Aaron Peskin
Supervisor Aaron Peskin. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

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. 

Mayor London Breed, pictured here in 2018. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

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. 

Reverend Harry Louis Williams II, Jane Kim, then-District 6 supervisor, and Aaron Peskin, District 3 Supervisor. Photo by Rafael Roy, 2016.

“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. 

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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24 Comments

  1. Now that all those social distancing rules are behind us, SF politics can go back to being a close contact blood sport.

  2. A bit one sided, Joe. Ask any aide and you will hear tales of Breed’s henchmen Sean Ellsberg and Conor Johnston abusing colleagues and public alike. Or her office shouting at each other so loud the other Supervisors could hear it through the walls. You brought up white privilege but then omitted that white privilege as demonstrated by her chosen ones which was enabled by her. Good for Walton for sticking up for his staff and the hostile work environment Ellsberg engages in. But you missed the story and dragged Peskin through the tired mud we already know.

    1. Shouting through 100 year old walls is not even in the same universe as the coercion and abuse of authority that’s been documented about Peskin.

      1. If Peskin abused his authority, then there are legal and administrative remedies for that at the DA, City Attorney and Ethics Commission.

        As noted, no formal complaints have been lodged, no legal action is contemplated from any authoritative source.

        1. For a town that’s super woke about power structures, it sure seems to be clueless about why nobody might want to threaten a vindictive and powerful white man.

          On top of that, this article does state a formal complaint was made against Peskin by Moyer.

          1. Peskin is a known quantity that has won election after election as a known quantity. If you don’t like that, then you are telling a majority of the voters in D3 to go screw themselves.

            Given the pathetic performance of most all city departments and the mounting revelations of corruption across city government, perhaps we need more supervisors to start verbally roughing up corrupt, lying department heads in public session, in their offices or at all hours of the night on the phone. Maybe we should send a barrel of whatever Peskin’s been drinking to the rest of the supervisors.

            When Breed and “moderate” conservatives whine, then that is the signal that their opponents are being effective.

  3. Joe, I appreciate the chatty insider stuff, but this feels like you’re trying to help Peskin by alleging other people are almost as bad.

  4. After Peskin called Phil Ginsberg of Rec and Park a liar for straight up lying to a Board of Supervisors’ committee recently, that’s when the Chron tried let the hammer down to whack Peskin like they whacked Mirkarimi, like they whacked Tony Hall, like they whacked the non-machine, unsanctified corruption of Ed Jew and Leland Yee, like they tried to whack Sanchez and Daly in the previous epoch.

    Peskin, more shrewd and adroit while smashed at a level most of us could only dream of while sober, quickly sought safe harbor as Newsom did when Gavin’s drinking led him to boink his best friend’s wife, in rehab. By the way, what ever happened to Newsom?

    Newsom, like Joanne Hayes-White, were members of the City family in good standing. Thus, the court stenographers at the Chronicle afforded them every consideration in their “private matters.” By the way, whatever happened to Joanne Hayes-White?

    How many department heads have rolled over the past 18 months? That would be six. How many rolled as a result of investigative reporting by the SF Chronicle? That would be zero.

    So when the Chronicle has a choice on how to allocate reporting resources, not only do they divert resources from nonexistent investigations to hold the corrupt accountable, the Chron aggressively expends resources in smearing the elected official who actually began to hold a corrupt department head accountable in public session.

    Chron writers know which side their bread is buttered on, and hope for the kind of golden glide path that Rachel Gordon gets flacking for DPW/Nuru or Cote gets flacking for the Consligliere of the Famiglia, Herrera.

    Playing the role of court stenographers at the Chronicle for corruption has an upside and takes much less work than investigative reporting.

    Politics is war by other means. When politicos police tone, that means they’re losing the policy debate and want to invoke a distraction to disqualify an effective adversary.

    1. You seem to be confused about the difference between holding someone accountable and abusing them.

      Politics is not in fact destined to be dysfunctional, but can get to be that way in political economies of scarcity which is what the city’s boomer homeowner voters have chosen.

      1. When someone shows contempt for San Franciscans and our electeds, by lying which is abusive to us all, I don’t see major pearl clutching amongst the populace when our electeds return that contempt in kind and then some.

        Most would probably say “about fucking time,” and had Aaron not gone into rehab, sent a barrel of whatever Peskin was drinking to each of the rest of the Board so that maybe they might hold these corrupt sleazebags accountable.

  5. Joe, thank you for your continued reporting of our city government’s dysfunction, please keep up the good work!

  6. I am not privy to what goes on behind the scenes at City Hall. In public meetings it does look as if Peskin really likes to show staff who the real boss is. In other words, he DOES like to take out his d**** and put it on the table.

    But here in D3 I have just heard too many stories about people whose plans were blocked because they weren’t part of Peskin’s inner circle. In common parlance they failed to go up to Telegraph Hill and kiss the ring…next thing they knew their plans were rejected without good reason. I’ve heard this too many times. Heck, his wife was part of a group that tried to block a new library.

    Peskin has been a serious drain on the local district.

    Fix the darn term limit rule. Peskin served on the BOS with people who have moved on to become Mayor and Governor. He served alongside a DA who is now Vice President. We shouldn’t have career Supervisors. Case in point.

  7. Not that I condone Peskin’s behavior. Bullying shouldn’t be tolerated – ever. However, when he’s bullying other bullies? I mean, it’s absolutely fair game.

    When Peskin called out Ginsburg for the smirk on his face, I had to cheer. Ginsburg is the biggest bully I have ever encountered. I’m honestly surprised that he hasn’t been brought down. He verbally assaulted a female BIPOC colleague of mine and told her to “STOP SMIRKING. NO, I’m a professional, I know when people are smirking”. In meetings with same BIPOC colleague (and note we are all members of the public) Ginsburg had to be almost physically restrained when he got riled up. Also somehow whenever BIPOC people at the table were talking, his phone somehow got very interesting. Not to mention all the other horrific verbal harassment I’ve heard he’s done to numbers of other women, all of whom are too scared to speak up for fear of retaliation.

    And on Julie Christensen, bit of a pot calling the kettle black to use Supervisor Walton’s terms. She’s perhaps marginally better at controlling herself, but she’s a manipulative bully as well. She had a formal complaint submitted about her for bullying the neighbors of the GBD she serves – i.e. the public. And let’s not forget this gem: https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/supervisor-christensen-is-hella-mean/

    On the other hand, Shamann Walton has been nothing but polite and courteous. He is one of the most hardworking and professional public officials I’ve ever interacted with. That city hall would try to slam him is disgraceful.

    1. I disagree with all of this. I actually worked under Phil for a number of years and thought he was an inspirational, passionate leader. He has made the city a better place with unprecedented projects in the public space. Connie and Aaron were trying to pull him into some catty drama and he was doing his best to resist. And shaman should be ashamed as telling him he should be indicted like Mohamed Nuru when Phil has never done anything similar. It was an open secret Mohamed ran DPW like the mob. Phil’s reputation is someone who cares about public service and someone who seeks ways to offer better, more robust operations and spaces every year. They did bully Phil. If we want good leaders to stay in public service, we must stop allowing them to be treated as political punching bags.

      1. Your argument is that the end justifies the means and that as long as his public image and behavior to the people who work for him is ok, all must be well. It’s great that you’ve only seen the good side of Phil, lucky you. The rest of us haven’t been as lucky. Nothing, not even “passion” and “caring” is justification for the harassment I’ve seen him do and heard of him doing to other people. His favorite targets? Women and women of color.

        I have heard that Phil is passionate and faithful to his employees – to a fault. He will defend them even when they’re not doing their jobs and completely in the wrong. He is a bully to anyone who doesn’t work for him or anyone who dares question him or the people who work for him.

  8. Marcos, I think you are right and I thank you for adding relevance to this. I’ve known Aaron for many years, since before he became a supe; and while knowing he has a strong personality, have never felt abused by him – even while imbibing with him. I also know he is troubled by the corruption he encounters all too often, and suspect it got to him. That’s not an excuse; it’s to say he is human and a very decent guy. He’s in his job because he really cares, not like most politicians who are just ambitious. Joe knows him too, and I expect he feels similarly.

    1. Aaron Peskin is literally the corruption you claim he’s been impacted by, starting with his primary residence.

    2. I’ve known Peskin since ~2000 myself and have never had issues with his conduct. But then again, our interactions were all on the level. I was not trying to put one over on him. Any friction was purely strategic in nature.

      The interesting thing here is that Peskin 2.0 is pretty watered down compared to Peskin 1.0 in 00-08. That Breed would endorse Peskin 2.0 as a reward for toning it down in general and then flip on him once he began to do his job is interesting.

      That the machine that is under federal corruption investigation would double down on suspicious behavior while the FBI and federal prosecutors are rooting around is likewise interesting. A friend said it was right outta the Trump playbook.

  9. “.. corruption the city is only now digging itself out of..” as a conclusory statement about current investigations? We have LOTS more possible names still circulating, and even more gossiped about. If only those indicted are only those who get tried, SF is still in serious trouble. Remember “gift cards” for campaign clothing?

  10. Campers,

    I like Peskin and always have.

    He’s done a ton for me beginning with keeping the Brig on Treasure Island standing in 2000.

    We actually thought Willie would use the place as the government intended and house the homeless there.

    Instead, Willie hired the homeless to tear down the barracks where they could have lived.

    Hang in there Aaron and come over and see my place in the Mission.

    I’m on the wagon too and watching the wheels go round.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  11. The most dangerous intoxicant being abused at City Hall isn’t alcohol, it’s power. Most politicians would far rather admit and address their alcohol addictions, than their power addictions. They will make all kinds of sacrifices before giving up the positions that allow them to bully others via laws, regulations, mandates, and legal extortion via taxes and fees.

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