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The Class of 2000 

Eight years after being swept into office, a once-disorganized band of neighborhood leftists tries to create a citywide political machine.

Wednesday, Oct 29 2008

On Jan. 9, 2001, a ragtag group of neighborhood activists arrived in San Francisco's historic, oak-paneled Legislative Chamber to be sworn in as the newest members of the Board of Supervisors. Neighborhood preservationist Aaron Peskin's parents, Harvey and Tsipora, were brimming with pride as their son, the newly elected supervisor from North Beach, read nervously from a carefully prepared speech about the value of historic buildings.

"I remember my voice quivering as I tried to deliver the speech as though I was a seasoned politician and not completely freaked out," Peskin says. "I also remember thinking the election had been a rare and amazing thing that happens maybe once every 100 years."

While the excitement in the chamber was palpable, there was also apprehension. One aide to then-Mayor Willie Brown remembers looking at the boyish face of Chris Daly, then a 28-year-old tenant activist from the Tenderloin, and wondering what these outsiders meant for City Hall.

"I was sincerely worried about the future well-being of San Francisco when 11 different neighborhood advocates were in charge and not a single one cared about citywide issues," the ex-Brown aide says. "Chris Daly is the perfect representative of the Tenderloin, but would he also care about Hetch Hetchy, transit-oriented development, and violence in the Mission?"

The new board majority clearly meant there were going to be sweeping changes to the city's political landscape. The 2000 election was a municipal revolution enabled by the reinstatement of district elections. The city's outer areas expressed their dissatisfaction with Brown's style of patronage politics and the excessive development that was transforming their neighborhoods by electing a supermajority of "progressives," who may have had scant electoral experience (except seasoned incumbent Tom Ammiano) but were unbeholden to developers or downtown business interests. The six progressive newcomers included Peskin, Daly, English teacher Jake McGoldrick, Amtrak electrician Sophie Maxwell, deputy public defender Gerardo Sandoval, and deputy public defender and Green Party member Matt Gonzalez.

Nearly all of the candidates Brown backed for the 11-member board lost. It was a stunning repudiation of the status quo — analogous perhaps to the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in 2006.

In the eight years the Class of 2000 members have controlled the board, they shifted the city's political direction markedly leftward. They've passed a universal health care law, banned plastic bags at grocery stores and Styrofoam containers, required nutrition labeling on restaurant menus, and endorsed an ambitious alternative energy plan to have half of the city's electricity from renewable sources by 2017. They've also put a great deal of successful legislation on the ballot, including instant runoff voting, $450 million in affordable housing bonds, and a measure establishing the first small business commission.

In the process they have made many enemies, particularly among downtown business interests, PG&E, and developers. "There's no doubt the combination of the board's actions and their ballot measures have been very problematic for business," says Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Jim Lazarus. "The vast majority of these supervisors have never had to meet a payroll and when all you've ever done is endorse the back of a check and never signed the front of one, you have a very different perspective."

Most of the Class of 2000 will be termed out of office in two months, and the old downtown-driven political machine is trying to recapture control of the Board of Supervisors, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat a new batch of progressive candidates. Some political observers are describing this election as a referendum on the board majority's performance over the last eight years.

In the meantime, some of the Class of 2000's members are trying to maintain their hold on city government even after they graduate. In fact, the once-ragtag group of neighborhood activists is hoping to create its own citywide political machine.

Shortly after the inauguration, the press christened the board's new supermajority the "Progressive Faction." The designation captured the fact that they were mostly to the political left of the board's business-friendly liberals (often labeled as "moderates"), but it also implied a unity and organization that did not exist. Before the election, the Class of 2000 did not participate in a slate and they made no joint campaign promises. After the election, they developed a reputation for internal squabbling and district-based battles over funding for neighborhood social services, which district would get police foot patrols and whose potholes would be filled first.

"We had to learn to work together ... live together, and it hasn't been easy," says Board President Peskin. "But all told, for a group who did not select one another, we've stayed on the same page more often than not."

In those early years, the progressives were perhaps best known for coming together on two issues: reining in developers and reining in Willie Brown.

After taking office, the Class of 2000 wasted no time in going after both.

Brown was now facing a board of supervisors that disdained his land use policies and was hostile toward his supreme powers over the city's Planning Commission. By 2000, many San Franciscans were fed up with Brown's dot-com building boom. The Planning Department was approving the conversion of light industrial buildings into offices at a mind-numbing rate, and live-work lofts were sprouting like weeds in the Mission, Potrero, and South of Market districts. The character of some neighborhoods was changing, and longtime residents were being displaced at a rate of 2,000 a year to make room for the new offices and pricey live-work lofts, according to the rent board. Moreover, there was the pay-to-play political environment for which Brown was infamous.

"It was as if the city had been taken over by developers," says Calvin Welch, the project director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. "People were stunned and confused and there was a notion among the new supervisors that land use battles were what they were supposed to do."

Within weeks of the inauguration, the supervisors initiated a six-month ban on live-work loft permits and imposed fees on commercial developers to pay for affordable housing projects.

The new progressive majority also began putting measures on the ballot to take away some of the mayor's appointment authority to boards and commissions. By the time Brown was termed out of office in 2004, the Board of Supervisors shared appointment powers with Brown — or had confirmation authority over his chosen commissioners — on some of the city's most powerful commissions, including the Planning Commission, the Board of Appeals, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Police Commission.

With its new authority, the Class of 2000 set about putting the kibosh on Brown's more controversial projects. "Our accomplishments fall into two categories," says Peskin, "the things we achieved and the terrible things that would have happened if it were not for this board of supervisors."

Peskin took the lead on scuttling a Mills Corporation proposal to build a 500,000-square-foot shopping mall and office park on the northern waterfront. He also grounded a $3.5 billion plan to fill in two square miles of the bay for runways at the San Francisco Airport, an idea adamantly opposed by environmentalists.

To shed light on the city's planning process, the Class of 2000 instituted the Better Neighborhoods 2002 program. Instead of developers hammering out deals with planning officials, the new program brought the community into the process by holding a series of public workshops, bus tours through well-designed neighborhoods, focused meetings, and study groups. The program was designed to preserve neighborhood character while developing new housing, improving streetscapes, and improving public transportation.

The three plans that have been developed under the program are the Market-Octavia Plan, the Balboa Park Plan, and the Central Waterfront Plan.

"Previously we never drew neighborhood plans; it was always generalized zoning," says Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, a planning think tank. "Now we have the best, most careful planning with crafted details and design details right down to the sidewalks."

But critics argue that the neighborhood plans are too restrictive on development, which hurts the city's potential for attracting businesses and job creation. Land use attorney Tim Tosta says development in San Francisco has become a fractured proposition for developers. Each neighborhood has different standards, and developers have to take those standards into consideration.

Tosta says the Mission Bay development plan for 303 acres between AT&T Park and Interstate 280 has been very successful in creating housing, small business, jobs, and an expanded tax base. "Look at the economic vitality of Mission Bay and how that vitality spins off all over the city," Tosta says. "Mission Bay could never have happened under the (Better Neighborhoods) rubric."

Still, it's not as though the progressives are always against big development. In fact, Daly has been an enthusiastic supporter of skyscrapers so long as the price is right. Daly hashed out a sweet deal that will allow developers to ultimately build five high-rise condominium towers near the Bay Bridge. The deal is that Daly's pet nonprofits get $14 for every square foot, which will add up to an estimated $50 million. Critics say the deal has a Brown-like stench, but Daly supporters say he represents the city's poorest district and the funding is sorely needed.

While the Class of 2000 has gone a long way to dispel the cloud of corruption that characterized Willie Brown's City Hall, it's had a few of its own scandals as well.

Last year Jake McGoldrick cast the deciding vote in favor of a proposed 61-unit condominium building in the Mission District a day after two of the project's developers, and one of their attorneys, contributed $2,000 to fight a McGoldrick recall effort. A campaign committee controlled by Peskin received a $20,000 contribution from Clear Channel Outdoor just days before the Board of Supervisors awarded the company a Muni advertising contract worth millions. And earlier this year, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the board acted illegally when it voided a lucrative sewage-hauling contract with S&S Trucking Company and instead awarded it to Norcal Waste Systems, a larger company known for its political connections. Norcal had made a more expensive bid that would cost taxpayers as much as $3 million more over five years.

Despite the current board's occasional ethical lapses, the new crop of candidates running for the Board of Supervisors in next week's election are not decrying a culture of corruption at City Hall. But a few are attacking a culture of dysfunction.

Alicia Wang, a candidate from the Richmond neighborhood seeking to replace termed-out District 1 incumbent McGoldrick, claims the board has compromised its ability to carry out city business. "This is one of the most dysfunctional boards I've ever seen," she said at a recent candidates' forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

The example Wang gave a few days after the event was last year's Proposition E, which would have required the mayor to appear at each regularly scheduled Board of Supervisors meeting and engage in formal discussion on policy issues. The measure failed, but Wang says the proposed measure was an example of "gotcha" politics that had no benefit for city residents.

Denise McCarthy, a former port commissioner running for the District 3 (North Beach and Chinatown) seat now held by Peskin, says the progressive faction has had such a lock on the board that large constituencies and some small businesses feel there's no sense in participating in public discussion because so many issues are predetermined. She also criticized supervisors and the mayor for engaging in ego-based battles that take precedence over rationally governing the city.

"This is a very important election," McCarthy says. "There are going to be some major changes, and I particularly hope we see more women on the board. More women on the board, I think, will change the dynamic."

Joseph Alioto Jr., also a District 3 candidate, says he's running for supervisor because of the feuding on the board. "Like you," Alioto says on his Web site, "I am disappointed with the current Board members' inability to work together. Their personal differences have too often taken precedence over what is best for San Francisco." He concludes with this pledge: "No political theater. No bickering. Just real progress for San Francisco."

Peskin dismisses the claims of dysfunction. "I really don't know what they're talking about," he says. "The business of the city is getting done; all of the budgets have come in on time, the garbage is still picked up, water is still coming out of the tap, and the planes are still taking off."

But while the board may have taken care of city business over the last eight years, it has also staged a lot of theatrical productions in and out of the Legislative Chamber. Peskin himself has been involved in a couple of them. There was the time he reportedly told a colleague who had opposed his Muni-reform measure that "payback is a bitch" after voting against one of her proposals. Earlier this year, it came to light that the port's executive director had complained about Peskin calling her at home and berating her.

But most of the political dramas involving the board over the last eight years have starred Chris Daly. And his performances have been very entertaining — if you like watching multi-car pileups on the freeway.

Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who uses a wheelchair, recently invited a reporter into her office for a wide-ranging talk about her experiences on the Board of Supervisors. When the conversation came to her colleague Chris Daly, she reached for a remote control device to turn off a television that was broadcasting a city meeting in the background. She paused for a moment and began to talk about one of her first meetings shortly after Mayor Gavin Newsom had appointed her in 2004.

"I had just sent a mundane piece of his legislation to committee," Alioto-Pier says. "The next thing I know he's standing over me, pointing his finger down at me, and yelling, 'That's the most uncollegial thing I've ever seen anyone do on this board!'"

Another time, Alioto-Pier had just made an argument to the board against closing Golden Gate Park to vehicles because it would prevent access for the disabled. "I had just turned off my microphone," she says, "and Chris leans over to me and says, 'I represent the disabled community, not you, and the disabled don't go to Golden Gate Park.'"

Alioto-Pier laughs a little, presumably at the absurdity of the two incidents. "The irony of it," she says.

The Alioto-Pier story is only one of dozens. Daly, who didn't return several phone calls requesting comment, is perhaps best known for pitching invective-laced tantrums and then storming out of the chamber after working himself up into a red-faced knot. His supporters often excuse his behavior as a demonstration of his overwhelming passion for the poor who live in the Tenderloin neighborhood he represents. His critics say he's just an artless bully with the impulse control of hyperactive chimpanzee. Everybody agrees he is the city's most polarizing politician.

"When you have the negatives of a Chris Daly, it drags everybody down," says Chamber of Commerce senior vice president Lazarus, who is a former deputy city attorney. "Daly's antics, and some of the other supervisors', would not have been tolerated on previous boards. It's become so partisan."

Even Daly's allies on the board have criticized his rants at Newsom, which have freely crossed the line between political and personal attacks. He relentlessly mocked the mayor for problems in his first marriage, going public with a drinking problem, and having an affair with his deputy chief of staff's wife, who also worked in Newsom's office as his appointments secretary.

Then Daly outdid himself by publicly insinuating that Newsom had a cocaine addiction. The mayor vehemently denied the smear, and even Daly's progressive board allies complained. Undaunted, Daly proposed two anti-sin ordinances, both thinly veiled swipes at Newsom. One ordinance would have outlawed management-level city employees from dating non-management city employees. The proposed ordinance was so severe it even prevented expressing fond sentiments in the form of poems. According to the Chronicle's Matier and Ross, when Peskin refused to support Daly's legislation, Daly stormed out of Peskin's office saying, "I can't believe you won't sign on to my measure to prevent the mayor from f-ing his secretary!"

Daly also sought to restrict the use of alcohol and drugs by elected officials, commissioners, and committee members prior to meetings. When the Ethics Commission was considering the ordinance, one exasperated commissioner said, "Supervisor Daly, are you suggesting we put a Breathalyzer outside all of the city's meeting rooms?"

Both of the ordinances were laughed out of City Hall, but not before it cost taxpayers time, money, and patience. Like a child whose tantrums embarrass his parents and everyone else in a restaurant, Daly doesn't seem realize how much damage he does to the progressive cause. In the current campaign for the board, Daly's eight years of fits, tantrums, and rants are doing a great deal of harm to the progressive candidates he supports.

Daly's political opponents, which include the San Francisco Association of Realtors, the Building Owners and Managers Association, and the San Francisco Coalition for Responsible Growth, are spending hundreds of thousands to beat progressive candidates, and the most effective weapon they have is Daly's behavior.

"One of our collective failures has been to ignore and inadvertently enable Chris Daly," Peskin says. "We never took him seriously enough to rein him in, and we should have done it years ago."

District 11 candidate John Avalos has been relentlessly attacked in mailers and robocalls because he is Daly's former aide. The San Francisco Coalition for Responsible Growth spent $14,700 on a hit piece mailer that had a picture of a man sleeping on a sidewalk next to an overloaded shopping cart. The large lettering above the picture reads, "Some supervisors think this is acceptable." And below superimposed pictures of Avalos and Daly: "Chris Daly and his legislative aide District 11 candidate John Avalos watched while their district, including the Tenderloin, got worse for working families."

And the attacks don't stop with Avalos. The San Francisco Association of Realtors paid for robocalls linking District 3 candidate David Chiu to Daly, who has endorsed Chiu. In the calls, a woman says, "David Chiu is the handpicked candidate of far-out Supervisor Chris Daly and his radical, ineffective faction on the Board of Supervisors." She wraps up the recording with, "If you like Daly's antics, you will love Chiu."

Earlier this year, Class of 2000 members Daly, Peskin, and McGoldrick filed to run for the little-known Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC). Usually, ambitious pols use the DCCC to help launch bids for higher office. Rarely do three incumbent supervisors voluntarily take a step backward career-wise and compete to run for the DCCC.

But there was a good reason for the trio to do so — they led a progressive slate attempting to take over the local arm of the Democratic Party. By controlling the DCCC, Peskin and his allies could steer official Democratic Party endorsements to their handpicked successors on the board of supes. In a city where 56 percent of the voters are registered Democrats, the party's endorsement is a huge shot in the arm for local candidates.

The slate led by McGoldrick, Peskin, and Daly won a majority to the committee in the June primary. Shortly thereafter, Daly started assuming the role of ward heeler, cajoling his colleagues to back Peskin for chairman. Daly sent out an intimidating e-mail to fellow members of the DCCC saying that if they didn't vote for Peskin instead of incumbent chair Scott Wiener, there would be a price to pay.

"I, for one, have already committed to make it my personal mission to make sure that any members voting for Scott never receive the endorsement of the Guardian, Tenants Union, Sierra Club, and Milk Club in subsequent races," Daly wrote. "I hope that you decide to be with us."

The 34 members of the DCCC elected Peskin as its chair by an 18-16 vote last summer.

Under Peskin's leadership, the committee, again by narrow margins, swung to the left and endorsed progressive supervisor candidates in three critical swing districts (1, 3, and 11) critical to maintaining a progressive majority on the board. They also endorsed several progressive ballot measures, including Prop. H, a proposal to study public power, and the controversial Prop. K, which would decriminalize prostitution.

"The problem I see is that they took over the party and now they are heavily promoting their favored candidates for supervisor," the deposed Wiener says. "And you see a political machine coming into existence."

The legacy of the Class of 2000 will be largely determined by the outcome of next week's election. If voters approve the DCCC's endorsed measures and elect its candidates for supervisor, they will establish a new political machine that can, in a real way, counter the much larger moderate machine that includes heavy hitters like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former state Senate leader John Burton.

But voters will also have indirectly chosen a boss for the new machine, Chris Daly, who still has two years remaining on his term. The newly elected supervisors, beholden to the DCCC's endorsements, might feel obligated to elect Daly as board president, which would give him new heights from which to bully his political opponents.

"If Avalos (and the other progressives) win, then Daly's won the whole ballgame and everyone will have to let Chris do what he wants," says political number cruncher David Latterman, president of Fall Line Analytics. "If all three progressive candidates lose in those districts, then it's a case of Daly rising high, but poisoning everyone around him."

Read more on the Class of 2000

Class of 2000 Standouts
By Will Harper

Senior Memories
Some of the Class of 2000's stranger moments. (A lot of them involve Chris Daly.)
Compiled by SF Weekly Staff

The Failed Experiment
The Class of 2000 made San Francisco its political petri dish.
by Matt Smith

About The Author

John Geluardi


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