City Hall has reopened just in time for the general public to walk in and find our elected officials at each other’s throats.
And, while comparing our city government to a playground is reductive and infantile, the goings-on at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting really did carry that junior high schoolyard feel:
You’re the bully! No, you’re the bully!
That was the gist of a tense but low-decibel public exchange at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting between Mayor London Breed and Board President Shamann Walton. But this public back-and-forth came not long after Breed walked into Walton’s office for a private back-and-forth.
When asked if yelling was involved during that private meeting, Walton replied, “I’m just going to say that she and I agreed to disagree.”
Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting came on the heels of Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s admission that he is an alcoholic and is entering treatment, which was reported in newspaper stories highlighting his drinking and objectionable behavior during his long run in city government.
Abuse of staff is now top-of-mind at City Hall. Instead of taking a victory lap around her city on re-opening day, the mayor chose to take shots at Walton’s handling of the board and his comportment. He then chose to escalate this fight and refer to Breed and her staff as “the true bullies.”
I know you are, but what am I? I know you are, but what am I? I’m not — you are!
Walton, it seems, did not take kindly to the beanball fired at him by the mayor, and we’re told that it has gotten back to him that journalists are calling his colleagues, asking about his behavior, and repeating to his colleagues the harsh allegations the mayor’s office is making about Walton.
Perhaps Walton figures the next article could well be about him. And he reacted accordingly. If you’re positively inclined, you could say he took one for his board. If you’re not, you could say he took the bait and exacerbated a bad situation.
Regardless, this does not bode well for budget season. And this does not bode well for a sober and measured reflection on the culture of abusiveness at City Hall.
Peskin, for his part, apologized yesterday. As he should. His behavior should not be excused nor minimized, and even he is not seeking to do that. The eighth and ninth steps of the 12-step process involve compiling a list of persons harmed and making direct amends to them. So, there will be more to come.
But, without excusing or minimizing Peskin’s behavior, it is a bit bizarre to discuss it or report on it as if it comes within a vacuum at City Hall. It is also a bit bizarre for newspaper reporters to allow Peskin’s behavior to be referred to as an “open secret” when, in fact, it has been the subject of many reported news articles, some of them on the front page, some of them on the cover.
In January, 2008, the Chronicle’s top news story recounted then-Port director Monique Moyer’s written complaint regarding Peskin’s “outlandish harassment” via a series of late-night phone calls during which he sounded inebriated. Did the mayor’s office plant this story involving a leaked confidential letter? All but certainly. Does that discount the allegations within? No.
This remains an unpleasant story. As was the story about Peskin purportedly telling Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier “payback is a bitch” after flipping a vote; as was his exceedingly poor 2018 decision to critique firefighters’ tactics during a fire, while allegedly three sheets to the wind. All of these stories were unpleasant. And all of them were in the paper.
In 2007, Alioto-Pier told the Chronicle that “People have been complaining about Supervisor Peskin threatening them for a long time,” and the paper reported that then-Mayor Gavin Newsom had spoken to City Attorney Dennis Herrera and District Attorney Kamala Harris about Peskin’s penchant for treating city department heads poorly.
Breed this week said she’s in conversations with the City Attorney and Department of Human Resources regarding the present situation. So, that sounds familiar.
As does the 2015 memo penned by a pollster working for then-Supervisor Julie Christensen, who faced off against Peskin in that year’s election: “Especially damning was [Peskin’s] past behavior towards colleagues, agency heads, and constituents. No one likes a bully.”
Accordingly, Christensen’s campaign ads that year featured Peskin’s profane statements made toward colleagues, agency heads and constituents.
The point, again, is not to minimize nor excuse Peskin’s behavior. But the notion that Peskin’s behavior was some manner of open secret, or that people didn’t complain about, it simply doesn’t wash: People complained. It was reported on. It was printed on campaign fliers and mailed to constituents’ homes.
“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 bemoaned during his 2015 race vs. Christensen.
And that did happen. But Peskin, of course, won that election. Alioto-Pier endorsed him. He also won his most recent election in 2020. Breed endorsed him. So did the Chronicle.
So Peskin’s behavior was covered. Why didn’t it cost him? One could argue it did: He could have been a more effective politician if he hadn’t handed his enemies so much material — and, frankly, if he hadn’t been drinking.
To apply a 2021 answer to behavior long preceding that, white privilege probably also plays a role. Female politicians and/or politicians of color in this city likely put far more effort into maintaining discipline regarding their public comportment: The general public — and, likely, the media — would not offer them so many chances to fail.
But another reason Peskin’s bellicosity hasn’t derailed him is that San Francisco politics is bellicose. He is far from the only difficult person in City Hall, a notoriously difficult place, and his constituents did not place him there, repeatedly, to play nice. In 2015, his election was a direct rebuke to Mayor Ed Lee, who made “civility” his hallmark.
There was no pristine time when the working atmosphere beneath the Golden Dome was good and pure. Two generations ago, a supervisor shot and killed the mayor and a fellow supe. One generation ago, the cronyism and corruption of the Willie Brown era led to the “Class of 2000,” when Peskin et al. took over the Board of Supervisors.
The ensuing eight years were a spectacularly vindictive and bare-knuckled era, and Peskin was part and parcel of that. Absent context, the rage for justice that swept these supervisors into office just feels like rage.
Lee’s ascension in 2011 ended this epoch. And, whatever Lee’s personal qualities and however he comported himself, he promoted many of the officials currently facing federal charges and ushered in an era of corruption the city is only now even beginning to dig itself out of, following a federal intervention.
And now we’re back where we were a generation ago: with a mayor and a board at each other’s throats, not working together, and Peskin on the front page for berating department heads.
Plus ça change.
“With or without alcohol, with or without stress, I am accountable for my behavior and I am profoundly sorry for, and frankly embarrassed by, the tenor that I have struck at times in my work,” Peskin said at yesterday’s meeting. “I own that. I have a problem, and I’m taking serious steps to address it. I’m sorry, colleagues, and I’m sorry, San Francisco citizens.”
That’s a good apology, as apologies go. But is it too much to expect San Francisco city officials not show up to work drunk? No, it is not.
Is Peskin the only person drinking in his or her office at City Hall? After meetings? During meetings? The answer is no. Some of the people complaining hardest about Peskin’s behavior have bars in their offices, too. There remains a hard-drinking culture at City Hall, especially among politicians and officials old enough to remember Matt Gonzalez’s wine parties. As Willie Brown himself put it, you can go out and get bombed every night, and as long as you show up in the morning “fresh as a daisy,” all is forgiven.
Clearly, that wasn’t happening during the pandemic. While the revelation that Peskin drinks too much and can be a self-admitted asshole is a bit akin to pointing out that there’s gambling in the casino, Peskin was finally shocked, shocked into admitting he had a problem.
That was overdue. But still courageous. Peskin has left the larger-than-you’d-think cadre of heavy City Hall drinkers and is now part of the larger-than-you’d-think recovery community in city government.
If this leads to a closer examination of the lack of civility in San Francisco government, that would be a good thing. But the examination should not stop there. Civility only means so much if this city’s government continues to work like a cartel to protect its own interests and continues to be shot through with ineptitude and corruption.
San Franciscans shouldn’t have to choose between a government that’s civil and a government that works.
And, right now, we have neither.