“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.