A ray of hope shined onto San Francisco this week, and his name was Aaron Peskin.
Finally, six years after The City was hookwinked by rich landlords, business elites, and the neoliberal politicians they sponsor, Peskin is returning to the Board of Supervisors to lead the city’s modern progressive movement, with the support of five sitting supervisors who endorsed him.
It won’t be easy, and the obstacles we face are more formidable than ever. But now, we have a fighting chance at restoring the progressive, inclusive, internationalist reputation of the city of St. Francis.
We might once again become known for standing with the people of the world on issues like climate change and social and economic justice, instead of just being the capital of capital and tech gizmos, catering more to tourists than the people who live here. San Francisco left its heart back in 2008 and I’m hoping that Peskin can help us find it again.
The importance of Peskin’s victory to that endeavor can’t be overstated, yet understanding the implications of this election requires a lesson in recent history that the city’s economic and political powers have worked so hard to distort. So gather around and let me tell the story that I covered first-hand, interviewing all the major players on all sides along the way.
The false story that Mayor Ed Lee, Assemblyman David Chiu, and their allies have told is that uncivil leftist meanies like Peskin, Chris Daly, and Ross Mirkarimi – aided by us at the now-defunct San Francisco Bay Guardian and other progressive-minded institutions – sullied the political discourse, turned off the electorate, and created gridlock at City Hall.
They hyped the need for “civility” at City Hall, touting “getting things done” as the supreme virtue. But now that we’ve had a good look at the “things” they wanted to get done – letting wealthy corporations and landlords hollow out the city, often in illegal ways, and rewarding their rapacious behavior with tax breaks while shelving one-time priorities like addressing climate change and income inequality – many natives have become restless.
That’s why incumbent Mayor Ed Lee got less than 57 percent of the vote yesterday despite sitting on mountains of campaign cash (and having virtually unlimited amounts more from right-wing tech mogul Ron Conway and other venture capitalists), scaring away serious rivals, and running against only political newbies with no money or professional consultants.
Frankly, I’m actually a little surprised that Mayor Lee didn’t do better, considering how pervasive their false narrative has become here and how little it is challenged by what’s left of San Francisco’s media and other socially influential institutions. Which brings me back to my version of the story.
I’ll admit that San Francisco’s progressive political leaders didn’t do themselves any favors at times, and they fumbled at some pivotal moments that the capitalists were able to capitalize on. And there were definitely some structural problems that tech-focused innovators awash in venture capital were able to monetize in important ways, from the antiquated system for hailing taxis to failings in the housing market.
The first big fumble came after Peskin left office in 2009, when his chosen successor and self-proclaimed progressive, Chiu, took advantage of a schism among progressive supervisors to nab the board presidency with support from the board’s neoliberals (what most in SF imprecisely and deceptively dub the “moderates”), which he then elevated into key committee assignments that consolidated their power.
That set in motion a chain of events, largely orchestrated by Chiu and those close to him, that banished the progressives to the political margins of San Francisco and ushered in the neoliberal era that empowered Silicon Valley venture capitalists, strengthened their City Hall enablers like Steve Kawa, and placed Administrator-in-Chief Ed Lee in Room 200.
I could write a whole book about the details of what happened, and perhaps someday I will, but you can just browse the archives of the Bay Guardian to find many pieces of that puzzle. For now, let’s return Peskin and the role he and his allies played, then and now.
The reality was that Peskin was the most prolific and effective legislator on the board during his era, sponsoring more good legislation than any of his colleagues and helping others do so in his role as two-term board president, working through some big egos in the process. He was someone who “got things done,” despite powerful opposition from Mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom and their downtown allies, which were plenty upset by those “things.”
During the 2000-2008 progressive era that Peskin helped lead (along with important leaders Tom Ammiano and Matt Gonzalez), San Francisco became a national leader in requiring employers to offer health care and paid sick leave, regulating chain stores and protecting small businesses, strengthening tenant rights and fighting evictions, increasing affordable housing requirements for developers, creating bike lanes and reinvigorated public spaces, legalizing and regulating medical marijuana, standing up for artists and nightlife, challenging PG&E’s monopoly and creating a framework for public renewable energy projects, giving neighborhoods a stronger voice in City Hall, and generally siding with the 99 percent in their struggle with the wealthiest 1 percent.
It wasn’t easy. Peskin and the progressives were consistently opposed by Mayor Newsom and powerful players in the city, including the San Francisco Chronicle. That was the source of acrimony and conflict in the city, not some inherent character flaw of Peskin, Daly, and company.
The reason that politics sometimes got ugly is politics is messy business, particularly when you’re fighting powerful vested interests on behalf of the masses and the natural world. But the reason I feel hopeful today is that Aaron Peskin is wiling to have that fight, and he’s good at it.
Now, wealth is more entrenched than ever in this city, and the evictions and displacement have already changed the electorate in ways that will make next year’s big municipal election an uphill battle for the progressives.
But we finally have the potential for a real political conversation in this city, instead of this faux civility and fake consensus that only serve the status quo. And if Peskin can make the progress he did against truly tough political players like Newsom and Brown, I’m excited to see how he’ll do against a hollow figurehead like Lee and right-wing jerk like Conway. Game on.