What Drives Aaron Peskin?

by Randy Shaw on January 10, 2005

(First of two parts)

Six years ago, Aaron Peskin was an iconoclastic North Beach activist who battled against the neighborhood’s new parking garage and City College’s plan to demolish a historic building and affordable apartments in Chinatown. Today, Peskin is the President of the Board of Supervisors and a leading future candidate for mayor. This two-part series examines Peskin’s meteoric rise to power and his underlying motivations.

Board President Aaron Peskin is a complex and controversial political figure. He is admired by his supporters for his success at getting things done, and criticized by detractors for obtaining results through Machiavellian-type schemes. He is praised for his ability to bring conflicting sides together to work out agreements, but similarly criticized for acting like a modern day Monty Hall in his alleged willingness to sacrifice principle to “make a deal.”

The clues about Aaron Peskin’s motivations can be traced back as far back as his college days.

When Aaron Peskin attended UC Santa Cruz, the school decided to build dorms on one of its undeveloped sites. Many UCSC students were upset by the proposed destruction of natural habitat, but Peskin went further: he filed a lawsuit against the school claiming its environmental impact report was inadequate.

Peskin established prior to moving to San Francisco that he was not going to sit by idly while development ran roughshod over areas he cared about. This skepticism toward development, and the expertise he gained regarding the sufficiency of EIR’s, would serve him well in his new city.

After moving to North Beach, Peskin took aim at the proposal (since implemented) to build a massive parking garage on Vallejo Street. He was not deterred by the support for the garage from North Beach and Chinatown merchant groups, nor by the lack of opposition from politically pragmatic community groups. As he did at UCSC, Peskin responded to the proposed development by engineering a lawsuit on environmental grounds. The suit lost, but Peskin sent a message that he was not a guy who could be steamrolled.

Peskin then went after another sacred cow— City College’s plans to build a long-sought campus in Chinatown. The problem was that City College planned to demolish the historic Columbo building, as well as a nearby apartment building. The apartment demolition would cause the eviction of about fifty Chinese-American tenants living in rent-controlled housing.

Because powerful forces in Chinatown politics desperately wanted the campus (and Supervisor Mabel Teng’s sister was a key player in the City College administration), no Chinatown community group initially organized to stop City College’s plans. But Peskin again was not about to sit by and watch what he saw as a destructive development proceed. He got the Bay Guardian to wage a campaign to preserve the historic Columbo building, and the publicity helped persuade Chinatown tenant groups to insist on affordable replacement housing for the demolished apartment building (known as the Fong building).

Peskin then got involved with the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, a group focused on stopping highrise development, preserving historic buildings, and protecting affordable housing. I worked with him on a case that involved an owner who evicted tenants under the Ellis Act and then sought to demolish the building. Although the Planning Commission voted 7-0 against the demolition, mayoral intervention led the then all-mayor appointed Board of Appeals to reverse Planning by a 5-0 vote.

To say Peskin was disturbed by the Board’s vote would be an understatement. He made it clear to the attorney for the owner that without justice there would be no peace, and in 2002 got partial revenge by leading the fight to pass Prop N, which gave two Board of Appeal appointments to the President of the Board of Supervisors and required Supervisor approval of the mayor’s appointees.

When Peskin ran for Supervisor when district elections returned in 2000, he was the clear outsider in the race. Community College Board member Lawrence Wong was the favorite of Chinatown power-brokers, while Mayor Brown supported both Wong and wealthy newcomer Megan Levitan. District 3 was not seen as a progressive district, and Peskin’s biggest challenge was assuring voters he was not too far to the left to represent their interests.

Peskin personified what district elections was supposed to be about, covering his district like a ward politician in the ethnic enclaves of Chicago or New York City. While outspent by his opponents, he got all of the progressive endorsements and had the biggest field operation of any District 3 candidate.

Peskin became the top vote-getter in the November 2000 general election, and faced Wong in the December runoff. Peskin again stood as the outsider against the so-called Willie Brown machine, and like all the other candidates opposed by the mayor, he prevailed in the runoff.

In as little as two years Aaron Peskin went from an iconoclastic activist taking on lonely fights to the supervisor of a less than progressive district. He immediately sought to strengthen his relationship with the Chinese-American community, hiring Rose Chung-who ran against him in the general election-as one of his two staff. His other hire was young Democratic Party insider Wade Crowfoot, who currently works as Board Liason for Mayor Newsom.

Peskin’s first test on the Board came over the proposal to settle a lawsuit filed by downtown corporations against the city to invalidate our business tax. This issue split the group of newly-elected anti-Brown supervisors, with Daly, Gonzalez, and Sandoval opposing the settlement and Ammiano, McGoldrick, Maxwell, Leno and Peskin supporting it.

Peskin justified his vote on pragmatic grounds, stating that he believed the city would lose the case and that it was wise to cut our losses. He vowed to go to the ballot with a revenue raising measure that would get back all the money, and more, that downtown corporations had taken from the city because of their lawsuit and the invalidating of the tax (Peskin probably did more than any other Supervisor to pass an increased real estate transfer tax, Prop L on the November 2002 ballot, but it was poorly drafted and went down to defeat)

During his first year Peskin played the role of fiscal watchdog and won wide praise for his handling of the city budget. But some critics were disturbed by his unwillingness to eliminate most of Mayor Brown’s notorious “special assistants,” and there was rumbling that not only Peskin but some of his colleagues were not the “insurgents” and “reformers” they were thought to be.

Peskin took a lead role attacking sweetheart mayoral deals at the Airport and with City Tow, and by the end of 2002 was regularly credited in the Chronicle’s Matier & Ross for his oversight of wayward city contracts. Peskin thought he had clear sailing to the Board Presidency following Ammiano’s departure from the position at the end of 2002.

(More tomorrow)

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