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SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin Announces Mayoral Run

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an older man in a suit and glasses
Aaron Peskin, president of the Board of Supervisors, in his office in San Francisco on April 3, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin is running for mayor. That means the city’s future approach to housing will be a major point of contention for all of the candidates.

“Our highest elected leaders and most of the candidates in this race have been busy blaming — you name it — the Board of Supervisors, judges, nonprofits [and] the progressives rather than taking responsibility,” Peskin told KQED, during a Wednesday interview in his North Beach office. “This is a city that historically has been resilient.”

Peskin is scheduled to formally announce his campaign on Saturday at Portsmouth Square in the heart of Chinatown. The neighborhood lifted Peskin to victory in his last contested supervisor race in 2015. The support of the city’s Chinese community will also be crucial if he wants to become mayor.

Wing Hoo Leung, president of the Community Tenants Association, said Peskin is an ally of Chinese residents and low-income workers.

“Low-income seniors, we should support him. And I do hope that he can bring back the harmony in San Francisco,” Leung said in Cantonese and translated by an interpreter.

Mayor London Breed, Mark Farrell and Daniel Lurie, the other candidates in the race, have each presented themselves as tough on crime. Peskin, a progressive Democrat, may now swing the tone of the race away from the city’s rightward campaign proposals and rhetoric.

In early March, voters approved a Breed-backed ballot measure that would require screens of city welfare recipients for drug use. Just last week, Farrell, who previously served as interim mayor, announced an emergency declaration to tackle the fentanyl crisis. Lurie, a philanthropist, announced a similar declaration the day before Farrell. Lurie has been endorsed by former Mayor Frank Jordan, the chief of the San Francisco Police Department who rode a wave of anti-gay sentiment into office in 1992.

Peskin has long been an SFPD ally. He’s voted for budget increases, and frequently speaks at events honoring officers in Chinatown. He told KQED he plans to help the police’s hiring pipeline by building better bridges with schools and universities.

He also spoke to the need for the department to meet the reform mandates of the U.S. Department of Justice. He pushed back against the narrative that San Francisco is lawless, calling the narrative opportunistic.

“There is also the perception of crime that has been magnified by a set of billionaires, who spent literally tens of millions of dollars telling us that we are not safe,” Peskin said. “That does not in any way alleviate our primary responsibility to make sure that people are safe and to make sure that people feel safe. But I think it’s time to push back against that [narrative].”

Jim Ross, a campaign consultant who ran Gov. Gavin Newsom’s successful mayoral run in 2003, said the “race to the right” by Breed, Farrell and Lurie leaves an opening for Peskin.

“I think he has an opportunity to build a coalition that we haven’t really seen in San Francisco since [former Mayor Art] Agnos, which is a progressive neighborhood coalition,” Ross said.

Agnos, who was in office from 1988–1992, was the last progressive Democrat elected mayor. According to Ross, moderate Democrats have typically relied on a coalition of white renters and homeowners, parts of the city’s Chinese community and Republicans to get elected. The coalition Agnos built peeled off homeowners.

Peskin, who may benefit from his deep connections with Chinese tenant groups, said the government should provide assistance to people, including elderly, low-income tenants who need eviction controls. Peskin supports expanded rent control protections, low-income subsidies for seniors and families, and increased access to child care.

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In his speech Saturday, Peskin will allude to his own struggles with alcoholism, which were revealed during the 2015 race against Supervisor Julie Christensen, who was appointed by the late Mayor Ed Lee. An advertisement accused Peskin of drunkenly calling city staffers to berate them.

Peskin said he’s been in recovery for three years.

“There is no doubt that alcohol made me less pleasant,” he said. “I still work long hours. I still talk to people late at night. But I have to say, I’m very grateful for the people who got me sobered up, who got me into recovery.”

a row of campaign pins
Pins from different campaigns over the years in Peskin’s office. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Some San Francisco residents and politicians, including Breed, have been critical of Peskin’s positions on housing. GrowSF, a political group funded by tech billionaires who aim to reshape San Francisco, wants the city to prioritize building market-rate developments without the restrictions it claims slows production.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, who has authored legislation to make it easier to build housing across the state, assailed what he called Peskin’s obstruction, ticking off neighborhoods — Nob Hill, Treasure Island, Stevenson Street — Peskin opposed developments in. He said Peskin has frequently used environmental laws and rezoning efforts to stall construction.

“Aaron Peskin as mayor would be unbelievably bad for San Francisco,” Wiener said. “He has spent his entire career making it harder and harder to build more housing.”

Last week, the Board of Supervisors voted to overturn Breed’s veto of Peskin’s legislation limiting housing heights in the Jackson Square Historic District and nearby neighborhoods.

Peskin defended his record, noting that he authored Proposition A, the $300 million housing bond voters approved in March. He also put forward housing bonds in 2015 and 2019. Originally from Berkeley, Peskin has been elected to represent North Beach, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf in 2000, 2004, 2015, 2016 and 2020.

In a shelf by his desk, a framed photo depicts Peskin arm-in-arm with then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who blazed trails for gay politicians in the 1990s.

One of Peskin’s strongest assets is that people know him. On Wednesday, people popped out of Handcraft Gifts on Grant Avenue and Sandy’s Lucky Bamboo and Florist on Jackson Street to say hello and shake his hand as he walked by. Peskin’s challenge will be translating neighborhood enthusiasm to a citywide race.

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