future.

Peskin’s image problem—being branded a “NIMBY warlord” even as he enabled the mushrooming skyscraper developments that continue to transform San Francisco—was noted in this magazine back in 2007. That article is now most remembered for its jarring photo of Peskin emerging from the frigid waters of Aquatic Park clad only in a Speedo. Few recall its headline: “Captain of the Skyline.” But his pro-development bona fides haven’t ameliorated the impression that he is vindictive and ideologically extreme. His reported declaration to former supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier—“Payback is a bitch”—has come to epitomize a raw and nasty era of city politics; a time when threats and vituperations were delivered publicly, not privately in off-the-books breakfast meetings. Peskin notes that Alioto-Pier is endorsing his 2015 run; “If I’m such a bastard,” he asks rhetorically, “why are all my former coworkers supporting me?” Good question, but the Peskin behavior referred to in the internal Christensen memo will, all but certainly, soon be revisited via glossy mailers funded by generous amounts of third-party cash.

“Every single fucking stupid thing I’ve done—and I’ve done a few of them—is going to be all over the place,” Peskin says. “That’s what Ron Conway and those guys did to Christina Olague and David Campos.” It can now even be done under the imprimatur of the Democratic party; in August, Christensen topped Peskin as the endorsee of the local Democratic County Central Committee, which means that “those guys” can now donate money to the party (and its own glossy, pro-Christensen mailers) in lieu of dumping cash into an independent-expenditure committee. But hey, that’s politics. Payback, after all, is a bitch.

 

A Peskin operative notes that many Chinatown voters favor “the bearded one” over “the woman.” But they don’t favor the bearded one over the mustachioed one—Mayor Lee—who remains transcendently popular in the neighborhood where he first rose to prominence. Christensen’s supporters, the Peskin backer continues, “are in the [Chinatown] buildings stressing the mayor, the mayor, the mayor.” This is the behind-the-scenes accompaniment to Lee and Christensen’s overt Astaire-Rogers routine. In Chinatown, which is seen by pollsters as the key to the election, a street-to-street, house-to-house battle is unfolding. A Christensen partisan acknowledges as much: “We have our buildings; they have theirs. We’ve got people in their buildings; they’ve got people in ours.”

For Peskin, however, running against the mayor’s ethos without actually running against the mayor presents a formidable challenge. This is not the first time that local voters, discomfited by the torrents of wealth cascading through city hall and transforming San Francisco, have been asked to decide an epochal election. Fifteen years ago, Peskin and a handful of other neighborhood activists defeated a slate of mayorally appointed or blessed supervisorial candidates. In 2015—and, especially, next year—it could happen again.

Only this time, the progressives, hamstrung by the city’s massive influx of affluence and ongoing demographic metamorphosis, could be dealt their coup de grâce. The other major distinction between then and now: In 2000, Mayor Willie Brown, the Mephistophelian personification of runaway development and cronyism, provided a galvanizing super-villain for the progressives to rail against. In 2015, the smiling, vanilla Lee, running for reelection virtually unopposed, does not.

Yet despite this crucial difference, Peskin appears to be charting a course remarkably similar to the one he followed to victory in 2000. His slogan in this run for the board is “Leading the fight for an affordable city.” His 2000 slogan was “Livable Neighborhoods. Affordable City.” The text on door hangers distributed by Peskin volunteers in 2000 could just as easily have made the 2015 edition: “Aaron Peskin is the only Democrat running for Supervisor in District 3—your neighborhood—who is independent of downtown lobbyists, big landlords, developers and the political machine.”

For Mayor Lee and his inner circle, a Peskin victory would be akin to Victor Laszlo boarding the plane and soaring away at the end of Casablanca. They would have failed in their overriding objective despite their fervent—even overbearing—efforts, enabling their ablest critic to reach a far more influential place. Peskin would have five steady votes behind him. But his impact could go deeper. If Peskin once again cultivates those on the other side of the ideological spectrum, he could not only block Lee’s agenda but begin implementing one of his own.

That is the nightmare that will keep the mayor and members of his City Family up nights until November 2016. And it is the dream that Peskin and his progressive brethren will be working toward until the battle is finally over.

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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