Aaron Peskin is out of politics—done, finito, kaput. “I hardly ever go into city hall anymore, and I’m rarely on the phone with supervisors,” the ex-president of the Board of Supervisors and ex-chairman of the local Democratic Party insists over a latte at his beloved Caffe Trieste. “I have a full-time job that’s very satisfying, and local politics is not the center of my life.”
But before private citizen Peskin can tell me more about all the nothing that he’s up to, he reaches into the chest pocket of his shaggy fleece—another call is coming through on his smartphone. Who is it this time? Can’t be former mayor Art Agnos; he was on the line when I showed up at the café. Is it related to the lawsuit that Peskin filed last year to block the development of Treasure Island? An update on his referendum against 8 Washington, the controversial Embarcadero condo project? Wrong and wrong.
“I did it! My deal got approved,” he says with pride as he pockets his phone. “Fifteen hundred acres for the Pyramid Lake Paiutes.” It’s another coup for his current employer, Great Basin Land & Water, the San Francisco nonprofit that’s purchasing water rights on behalf of Native American tribes—the main focus of Peskin’s attention these days. (Or at least until the next time the phone rings, which it does at least six times during our conversation.)
Never mind that Peskin was sidelined after his handpicked candidates for the board lost in 2010, or that he took flak for labeling Ed Lee a “lightweight” and implying that Rose Pak is an operative for the People’s Republic of China. Peskin’s sway over San Francisco’s political left is as strong as ever, whether he’s publicly calling on Ross Mirkarimi to resign, convincing supervisor John Avalos to run for mayor in 2011 (Avalos finished second), or campaigning for supervisorial hopefuls (as he was doing before our coffee date). Progressive would-be politicians still scramble for his endorsement; political reporters still chase after his quotes.
The city’s moderate, big-business-friendly political establishment hasn’t forgotten Peskin either. Want to build a luxury condo development on the Embarcadero? Watch out: Peskin will raise tens of thousands of dollars in support of a citizen referendum—the first to qualify for the ballot in 20 years—against 8 Washington.
Part of Peskin’s staying power, of course, is that he’s only 48 years old—hardly old enough to hang it up. And he still has plenty to rage against. When he was elected back in 2000, it was Willie Brown’s patronage politics and downtown development. Today, it’s the tech- and Chinatown–leaning machine of Lee, Pak, and Ron Conway—on top of the still-influential Brown. “The machine is more powerful than ever,” he says.
And there’s more than enough time left for a second electoral act, should he want it. Can he really say with a straight face that he doesn’t? Will there ever be a Mayor Peskin, for example? It isn’t a total pipe dream—or at least it wasn’t when the Board of Supervisors was doing the selecting in 2011. “Hey,” he says, leaning forward, a glimmer visible behind his darkening glasses, “I had four votes.”
Turns out it was really only three, out of the six that he needed—but hey, as Peskin well knows, a little overreach can go a long way.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.