Aaron Peskin undermines his legacy

Brilliant politician, but his entitlement and bullying can't be ignored

I have to admit I was always a little disappointed that Supervisor Aaron Peskin never called to yell at me.

A late night Peskin rager has been a rite of passage for those in and around City Hall. Presumably fueled by alcohol, Peskin would ring up someone who crossed or displeased him and unload.

The harangues were common knowledge in local political circles. And sometimes they happened right in public, like when he arrived at a North Beach fire in 2018 and threw a fit, claiming firefighters were mis-handling the situation. A fire official said “He appeared to be intoxicated,” with “red eyes, slow responses and an uneasy stance.”

And although Peskin’s behavior has come into scrutiny lately, make no mistake, this has gone on for years. He was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2000, served two four-year terms, sat out four years then ran again in 2014. He was re-elected and his second term runs through 2022.

Even back in 2000 there were reports of really unpleasant behavior.

So, we keep asking, why did everyone stay silent?

The obvious response is why poke the bear? Complaining might very well lead to more angry abuse and bullying. It was probably easier to just roll your eyes and endure it.

But it should also be said Peskin wasn’t a monster. Not all the time. He can be charming actually, and kind of fun. A cold water enthusiast, he once took me swimming in the freezing water of the Bay off the South End Club. (Once was enough.) If I, or other reporters, needed some insider, off-the-record background info, he was often the first call.

Also, when it comes to the nooks and crannies of legislation, Peskin is freakin’ brilliant. I went back and watched the June 7 Board meeting where Peskin had his “final straw” moment, attacking Rec and Park Director Phil Ginsburg.

We will get that in a minute, but there was something else that was unmistakable. As issues came before the Board, Peskin basically took over the meeting. Apparently speaking without notes, he cited previous Board votes, legal precedent and political realities.

It was impressive. It was clearly a man in command. You might not agree with his point of view, but you have to admit he was in his element.

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He certainly never mailed it in. Google-search “Peskin” and “legislation” and scads of entries come up. When the issue of curbside parklets was considered last week, he submitted a detailed five-page memo on the subject.

He has twice been elected President of the Board of Supervisors — “unanimously,” as his bio reminds us. And honestly, legislatively he’s very good. In fact, you might be able to find a reference from me somewhere saying he’d make a good mayor.

He wouldn’t.

Whether because of alcohol or grievance, Peskin undermines himself. That contentious Board of Supervisors session with Ginsburg was a Zoom train wreck.

The worst of it was that Peskin and Supervisor Connie Chan had some actual points to make about funding and that Golden Gate Park ferris wheel. But Peskin went off the rails quickly and it just got progressively worse.

“If you could wipe that smirk off your face that would help,” he said to Ginsburg at one point.

While Chan attempted to pin Ginsburg down on some facts, Peskin interrupted.

“Answer the question, Phil,” he barked.

Board President Shamann Walter made several attempts to cool Peskin down saying, “You know we have to have order in our meetings.”

“Well he’s lying,” Peskin said more than once. “I’m just saying Phil Ginsburg is lying.”

Later he concluded a long rant about the Parks Alliance by saying “It is totally bullshit.”

To which President Walter requested that Peskin “Be a little more civil.”

“That was civil,” Peskin replied defiantly.

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Conventional wisdom has it that Peskin had been drinking, and maybe that’s true. But from here it looked more like we were watching someone intoxicated on power and entitlement, who felt free to say anything, offensive or not.

That was the tipping point. Subsequent stories appeared. SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin told the Chronicle he’d “had to deal with staff people in tears after having presented.”

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said he’s seen Peskin and others, “treating staff as if they are incompetent and beneath contempt.”

Finally the drumbeat became so loud that Peskin had to respond. He announced he was entering alcohol treatment. In a statement he said he “must take full responsibility for the tenor I have struck in my public relationships — for that, I am truly sorry.”

Not exactly a full-throated apology, but OK.

Now the obvious question is “What next?”

It seems inconceivable that he will resign. (Nor have there been widespread calls for him to do so.) He clearly loves the job. He even found a tiny loophole in election regulations to let him run for a third term after sitting out four years.

But this seems like a sad slog to the end of his career. He’ll be termed out in 2022, so he’s technically a lame duck.

You have to think he’s too steeped in the mechanics of legislation to step away. He’ll probably find ways to influence bills and introduce his own.

But it wasn’t long ago that “The Napoleon of North Beach,” was a politician with swag and sway. If you wanted to get something done in this town, he was the guy you had to win over.

Now, he’s going to be remembered as the angry guy on the phone.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Suggestions and compliments gladly accepted. Criticism not so much. Twitter: @cwnevius