San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin outside Caffe Trieste in North Beach (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin outside Caffe Trieste in North Beach (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Prince of the City: Aaron Peskin finds ways to ‘get to yes’

Amble around North Beach and Chinatown for long enough and, along with all the picturesque scenes of San Francisco’s most picturesque, scenic neighborhoods, you will find Aaron Peskin. He is hard to miss: With his full beard and standing 5-foot-4 “on a good day,” the 53-year-old supervisor for the city’s desirable northeast quadrant is an unmistakable figure.

And a ubiquitous one: That’s him parading Police Chief Bill Scott around North Beach and Chinatown, hondling fellow politicos, bigwigs or potential donors at Original Joe’s, then decamping to Tomasso’s, a refuge reserved for friends and family.

Peskin is a public figure in every sense of the word: There he is knocking back Irish whiskey at Gino & Carlo, regaling the patrons at Specs’, ducking into New Sun Hong Kong, and, all the while, carrying on peripatetic in-person, telephone and text dialogues with cops, firefighters, billionaires, old hippies, developers, homeless people, union bosses, poets, captains of industry, shopkeepers and power brokers — friends, enemies and frenemies — and, more than likely, finding a way to “get to yes.” That, says a colleague “is a skill he was born with.”

This is a skill that served him well in his first run on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, from 2001 to 2009, when he ascended to board president, passed heaps of legislation and carved out a role as the bête noire of Mayor Gavin Newsom. After several years of moving and shaking in private practice (and, on occasion, successfully suing the city), Peskin ran for his old job in 2015, easily beating gaffe-prone mayoral appointee Julie Christensen. His public and private passions of minding District 3’s business have, once again, merged.

San Francisco is both a city and a county and, “in some ways,” notes a longtime Peskin ally, “he sees his district as the city and the rest of it as the county.” If so, the center of Peskin’s city, if not his universe, is Caffe Trieste on the corner of Vallejo Street and Grant Avenue, the third point on the isosceles triangle of his home on the Filbert Steps and his office on Columbus Street. The newest album in the jukebox at Trieste is by Otis Redding, and the guidebook-toting tourists are enjoying a human safari.

Here, before their eyes, are the characters, seemingly pried from a Frank Capra film, who populate a San Francisco that increasingly exists only in sepia-toned nostalgia. It’s a roomful of regulars; everyone knows everyone and it feels less like a swiftly tilting metropolis than a village. Images of Trieste’s founder, dark-shaded, accordion-playing Giovanni “Papa Gianni” Giotta adorn the walls of the cafe, but, make no mistake, the real godfather here is the diminutive Jewish guy in the corner nursing a Peroni.

North Beach's venerable Caffe Trieste serves as Supervisor Aaron Peskin's public living room. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
North Beach’s venerable Caffe Trieste serves as Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s public living room. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

This is a place that harks to the old world and, in many ways, Peskin is an old-world political figure. Whether seated here at Trieste or walking about his district, Peskin is interrupted, damn near constantly, by people who want something, need something (even in the years when he was out of office). They carry thick manila folders full of correspondences with the health department regarding their business and they don’t know what to do. They have a problem with some trees. They have a problem with some permits. They have a problem with some of the constellations of city codes comprising the galaxy of San Francisco regulations.

“In every town,” says a longtime city political player, “there’s one person who can keep a bit of all things going on in their heads. In most towns that’s the mayor. In this town, that’s Aaron.”

There is, surely, a direct benefit to helping individual constituents with their troubles. But, truthfully, there are easier ways to scare up votes (and money) than spending hours alleviating someone’s arboreal or permitting quandaries. Peskin loves wading into government arcana the way other people love watching baseball, but, more than that, there is a deep emotional fulfillment in being the man others seek to solve their problems.

And yet, Peskin doesn’t’ seem entirely thrilled with the persona he’s done so much to cultivate: “I hate the reputation that the Jewish guy is the smartest in the room,” he says. He’s neither Sherlock Holmes nor professor Moriarty; he’s simply does his homework. “I read everything. Maybe twice.”

This Hebraic version of an “Aw, shucks” attitude was aptly demonstrated when the newly elected Peskin cheerily told J. in 2000 that the purpose of holding elected office was “doing mitzvahs for your community.”

Let no one say that Peskin, who can put together sentences in Hebrew, Hindi, Nepali and Cantonese, doesn’t know how to tailor his messaging. That doesn’t mean it’s untrue, though. “For the most part, his heart is in the right place. He wants a better city,” says a builder who’s worked both with and against Peskin. “But, periodically, he feels like he has to punish somebody.”

As such, the powerful, like the powerless, know that it’s worth making the pilgrimage to Peskin’s table. It is both beneficial to seek his input — and potentially unwise to rankle him by not seeking it. “Aaron has a clear moral universe in his head he wants to recreate in real life,” says a veteran city politico. “But vengeance is a real part of his worldview.” Or, as Peskin himself famously put it in 2007, “Payback is a bitch.”

It’s a Tuesday evening, following a lengthy board meeting. The sun has set and it’s dark in Peskin’s City Hall office, but nobody has turned on the lights. He props his loafers up on the table; over his shoulder, a ghostly glow emanates from a closed-circuit TV monitor beaming video of a solitary custodian dusting the abandoned board chambers. Asked when in his life it was clear he’d be the man he is, when he became a fully formed person, he responds, “I don’t think I’m a fully formed person now.”

The UC Santa Cruz student who would one day become San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin
The UC Santa Cruz student who would one day become San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin

Let the record show that, as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, Peskin received his parents’ permission to dip into his school funds to file a lawsuit against the university for felling a grove of trees to make way for dorms. So, yes, Peskin employed the California Environmental Quality Act in an attempt to quell what he viewed as reckless development in a geographically constrained area suffering from a dearth of housing. Make of that what you will.

Additionally, let the record show that while many young people protest and rebel against the system, Peskin networked and insinuated himself into the system — to the point that, when he was hauled to jail after being roughed up by a cop during a Santa Cruz student demonstration, his free phone call was to the town’s mayor. Prior to negotiating high-stakes, big-money deals as a legislator, Peskin negotiated high-stakes, big-money deals on behalf of Indian tribes vying for water rights.

So there were very clear hints as to who Aaron Peskin was and who he could be. As for how he could become — simultaneously — one of the most calculating and impulsive men in City Hall: “I think,” concludes Peskin’s mother, Tsipora, with a smile, “that is the Israeli in him.”

Looming over the backyard of the home Aaron Peskin grew up in, and where his parents still live, is a massive stone outcropping typical of residences in the lower Berkeley hills. Harvey and Tsipora Peskin recently installed a fence to keep deer from skittering down it; five decades ago, it was Peskin and his younger brother, Victor, who were scrambling up the rock they called Masada.

Harvey is a San Francisco State University professor emeritus and Holocaust scholar, and the Tel Aviv-born Tsipora spent years working with vulnerable Bay Area families and youth populations; both are still working therapists. Victor Peskin, 50, is an associate professor of political science at Arizona State University specializing in war crimes and genocide. All three earned advanced degrees. Aaron, with only a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz, is the family’s academic black sheep.

It comes as a jolt to those meeting Victor, who know of him as Aaron’s brother, that he’s 6-foot-1. It has long been this way. Tsipora recalls watching her juvenile sons brushing their teeth and, already, Victor towered over his older sibling. At one point all those years ago, as Aaron contemplated being nearly a foot shorter than his “little” brother, he remarked, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Victor resembles his tall, lanky father not only physically, but also emotionally; though Harvey is by no means a passive man, it does take quite a bit to rattle him. (He and Tsipora, seated next to one another on the couch, form a behavioral yin and yang). His de-facto expression is the sly, kindly smile recorded in photo after photo in the family’s scrapbook, along with the yellowing clips of one-liners he seeded into Herb Caen’s column.

Peskin in second grade wearing his mother’s IDF uniform at a parade in Albany (Photo/Courtesy Tsipora Peskin)

Tsipora, meanwhile, physically resembles her older son to a striking degree, but the real tell is the fiery passion and emotion fueling her fast-paced diction. Their amazing similarity in this regard — a judgement I can make based on nearly 18 years of interviews, discussions and occasional late-night phone calls with her politician son (on topics ranging from Airbnb to the America’s Cup to a gaggle of other “This town!”-inducing misadventures) — jumps out immediately.

The Holocaust scholar and Israeli Hebrew teacher brought up their sons in an environment steeped in Judaism. But not in the trappings of institutional Judaism; the synagogue kitchen odors of grape juice and bad coffee likely do not induce waves of nostalgia in the Peskin family.

This was a “rage for justice” household, and, by definition, you don’t rage quaintly. In the mid-1970s, Tsipora Peskin ran a program in East Oakland diverting non-criminal youth offenders from juvenile hall. When federal monies lapsed, Tsipora not only cajoled the Alameda County Board of Supervisors into funding it but, additionally, fought off the probation department, which wanted control of those funds.

“I would spontaneously strategize. I made enemies,” she recalls 40 years later. The successor programs to hers still exist throughout the East Bay. “I moved things forward in ways that nobody did. When I hear you talk about Aaron, it reminds me of myself.”

So perhaps Aaron Peskin was born with the ability to convince his colleagues to “get to yes,” perhaps he learned it, and, perhaps, it’s a bit of both.

But it has been a double-edged sword: Peskin’s own father concludes that if his son feels someone is being self-aggrandizing or power-hungry or “the truth is being screwed over,” then “that’s enough to make Aaron be vengeful.” Perhaps that was on display, earlier this year, when Peskin told the Anti-Defamation League he had no interest in helping them with an innocuous resolution because the ADL blithely had assured the general public that it was not a major deal that Mayor Ed Lee had, in writing, used the term “Gestapo” to refer to a piece of proposed Peskin legislation. Peskin did, however, demand an apology from Lee.

The line between justice and vengeance can be thin. Absent context, nuance, or a lengthy attention span, even a rage for justice can be perceived as, simply, rage.

Aaron Peskin is a complicated man. The leader now decried by pro-development zealots as a NIMBY warlord enabled the metamorphosis of San Francisco via up-zoning Rincon Hill and rezoning vast swaths of the city (though, notably, not his backyard). The developers of the massive Bayview Hunters Point Development Plan came to Peskin — not then-Mayor Newsom — to push through the legislation enabling what could be a 12,000-unit neighborhood. This forthcoming construction constitutes the lion’s share of the housing that allows Lee to now anoint himself the “housing mayor.”

Like Willie Brown, Peskin’s reputation for savvy, Machiavellian behavior leads to borderline conspiracy theories. A prominent city mover and shaker swears up and down that the supervisor purposely kept a couch in his office with extra-short legs so he could psychologically lord over his supplicants while seated at his desk. That sounds nutty, but “I think he is so smart and so many steps ahead that very little in his life happens by accident.”

And yet, during that first go-round on the board, from 2001 to 2009, this same man could be counted on with “almost Pavlovian” regularity to take the bait when the mayor’s minions intentionally disrespected city protocol or lobbed insults.

Peskin’s penchant for brusque behavior and buzzed, late-night phone calls to city bureaucrats allowed Newsom’s operatives to portray him as a destructive drunk. Newsom — who had a history of showing up at least one or two sheets to the wind for work duties, admitted a drinking problem, and carried on an affair with a substance-addicted subordinate who subsequently was spirited away with $10,000 from a catastrophic illness fund — eluded this reputation, and has been promoted to lieutenant governor by the electorate. Ostensibly, he is a different man than he was a decade ago. But he’s not the only one.

Peskin at a union protest against President Trump’s attacks on public healthcare, January 2017. (Photo/Lee Hepner)
Peskin at a union protest against President Trump’s attacks on public healthcare, January 2017. (Photo/Lee Hepner)

“Back in the day, Aaron would win some and lose some. But you always saw him coming,” says a longtime political operative. “Now he’s much more able to work behind the scenes. He has a lighter touch.”

In the last several months, the Board of Supervisors (where Peskin sits with an ideological minority of “progressives”) has passed a good deal of legislation regarding “progressive” issues — such as fraudulent owner move-in evictions and affordable housing construction. The terms have been more amenable to Peskin and his allies than, by right, they should be for a minority bloc. Other supervisors have disseminated the ebullient press releases “But if you’re really in the know,” notes a City Hall apparatchik, “you know Peskin is behind it.”

As Tsipora could tell you, there are many ways to “get to yes.” At one point during the marathon negotiations for an affordable housing compromise, board president London Breed tweeted out a photo of herself enjoying brunch with three supervisors: Peskin, Ahsha Safai and Jane Kim. “Working to make housing better for all San Franciscans,” read the caption. Peskin responded with a tweet stating “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

Well, that rhymes. And the resultant legislation was a true compromise. But it looks a lot more like what Peskin and Kim desired, because — as many in City Hall and the development community learned — Peskin threatened to blow up the negotiations by taking his own housing measure to the ballot, where polling indicated it would pass (“I might have implied that a time or five,” he admits). Hardball makes the dream work, too.

On Oct. 2, 2015, Aaron Peskin was seated at, where else, Caffe Trieste. The San Francisco Chronicle was predicting that, in a month’s time, he’d be in for the race of his life against Christensen, the mayor-appointed supervisor whom the newspaper went on to endorse.

Peskin, however, was serene. “I think,” he said, “I have this thing in the bag.” He noted his campaign had individually identified all the voters he required. His internal polling put him at 58 percent but, he figured, a too-little too-late spitballing campaign from his opponent might knock him down 4 or 5 percentage points.

All of that happened.

When Lee appointed Christensen, it was a direct rebuke to Peskin —who derided her as beholden to the tech and development honchos lurking in Lee’s inner circle — and to Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, who desired for her protege, Cindy Wu, to get the job. The mayor and Christensen’s team then attempted a political ground game against Peskin in North Beach and Pak in Chinatown — the electoral equivalent of following a wolverine into its burrow. “You could have taken all the money we spent in the Julie Christensen campaign,” a rueful political operative later told me, “and set it on fire for all the good it did.”

Make no mistake. Under San Francisco’s city charter, the mayor is extremely powerful. There is little even an adversarial board can do to rein him or her in, and, for the first time in Peskin’s legislative career, he’s sitting in an ideological minority. But, as Lee’s final term runs its course, more and more of his staffers will trickle away for whatever comes next. Peskin, who maddened his backers by never aspiring to politically ascend past San Francisco, isn’t going anywhere.

He’s fervently backing former state senator (and rabbinical student) Mark Leno for mayor, just as he fervently urged him to run against Lee in 2015. And, after that? Who knows. Regardless, Peskin will continue to be a factor and a kingmaker in this town for anyone who wants to get things done (or keep them from getting done).

“When I first got this job at age 35, I thought I had to save the world in eight years,” he says at the end of yet another long day at the office. “I passed more legislation in eight years than anybody in the history of modern San Francisco because I wanted to get it all done. But now I realize: This goes on forever and ever.”

But nothing goes on forever.

One more phone call comes in from a constituent who needs something. Except, in this case, it’s Peskin’s wife, Nancy Shanahan, and she needs Peskin to make an appearance at Tomasso’s. Now. Peskin wanders down the grandiose City Hall steps, hops in his Prius and glides north. Tomorrow, he’ll do it all again.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.