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How Aaron Peskin Shakes Up S.F.’s Mayoral Race

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Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin poses for photos after a rally to announce his campaign for mayor of San Francisco in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square in San Francisco on April 6, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Earlier this month, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin announced his entry into the race for mayor in November.

Peskin has been in San Francisco politics for a long time, and is the first prominent mayoral candidate from the city’s progressive camp. KQED’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez tells us how Peskin shakes up this mayoral race.


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Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. For a while, variety wasn’t a word I’d use to describe the slate of candidates running for mayor in San Francisco. Moderates who want to prove they’re tough on crime have pretty much dominated.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: You’ve got the incumbent mayor, London Breed Mark Farrell, former interim mayor and venture capitalist, philanthropist and Levi Strauss heir Daniel Lurie, and San Francisco supervisor Usha Safai. But there is a new flavor in town. After San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin threw his hat in the ring.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Having Aaron Peskin in the race really does change the tenor of everything.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, I talk with KQED politics reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez about how Aaron Peskin run for mayor shakes things up. Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez is a politics reporter for KQED.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I, I counted the crowd and was well over 500 attendees. Peskin himself has had some higher counts, but I would say it was more than 500 attendees. It was. It was packed.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Peskin represents Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, little slices of some other neighborhoods like the tenderloin. And there’s Chinatown. So Peskin had his, opening rally there, and it’s not a surprise.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Who was at this rally in Chinatown, Joe? And what would you say was the vibe?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: For those who’ve been around the city for a long time, you might think of like a k fog concert. This is like people all of slightly older crowd listening to like, soft rock, but like really digging it. They’ve got like a big wide brimmed sun hat and sunglasses and some gray beards, but they’re still having a great time.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You know, there was a lot of North Beach folks. I saw a guy who was in the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and he had like a sign that said Paris or Peskin was his little joke there. There was like 200 plus folks from the Chinese community. You could see many of them were brought by the, community, a tenants association.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And then it was of course, Aaron Peskin turned to speak. How would you, Joe, I guess, describe the tone of his speech.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So Peskin really leaned into his recovery.

Aaron Peskin: And recovery is something I know a little something about.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: He is a recovering alcoholic. It’s been three years now since he sought sobriety and has been sober, and he leaned into that in his speech.

Aaron Peskin: And recovery only works when we’re all honest with ourselves and each other. And I know that recovery is not about anger and hatred. It’s not about harboring good grudges and petty vendettas. To recover, you need to be firm and draw clear lines, but always stay compassionate.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: It was about positivity, which is interesting because in politics you want to have contrasts. Things are not doing well, but we can we can make it better. And some of the candidates have been leaning into this. We need more police. We need a government that works. Government is the worst it’s ever been. They really have been leaning into the idea that things are not well, which he also did, but he transitioned it into a very positive bent. Based on his experience in recovery.

Aaron Peskin: I am so deeply and sincerely grateful to have received the support I needed to recover and become sober, and it has inspired me to dedicate the next chapter of my life to the recovery of this city.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about who Aaron Peskin is. Joe. How long has he been in office?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: He was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in the year 2000. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s been in office for 24 years. He served two terms and then was out of office for a bit. And then, because the rules say there’s nothing to stop you from serving another two terms, you just can’t do more than two consecutively. He ran again and was in office another two terms. And he’s in office right now for his essentially fourth term.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: He knows government so well. I just read an article where a former planning director essentially said, Aaron Peskin knows the planning department code better than I do. He also knows so many people. I was just talking to a advocate of just a neighbor who lives on the West Side and advocates for certain housing changes, and he was telling me, yeah, I’ve been having lunch off and on with Aaron Peskin since the 1990s.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, let’s talk about Aaron Peskin’s record, Joe. What policy issues are most important to him?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I think about this a lot. Like, you know, we use a lot of labels in San Francisco. Moderate Democrat, progressive Democrat. Peskin belongs to the Capitol progressive wing of Democrats in San Francisco. But it’s not necessarily the same as a lowercase p progressive in the nation. One of the things near and dear to Peskin, and something he talked about in his speech at the rally was preserving neighborhood character.

Aaron Peskin: The archipelago of our neighborhoods and cultural districts is what makes the tapestry of this city of San Francisco so incredibly rich.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: He believes that housing can be built in San Francisco in ways that preserve the neighborhoods that neighbors love. And what that means is not necessarily putting taller buildings than is normal for a neighborhood, or putting large developments in neighborhoods that may have single family homes and duplexes. You know, he would say he is for affordable housing over market rate housing.

Aaron Peskin: We don’t have to destroy this city to save it. If you look at my record, rather than listen to my billionaire and real estate funded critics, you will see I have personally voted to increase our housing capacity by over 100,000 units.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Another thing that is near and dear to Peskin is tenants rights. He’s one of the strongest tenants advocates in the Board of Supervisors. He personally negotiated with Veritas, which is at one time San Francisco’s largest landlord, to save hundreds. Might have been more than that. Tenants from eviction, who missed their rent during the pandemic. And he has said and he told me that if, certain state laws are changed over the next year, which is possible, they are in the works that he would expand rent control in San Francisco to new buildings.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And what about his stance on public safety, which, as we’ve been talking about as well, has been a really big issue in this mayor’s race, right?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, you see that top of mind for most San Franciscans as public safety on that front. That’s another place where I say, you know, the lowercase p. Progressives might be a little disappointed.

Aaron Peskin: For me, public safety is a progressive value. I voted to support increased police budgets, police overtime, greater police staffing, and an emergency declaration in the tenderloin.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: If you ask him about police, the first thing he’ll do is just start rattling off some of his favorite cops. He knows he knows them in his neighborhood, right? He’s like officer So-and-so and Sergeant this and that. And you know, he can he can really just kind of go at it. He has voted to increase funding to the police department. He has been in favor of salary increases for the police department. At the same time, he doesn’t want to go as far as London breed and some of the other candidates have described on the Public Safety Board.

Aaron Peskin: I support arresting fentanyl dealers and holding them accountable. But arresting drug users and doing nothing more is a cynical and dangerous policy that often results in more overdoses and not more treatment for addiction.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: As much as he supports the police. He thinks that arresting drug users is detrimental to their health in recovering from addiction. He also has, you know, been, a backer of controls of police. He, embraced, controls on surveillance, making kind of a stricter approvals process so that the police couldn’t just put up cameras anywhere they wanted.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: We just saw that rolled back by proposition E, which was put on the ballot by Maryland to Breed in March, which is essentially allowing the police to circumvent the Board of Supervisors controls on surveillance that Peskin helped institute.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, we’ll hear from voters who are excited and not so excited about the idea of a mayor. Aaron Peskin, stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Who do you talk to? Joe, who’s excited about Aaron Peskin run for mayor.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: At the rally, I talked to a woman named Connie Liu, who spoke to me through a translator in Cantonese.

Connie Liu: [speaking Cantonese]

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: She is a San Francisco resident, a resident of the neighborhood, and said that as a constituent of Peskin for many years, she felt that he had represented her interests well.

Connie Liu: [speaking Cantonese]

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: There are also community leaders in Chinatown who spoke out for Peskin, including Wing Hoo Leung.

Wing Hoo Leung: [speaking Cantonese]

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Wing Hoo Leung is the president of the Community Tenants Association. Again, this group with more than 1700 tenant members, citywide, many of them, Chinese, many of them Cantonese monolingual.

Wing Hoo Leung: [speaking Cantonese]

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Wing Hoo Leung really looks up to Peskin. Peskin was there for him when he was just a tenant, and he was, facing eviction from his own home. And that situation led Liang to decide to become a housing leader in San Francisco. And he’s been so for more than a decade. And he spoke very highly of Peskin.

Translator: He has always stood with CTA, whether it’s advocating for tenants right, resisting on unjustified evictions and expanding affordable housing for us all, he truly cares about our community.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So, I mean, it sounds like Peskin is really counting on support from his constituents in Chinatown, who he has built these really strong relationships with over the years. Who else, though, is Peskin hoping to get votes from?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Yeah, so Peskin kind of walks into the mayor’s race with a coalition built of a few kind of distinct, San Francisco constituencies, Chinese tenants and progressive linked Chinese community groups, West side neighbors who don’t want to see a lot of dense housing construction happen in their neighborhoods, and progressives, progressives who are looking for an alternative on a lot of these issues that really hasn’t emerged with the current crop of candidates.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: So he walks in with those three groups, and his challenge then will be peeling off some other folks in constituencies that might otherwise support Farrell or Brede or Suffi or, Daniel Lurie. That includes labor. That includes, Chinese homeowners and merchant groups who might be a little more conservative and not inclined to support Peskin right away.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Yimby’s and younger voters, younger progressives. As a presidential election, you’re going to see a lot of young progressive voters, so we’ll see how animated they are about Peskin. He walks in with a strong base. But his challenge then is to add a bit to it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Who’s not so excited about his mayoral bid?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Definitely. Yimby’s. The. Yes, in my backyard. Folks who want to see more housing built. But also there is a group of more conservative Chinese and also more broadly AAPI voters who really supported the Board of Education, recall, recall of Chesa Boudin, the district attorney.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: And for those folks who are, you know, very newly activated groups, you know, I’m not saying they didn’t vote, but they weren’t like activists at the time. They were really, really politically activated by those two recalls. And Peskin sat out the board of Ed recall, and he opposed the Chesa Boudin recall.

William Brega: During the Stop Asian Hate movie. During Covid, when there are a lot of attacks against our seniors. We had a very important recall of Chesa Boudin, and he decided to stand by chaser.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: For those folks like William Brega, who I spoke to at the protest of Peskin this mayoral launch, Peskin is someone who was ideologically opposed to the most important issue to him.

William Brega: As a community activist, we saw that that was the most, beneficial way for our community to heal was by finding a new D.A. who would, denounce Asian hate, and prosecute criminals, who are attacking our seniors. So.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I know another area where his opponents are attacking him is on housing. What can you tell us about that?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Urbanists. People who value dense construction of buildings to build more homes and more transit. Who may also use the term yimby’s? Yes, in my backyard, supporters are pretty disappointed. They’re pretty angry right now. The state has mandated that San Francisco build 82,000 units of housing over the next decade or so.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: With that housing goal in mind, a lot of, yimby’s and politicians who are aligned with the Yimby movement say that we need to build more housing faster at every turn, at every opportunity. And Peskin is saying, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, slow your roll. We should build it some places, but not others. We should be smart about this.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: We should, you know, make sure that we’re building it where it doesn’t disturb. Peskin has voted against a lot of housing projects in San Francisco that Yimby say are needed, and even bees really don’t like that, and neither do the politicians are aligned with them. And another group that is saying anybody by Peskin is gross.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: And this is one of those groups that took in, you know, millions of dollars from billionaires and millionaire, tech investors and is looking to spend big bucks against Peskin in this race. He is going to encounter a ocean, a tidal wave of money against him.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Why, Joe? Why do people seem to hate Aaron Peskin so much? Like, why does he inspire so much anger?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Well, it’s one of two things. One is NIMBYs and urbanists, for reasons that we’ve outlined already. But the second moderate Democrats really hate Peskin, I think, because he’s really good at what he does. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, people will describe him as hyper competent at maneuvering in City Hall to people who hate him.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: They say he’s Machiavellian. He’s the shadow puppet master pulling the strings of supervisors to marshal the votes. Someone who’s so skilled that they fear him. But, you know, to people who like him, he’s an extremely skilled negotiator who is able to bring folks together from different views and different backgrounds to come to compromise.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, what’s the race ahead going to look like for Peskin, Joe? Like, do you think he has a good chance?

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: You know, this race is so squirrely. I think if anyone told you they knew how it was going to turn out, I would have a rust colored bridge to sell you. He comes into things with a strong hand because he has these built up alliances over years. He has huge relationships over years.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: But then again, the same thing that gives him that strength that long time in office, those long relationships. That’s also a weakness, right? Because people know who he is. People know what he is. They know what he’s about. It may be hard for him to make his case if you’ve already made up your mind.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: But it does seem like either way, whether Peskin does well or he does poorly, it feels like it will say a lot about where San Francisco is at.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: I think I think you’re right. I think how San Francisco votes on Peskin may actually give us more insight into this big question people have been asking, Is San Francisco lurching rightward? You know, I would say that that strain has always been with us.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: The idea that San Francisco was a liberal bastion, a progressive bastion, I think has always been a little inflated. We have always been this mix of constituencies and emotions, just like anywhere else. But I think that when we see the vote for Peskin or the other mayors, we may get a little more insight into just how much we’re lurching rightward right now.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Joe, thank you so much as always.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Thank you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a politics reporter for KQED. This 35 minute conversation with Joe was cut down and edited by senior editor Alan Montecillo. Maria Esquinca s our producer. She scored this episode and added all the tape music courtesy of The Audio Network.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: The rest of our podcast team at KQED includes Jen Chien, our director of podcasts, Katie Sprenger, our podcast operations manager, Cesar Saldana, our podcast engagement producer Maha Sanad, our podcast engagement intern Ellie Prickett-Morgan, The Bay’s production intern, and Holly Kernan, our chief content officer. The Bay is a production of listener supported KQED. Consider becoming a member at kqed.org/donate. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Peace.

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