Aaron Peskin runs for office in 2015 in a still from "Company Town" by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman.

“I am deeply, deeply traumatized.”

That was newly ensconced Board President Aaron Peskin’s nanosecond-quick reply when asked how his first few days back atop the Board of Supervisors was treating him. At issue wasn’t his daunting task of galvanizing a board whose fractiousness was fully revealed during the 17 — seventeen — rounds of voting it required to elect a president. Nor was it the looming task of mitigating a budget deficit of some three-quarters of a billion dollars, exacerbated by the wholesale implosion of property and business tax revenue. 

Rather, Peskin’s phone broke. Traumatic, right? 

The day after Peskin’s Jan. 9 election as Board President, he woke to discover his iPhone had transformed itself into a paperweight. On his new phone, he’s been overwhelmed by a continuous stream of hundreds of text messages from people he can’t readily identify. Last week, he received a phone call from a woman whose number he couldn’t place. 

“I said ‘Hello, this is Aaron. Who is this?’ And she said, ‘Stop fooling around, Peskin, this is London.’”  

So, that was awkward. And it was doubly awkward when he subsequently attempted to call a San Francisco Police Department higher-up and instead reached Mayor London Breed again. 

Aaron Peskin has half of San Francisco government on speed dial. And, when he recovers his Apple password, he’ll be able to match their names to their numbers. And stop fooling around.  

 

Well, that’s a turnabout for Peskin. During his first-go-round in San Francisco government a political generation ago, his cell phone landed him in hot water because of his late-night, high-decibel inebriated phone calls. And, 19 months ago, he was forced to admit a longstanding drinking problem and undue belligerence. 

Now, officials within the mayor’s office and some of the mayor’s most persistent critics are both hailing the ascent of President Peskin as the best thing that could’ve happened for them. And that’s because these aren’t good times. These are bad times. This city and its elected leaders need to come up with creative solutions to pressing, even existential problems; its government needs to try being functional and efficient for a change, and the various branches of government need to do more talking, and less shouting. 

Politically, it was a winner for Breed to deflect from her own issues by pointing to the dysfunction and perceived fecklessness of the Board. But politics and governing are not synonymous; government, at some point, needs to govern — and when the cash stops rolling in, that’s as good a time as any.

“San Francisco has been having trouble making things work with obscene amounts of money,” summed up a longtime city politico who’s worked both with and against Peskin through the political decades.

“But when you have to fight over scarcity? That’s when you need Aaron.” 

Peskin has been elected to office five times, and elected Board President by his colleagues thrice. So, that says a lot. But the winning slogan for Peskin’s 2016 re-entry into public office wasn’t, “We like Aaron.”

It was, “We need Aaron.” 

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, May 2018.

As we wrote last week, there may be no job with a greater divergence between its cachet and its actual job functions than president of the Board of Supervisors. The position is, in large part, ministerial and inward-facing — and the part that isn’t written on the official job description isn’t the stuff of absolute power. Rather, successful board presidents serve as something of a conciliator, a therapist, a coach, and a rabbi, massaging the egos of fellow supervisors and helping facilitate legislation.

That’s a lot to do. That’s a lot to do for a board laden with multiple factions, which, again, required 17 rounds of voting to come to a consensus. Seventeen is a lot — two more than Kevin McCarthy; six or seven more than the members of the Wu Tang Clan. That’s a lot. 

But wait, there’s more: After Peskin nominated himself for president and his ascent was nigh-inevitable, did one of his fellow supes pull two colleagues into a City Hall restroom and enlist their support for an impromptu presidential run to deprive Peskin? Multiple first-hand sources tell me that did happen.

The Coalition of the Commode was flushed away before it ever solidified. Still, it presents one more challenge to an already challenging gig. 

Peskin has a perhaps innate ability to “get to yes.” Numerous current and former colleagues lauded his ability to “whip the votes.” And, while this conjures up violent imagery, it doesn’t have to be that way. Even before Peskin admitted his drinking problem and toned down his act, his colleagues noted that “he listens to everyone. He likes to compromise.” 

Compromise, Peskin tells Mission Local, needn’t be a dirty word. Or an obsession. “Saying your style is to negotiate doesn’t mean you need to negotiate in every circumstance,” he says. “Or roll over.” 

There is, perhaps, a nobility in making up one’s mind quickly and then sticking to one’s guns, come what may. But it is not always the most conducive way to behave while serving on a legislative body. 

Especially when you are the president of that body. 

Peskin, in fact, says he’s on a “listening tour” of his colleagues, to figure out what committee assignments they might want; he expects to have that list finalized by Jan. 24. He sums up his leadership style as “management by walking around.” 

With this board, that sounds like a good source of exercise. 

Supervisor Chris Daly, background, seen here in 2009 jousting with Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, now Mayor London Breed’s chief of staff.

“If Aaron Peskin in this term is anything like when he was president when I was on the board, he will have more frequent conversations with department heads or various commissioners than the mayor does,” predicted former Supervisor Chris Daly. 

“There were at least two years when Aaron was last board president that, more than the mayor, he ran city government. Not officially! But just through work ethic and force of will. So if a mayor wants to out-work and out-hustle Aaron Peskin, they’ll maintain the reins. But if they don’t — he will,” Daly said.

So, fair warning: That’s plausible. The political moderates who provided Peskin his path to power may, before too long, feel they’ve entered into something of a Faustian bargain. Peskin was elevated because of his expertise in process and his willingness to work as their partner — but, sooner or later, he will go in a direction they don’t like. And he will do it expertly. And, as Board President, he will have his fingers in everything.

Peskin, Daly continues, “was the quintessential district supervisor. He wanted to make sure Chinatown was good and North Beach wasn’t paved over. But, more generally speaking? He wants the buses to run. He wants to make sure the potholes are filled and the garbage is picked up and the parks are decent.” 

Or, as another former colleague puts it, “he will go down as the most successful supervisor ever who did not seek higher office.” Peskin’s lack of desire to take a spin on what he calls the “hamster wheel of political advancement” renders him an outlier. The 58-year-old has two years left in what figures to be his last term in elected office; he has overcome the drinking problem that, for decades, undermined his hard work and acumen, and he has a crisis on hand that can serve as both a showcase for his skills and a justification for actions that would be unacceptable in fatter times. 

“The economic downturn,” Peskin notes, “is also an opportunity. In an environment of scarcity, you get to fix things you wouldn’t fix when you have money. And, if you do it right, the fixes stay in place when the good times come back.” 

If Peskin uses his mastery of government procedure and arcana in pursuit of functionality and efficiency — even and especially if politically sensitive toes are trodden on along the way — he’d be doing his more upwardly mobile government colleagues a favor. Until, inevitably, he does something they don’t want. 

“Aaron with nothing to lose,” sums up a longtime colleague, “can be the most terrifying Aaron.” 

The Rev. Harry Louis Williams II, Jane Kim, District 6 supervisor and a candidate for State Senate and Aaron Peskin, District 3 Supervisor. Photo by Rafael Roy, 2016.

Back in Peskin’s corner office, the rain slams down incessantly. It’s a dark day; as a metaphor for the task ahead, it’s a bit on the nose. 

“My No. 1 piece of advice to anyone getting into this business: See the humor in it and take some pleasure in it, and try to make it joyful,” he says. “It’s kind of like being a police officer, in that you often see people at their worst.” 

But Peskin thinks his own worst days are behind him. He says he has had “no deep struggles or desires to drink alcohol, or any other mind-altering substances.” He is not concerned that the stress of this position will change that. 

He is, however, concerned about his ongoing phone crisis. Additionally, a running play-by-play of text messages from a number he certainly recognizes — his wife — inform him of an increasingly dire leak inundating the family home. 

The proffered solution was for the 58-year-old Board President, who has two metal hips, to ascend to the roof of his house, in inclement weather, and deploy a tarp. So, Peskin has plenty of things to worry about. 

But he’s not concerned that this city will break him. Or that he will break this city. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. 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 editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Joe, your capacity to accept his shortcomings, and praise his virtues, should not be limited to just a politician you care for.

    Just sayin’…

  2. joe, do you realize that all the gargantuan words you used in your article makes its unreadable by the people who will benefit from the results.

    1. “Billy Bob” — 

      Gargantuan?

      People aren’t stupid, and it’s very easy to Google any words you don’t know. You don’t even have to walk to the bookshelf and open the dictionary anymore. The meanings of those words can almost always be inferred through context, and not knowing what the word means will not derail someone from understanding the larger points of the paragraph, section and column.

      Thanks for your concern.

      Yours,

      JE

      1. Joe,

        I think ‘Billy bob’ was giving you a compliment.

        He used the word ‘gargantuan’ to criticize someone using ‘big’ words.

        I enjoy adding to my vocabulary here now and then and I’m a 78 year old retired teacher.

        Who had an eyponomusly/eponymously/epynomously named Jazz Club in St. Louis in da 70’s.

        Go Niners !!

  3. Have never been a fan of Peskin, but he does bring something very important to the table, and that is institutional memory. Term limits mean that s supervisor’s first term in office is getting used to where the bathroom is and what various departments do (or at least purport to do). Their second term is spent trying to figure out what their next move is in the political hierarchy. In neither term do they have the knowledge to effect real change in the way the City operates. Peskin, now on his fifth term,knows how departments operate. Because of that, he should have the ability to spot departmental BS when he sees it. How he chooses to use this institutional memory, who knows?

  4. “In an environment of scarcity, you get to fix things you wouldn’t fix when you have money.”
    If I saw that quote before I read the article, I’d have guessed it was Professor
    Irwin Cory’s. Orwell must be jealous.

  5. I’m impressed with Melgar and Chan’s power move to prevent Walton from getting enough votes for a second term as Board President. But why did they do it? Everyone on the progressive side seemed to be playing nicely up until that vote.

  6. This victory cry from the tired old “progressives” of SF – whose numbers have dwindled as precipitously as the black population – is “Peskin, Peskin, he’s our man – if you can’t oppress us, nobody can!”

    With the advent of former progressives like Peskin who have tilted so far to the right they think robo-cops is a wonderful idea, SF’s progressives are being continually and consistently exposed for what they really are: neoconservative machine politicians who want to diminish your lives so they can traipse around burning carbon credits in our faces to pretend they’re better than everyone else. Make sure you use that basement room when you next go to Soto Mare, Aaron – in the SF elitist tradition. Oh – and don’t forget to take up golf – if you haven’t already done so.

  7. Well I welcome functionality back to SF. It’s ridiculous how bad some of the basic things we used to take for granted has become, like properly paved roads. And the influx of parasitic types that erroded SF into this mess.

    I’m sure having to deal with the city’s can’t be easy, so what if those in the government want booze on their time off? Let them as long as they can do their job.

    Maybe Peskin’s phone got hacked? He needs Apple on his speed dial.

  8. ➴ I’m glad to hear that he wants the buses to run, at least. His stunt where he teamed up with Supervisor Walton to try to derail Caltrain doesn’t seem to bode well for public transportation, nor does his tenure on the Board and on the SFCTA Board failing to extend the Central Subway to North Beach — which is what we specifically voted for in 1989.

  9. God help us, the president of our Board of Supervisors is too stupid to enable iCloud backup on his iPhone. We get the government we deserve, I guess.

  10. Peskin’s reign of terror is a veritable protection racket. From killing open source technology advancements to cutting side deals that manipulate the economy’s underdogs, Peskin has done untold harm to our fair city. He is a masterful puppeteer but apparently sad and soulless People fear him and that’s a shame.

  11. >>The proffered solution was for the 58-year-old Board President, who has two metal hips, to ascend to the roof of his house, in inclement weather, and deploy a tarp. So, Peskin has plenty of things to worry about. <<

    Beats the heck out of previous SF politicians who would just call up the contractor or city department head who owes them a favor, and ask them to send over a work crew asap.

    I have met quite a few SF politicians. Aaron is one that I respect.

    1. Paul,

      Rumor is that you moved far away.

      Remember when you ran a multi-camera live cast of Election Nite Party at El Rio’s long ago?

      Contact me cause me and Tony putting together pod cast.

      hbrown41744@gmail.com

      NSA already has my contact info.

      lol

      Great piece today again by Joe, huh ??

      Redmond’s on fire over at 48 Hills too.

      Go Niners !!

      h.

  12. Campers,

    Peskin for Mayor !!

    He’s earned his shot.

    I’ll put him on the other side of my new Katie Porter for U.S. Senate sign.

    Don’t forget that I predicted when the Niners were 3-4 and got McCaffrey that they’d go all the way.

    Christian’s dad played end for the Niners and his coach was Kyle Shanahan’s dad, Mike.

    Talk about a pedigree.

    And, David Lombardi is best Football Announcer since Madden.

    h.

  13. Good luck to him. This city has become so dysfunctional and the money is running out to keep paying nonprofits to do the work of the government. We can’t keep spending $1.1 billion on homeless services without affecting homelessness. We could cut that budget to $0 tomorrow and there would be no increase, or decrease, in homelessness.

    Not only that, the city keeps paying off nonprofits that have lost their license. Nobody is checking!

    Somebody in the city needs to look at expenditures and ask, for each one, what are we getting for this? No more community outreach listening sessions. We need accountability, or this city will be bankrupt.

  14. Seeing that photo of Chris Daly was not what I needed at the beginning of a day. What a spoiled rich, white flunky. Never finishes college , yet now he makes more money than teachers working for the teachers union. He’s the definition of failing up.