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"You Know What, Man? I Don’t Give a Shit What People Think"

A friendly chat with political operative Peter Ragone. 

Peter Ragone

Peter Ragone 

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional  series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Peter Ragone
Job:
Press secretary and political operative, on hiatus
Age: 45
Residence: Outer Richmond

After spending 2014 as senior adviser to New York mayor Bill de Blasio, you’re back in San Francisco. What’s your dream job?
I just had it.

The job you just very publicly left?
First, let me tell you that Mayor de Blasio and I have been friends for more than 20 years. Not just friends—ideological soul mates. I’ve helped him on literally everything he has ever done. In his first race for school board, I showed up and handed out flyers.

Did he win?
He did! So when he was elected, I didn’t just appear on day one—I’d been involved from the very beginning. I raised a significant amount of money for him, probably more than anyone else who worked for him.

How much?
I don’t know, I was a bundler. I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: It’ll never happen again that a very close friend gets elected mayor of the most important city in the world.  The mayor and I are both into baseball—I agreed to a one-year deal, with a player option for year two.

Which you did not exercise. You’re not going to believe this, but some of your erstwhile colleagues from the Newsom administration told me that they don’t believe you left New York of your own volition.
Politics is a cynical business. Nobody will believe you left just because your son really needs you [back in San Francisco]. It’s great to have notoriety and power, but you know what, man? I actually don’t give a shit what people think. The only thing that matters is my relationship with Mayor de Blasio and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and my friends and family.

You’ve been quoted—a lot—about ignoring the chatter and focusing on “the long view.”
Most of the bullshit in politics, people don’t even know about it—if they do, they don’t care about it. What are people going to remember? In de Blasio’s case [regarding universal pre-kindergarten education], I used to tell reporters: When 50,000 children are holding someone’s hand and walking to their first day of school, nobody’s going to give a shit about the political infighting. With same-sex marriage, a lot of people were, like, “Oh, that was easy in San Francisco”—but Gavin was excoriated. Excoriated! By people like Barney Frank, by Dianne Feinstein—the people who got him elected! But if you do something special, the world catches up to you. And you’ll be rewarded for it. All the internecine bullshit of those days in San Francisco, only you and I remember it. And, maybe, Aaron Peskin.

In New York, you intimated that you weren’t reading some newspapers’ coverage. It’s a novel take for a press secretary to express such disdain for the press.
Look, what I was saying is that my job isn’t to get lost in news cycles. My job is the long view. I was always aware of what was in the papers, but my job isn’t to get involved in why the mayor eats his pizza with a knife and fork.

What the hell was up with that, anyway?
As an Italian, I can tell you, many Italians do eat their pizza with a knife and fork.

Huh.
Look, the only thing that matters at the end of the day is how the people you serve feel about you. The latest public poll has de Blasio’s approval rating toward 60 percent. And, if you remember, insiders were always down on Gavin, but Gavin was always really popular with the people who elected him—he was in the 60s all the way through the end. When he ran for lieutenant governor, he won 68 percent of the vote in San Francisco.

January 31, 2007: Where does it rank in terms of terrible days in your life?
What happened on January 31, 2007?

That was the day when two stories broke, simultaneously: that Gavin Newsom had engaged in an affair with his appointments secretary, and that despite your repeated denials, you had written multiple “sock puppet” Internet comments, using an assumed name to praise and defend your boss.
Oh, that day. The sock-puppeting thing was a mistake. It’s something I regret. It’s made me a better operative and a better person.

How?
It just made me more careful. The general public can make comments on news websites. But being a public official, you are held to a different standard. Totally OK, by the way!

Do you think that people remember what you did? Or that when you were caught, you lied about it?
I don’t think that many people outside of local politics remember it at all. But that’s neither here nor there. I made a mistake.

So, what’s your next “dream job”?
When I was younger, I thought that campaigns were the only thing for me. But now I’ve learned that if you care about bringing change to the world, the only real action is in government. My last two political jobs were both in government: one for Gavin and then for Bill.

And I understand that in between, you were kept on retainer by people who pay good money to pick your brain.
Yeah, yeah. Usually half a dozen or fewer.

Nice work if you can get it.
It is a lucrative occupation. My career has been through everything God can create in terms of a crisis. I have a certain level of expertise in that.

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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