In 2008, Aaron Peskin, serving in the second most powerful position in local government as president of the Board of Supervisors, organized a takeover of the Democratic Central County Committee in what could have led to him becoming the mayor of San Francisco.
But before that could happen, The City underwent a political shift of epic proportions. The candidates who were Peskin’s allies in the 2010 election for seats on the Board of Supervisors lost, and the winners ended up voting for Ed Lee as “caretaker” mayor. Those pivotal years marked the beginning of the erosion of progressive political power, as they would lose a majority bloc on the board as Mayor Lee, who went on to be elected, ushered in a technology boom that has sent real estate prices, rents and evictions soaring during the past five years.
Peskin is vying to reclaim the seat he held between 2001 and 2009, making the case his return is needed now more than ever to address the issues of affordability. Mayor Lee’s appointee to the seat, Julie Christensen, a long-time product designer and community leader, is campaigning to hold on to the post. Both made separate visits recently to the San Francisco Examiner editorial board, discussing why they should serve as the board’s District 3 representative of North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and the Polk Street area.
A Peskin victory would mark the reinvigoration of a progressive ideology, tipping the board balance to the progressives. It would signal a backlash to the mayor’s more moderate policies and his allies like prominent tech investor Ron Conway, whose presence is large in the District 3 contest. It would bode well for left-leaning candidates in the 2016 supervisor races when incumbent progressives are termed out in District seats 1, 9 and 11.
Peskin ran for supervisor in 2000 as a counter to then Mayor Willie Brown, who was at the “zenith of his power,” and says, like then, it is important to have a board that’s a check on the mayor’s power, not the mere “rubber stamp” seen today. “The legislative branch is the people’s branch of government,” Peskin said. “That means having the courage to say, ‘no.’”
Christensen counters that Peskin’s approach impairs progress. “We aren’t necessarily anxious for gridlock and fisticuffs,” she said.
Supporters of Peskin say his efforts have kept greedy developers in check, lead to groundbreaking social justice policies and protected tenants, but opponents say his methods when on the board have contributed to the current housing crisis. Peskin rebuffs such accusations by listing his housing credentials, such as rezoning eastern neighborhoods to allow for more development or increasing below-market-rate requirements, which have decreased since he left office.
“I think [Peskin] thwarted more housing than he approved,” Christensen said.
Peskin said, “This housing crisis has been exacerbated in any number of ways by policies of this administration, this Board of Supervisors.” He pointed to such things as weak controls on short-term rentals.
The two candidates have clear differences on the measures on the November ballot. Peskin, for example, supports the Mission moratorium and Proposition F, which increases regulations on Airbnb and other short-term rental websites. Christensen opposes those two measures.
Christensen said during a Sept. 21 Middle Polk Neighborhood Association sponsored debate that her opponent is trying to paint her unfairly as someone who doesn’t care about affordability or “as though I want Ron Conway to tell me what to do.”
Peskin was quick to point out Conway and his family members have contributed to her campaign.
“With the $500 per person limit it is pretty hard for somebody to buy an election,” Christensen said, to a skeptical crowd. Conway has since contributed $128,250 in third-party committee spending to oppose Peskin. Third-party committees do not have contribution limits.
There’s been no shortage of political drama. Political hit pieces have accused Peskin of bully-tactics and late night phone calls while Christensen has been blasted for inflammatory comments about how her colleague makes up eviction stories, becoming branded as an “eviction denier.”
Peskin says he has mellowed and matured. Christensen, new to political office, attempts to explain away her missteps as misunderstandings or gaffes.
Supervisors like Jane Kim are Peskin supporters along with the teachers union and the Sierra Club. While supervisors like Scott Wiener are Christensen backers along with Building and Construction Trades Council and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
In the last District 3 election, 23,470 voted, but since it was during a presidential election a lower turnout is expected. Large sums of money are flowing into the contest to try to reach as many of those voters. As of Oct. 13 total contributions in support of Christensen and opposing Peskin totaled $614,452. Contributions in support of Peskin and opposing Christensen totaled $722,615.
Peskin makes it clear about what he feels the race is about: “If you think that the mayor has addressed these problems to your and San Francisco’s satisfaction then, by golly, vote for his appointed incumbent.”
Christensen argues her close relationship with the mayor can help deliver for the neighborhoods. “Is being friends with the mayor helpful? You would kind of think so, right?” she said.