The Strain on Pearce
San Francisco political consultant Enrique Pearce’s arrest on charges of possessing child pornography has been the talk of the town this week. Many people who know him seem to have had the same initial reaction that I did: I’m not surprised to see this guy facing criminal charges, but it’s shocking that he’s going down for this.
Kiddie porn?!?! How incredibly unseemly! Yet there’s something about this story — if it’s proven to be true — that makes sense in a perverse kind of way. Maybe it’s the story of what happens when you’ve been getting away with things for so long that you feel like the normal rules of society don’t apply to you. This city has sold its soul to the highest bidders, and maybe the people who help broker that sale are feeling deeply troubled in ways that most of us can’t comprehend, and that’s manifesting in dark ways.
Pearce has long demonstrated a willingness to skirt the law on behalf of powerful patrons, and to escape accountability even when it was obvious what he had done. In fact, those very traits are what caused his political star to rise in San Francisco as top political leaders hired him to do their dirty deeds, contributing to the culture of corruption that oozes out of City Hall these days.
Interestingly, Pearce isn’t the only local political consultant known for playing fast and loose with the rules to implode in spectacular fashion recently. Remember Ryan Chamberlain? He was the SF political consultant busted last year for allegedly making bombs and indulging his own Breaking Bad impulses in dark corners of the Internet, a troubling turn of events after doing dirty work for Gavin Newsom’s 2003 mayoral race and the anti-progressive group SFSOS.
I know both Pearce and Chamberlain, I’ve spoken with each of them at length many times, and I consider them similar figures: both charming, smart and ambitious young political operatives, but with a sociopathic way of justifying their bad behaviors to others and themselves. These were the guys you called if you wanted dirty tricks to be a part of your political campaign.
Pearce burst onto the San Francisco political scene in 2003 as campaign manager for Matt Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign, a leadership role that he shared with Ross Mirkarimi and other more senior local progressive leaders, a big leap from the mostly volunteer political work he did back when he went by the name John Henry.
He ran a few smaller campaigns after that, including Jane Kim’s school board race, but his breakout role — the one where he demonstrated a willingness to break the rules and sell out the progressive movement he came from — was running Kim’s campaign for D6 supervisor in 2010, an important turning point in the rise of the money-driven neoliberalism that has come to dominate city politics.
At the time, I discovered and broke the Bay Guardian story about how a pro-Kim independent expenditure campaign partially funded by Willie Brown, the king of San Francisco power brokers, was being illegally run out of Pearce’s office, in violation of campaign rules against such collusion. Pearce told me transparent lies to try to cover up his mistakes, including listing as the IE’s number his own number at Left Coast Communications.
But in a city with a lapdog Ethics Commission, Pearce not only escaped unscathed, he was elevated into the upper echelons of power, the political hit man executing the high-priced contract to take out the city’s progressive movement (working along with Randy Shaw, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic director who also helped Kim defeat progressive favorite Debra Walker in that race and went on to champion Mayor Ed Lee).
Pearce was perfect for the next job that the city’s economic leaders handed him the next year: solidifying the duplicitous coup d’etat that placed Ed Lee in the Mayor’s Office by running the fake-grassroots “Run Ed Run” campaign, ostensibly designed to talk Lee into breaking his pledge not to run for a full term, a campaign so deeply corrupt that even the Ethics Commission had to call it out.
In the meantime, Kim, Lee and Shaw were all pushing the huge Twitter tax break and courting Big Tech with anything it wanted, and Pearce remained in close collusion with Kim as staffer Sunny Angulo shuttled back and forth between jobs in their offices. And the rest — as they say in a city being hollowed out by displacement, eviction, gentrification and economic monoculture — is history.
This was a story that I already knew, the one we were telling at the Bay Guardian when these same “market” forces shut us down. But nobody knew just how dark things had gotten inside the minds and the computers of those pulling the strings. That’s the troubling new twist on this familiar tale.
In the wake of his arrest, Mayor Lee’s re-election campaign moved quickly to fire Pearce (who was, of course, on its payroll at the princely sum of $5,000-per-month) and distance themselves from him, a monster that they had perhaps helped to create. Kim also sought to disavow her connections to Pearce, but I thought that her comment in today’s San Francisco Examiner article was strangely telling of the mindset that drives the sad state of city politics.
“Political consultants are in general not a well-liked group,” Kim told the Examiner. “In general, they’re vilified. And I’m sure that had some impact on Enrique. When you’re vilified, it puts a strain on you.”
In that strange moral framing, the problem wasn’t that Pearce had a history and reputation for dirty tricks on behalf of politicians like Kim and Lee, it was that reporters like me exposed and criticized that illegal and unethical behavior. That’s what she says created the “strain” Pearce felt— not the fact that people who once claimed progressive values were being paid big money and made big promises to subvert those values.
I’m no psychologist, but I think they call that projection, or perhaps killing the messenger.
Lots of San Franciscans are feeling strain these days, without the comfort of big paychecks to ease the pain, and much of that strain is being caused by City Hall’s indifference to their economic plight. It was inspiring to join with my Mission District neighbors as they invaded City Hall on Friday, trying to wake city leaders from their stupor and protect what’s left of this city’s diversity and progressive values.
I don’t know what happened to Enrique Pearce or whether he’s guilty of possessing child pornography or the stolen parking meter that police also say they found in his place, an interesting cherry on top of the entitlement sundae. But if indeed he’s feeling the strain from helping mold today’s City Hall, I think there are better outlets for that anxiety.
It’s not too late to save San Francisco. The city of St. Francis can be a very forgiving place, so if there are any other power brokers out there feeling the strain of their past transgressions, maybe now is the time to embark on the path of redemption. We could use the help.