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San Francisco Giant

Melissa Griffin | February 13, 2013 | Story Politics

“I was always the tallest kid in my class,” Scott Wiener recalls. Eventually topping out at 6 feet, 7 inches, the future lawyer, community leader, and politician grew up—and up—in Turnersville, New Jersey, back “when it was still sort of a farm town.” “Did you play army when you were a kid?” I ask, assuming that the favored pastimes in Wiener’s rural neighborhood were the same as in mine. “We didn’t play army,” he says. “We played a game of who could build the more elaborate, bigger fort. I was pretty darn good.”

Fast-forward 30 years, and as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Wiener, 42, is still the tallest in the class—and he’s still pretty darn good at manipulating his environment. In just over two years on the board, the rail-thin, NBA-tall Wiener has become both the city’s Mr. Fix-It and the fringe left’s Public Enemy No. 1. He has demanded quarterly hearings with the MTA to discuss improving the city’s abysmal taxi service, simplified parking taxes for small property owners, paved the way for micro-apartments, streamlined the restaurant permitting process, and, yes, with exceptions for certain events, banned public nudity. For these and other “moderate” legislative acts, he’s been called a Nazi, a Republican, and worse. He’s the only supervisor with the distinction of having an entire community group in his district arrayed against him: It’s called Wiener Watch, and its stated aim is to “plan and execute creative, public actions that target Supervisor Wiener.” The anti-Wiener hysteria is the tingling sensation that lets you know he’s working.

That so much ire could be incited by such a staid, dispassionate fellow, who is neither a particularly charismatic politician nor a polarizing ideologue, is fairly surprising. Even the most wizened San Francisco political animals don’t quite get it. “He has championed things that don’t stamp him necessarily as a visionary politician,” says former mayor Willie Brown, who, like Wiener, has long been derided as a servant of big-time developers and a steward of rapacious capitalism. However, Brown is not so sure that the younger man even has a clear vision for the city. “At the moment, Scott is best known for the nudity ban,” says Brown. “He’s done a number of other things, but at the moment, I can’t recall them.”

Wiener’s low public profile hasn’t stopped him from becoming perhaps the most divisive supervisor since Aaron Peskin and Chris Daly were roaming City Hall. In a place where government often values process over product (as in, the more “planning meetings” you’ve held with “stakeholders,” the more successful you are), Wiener has earned both enemies and acolytes by pushing through legislation and taking on controversial subjects with remarkable tenacity. He may not be the president of the Board of Supervisors or its most prolific lawmaker (David Chiu holds both honors), but he is arguably its most influential and important member. And with battles looming this month over condo-conversion legislation and environmental review reform, plus his new roles as the chairman of the powerful Land Use and Economic Development Committee and the de facto leader of the board’s fight against chronic Muni underperformance, it’s likely that Wiener’s stature will only increase.

Aside from his neck-craning height, what is most noticeable upon meeting Wiener in his sparsely decorated (he prefers the descriptor “minimalist”) City Hall office is the sense that he loves being a supervisor—not in a “Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch” way, but in an earnest, Harvard Law student, “we are the change we were waiting for” way. The conventional wisdom of local politics is that people get on the Board of Supervisors in order to get off the Board of Supervisors as quickly as possible. It’s the ultimate political stepping-stone, a fine training ground for the klieg lights and historic fights of Washington (see Feinstein, Dianne) and Sacramento (see Leno, Mark, and Ammiano, Tom). For the average San Francisco supe, the issues are a good deal less grand. “Everything is so personal for constituents,” Wiener says. “When you’re in Sacramento, you’re fighting for broad issues like universal healthcare and mass transit, but when you’re in local government, it’s a fight over whether certain trees get removed or whether someone gets to do an extension on his house. It’s an emotionally challenging job.”

Whether by training or by coincidence, Wiener’s personality seems preternaturally suited to riding that roller coaster. His demeanor is exceedingly restrained. He gestures slowly and speaks directly, seeming at times as if he’s in “power save” mode, reserving his energy in case of emergency. “Straightforward” is a description used by a number of people who’ve worked alongside (and sometimes against) him. “Excitable” is not. He doesn’t drink to excess, he has only a few close friends, and he prefers walking over riding a bike. He’s a single gay man who represents the Castro, but he’s on no one’s “most eligible bachelor” list (his dating life, he’ll be the first to tell you, isn’t as robust as his legislative agenda). He agreeably took a $70,000 pay cut when he left the city attorney’s office to join the Board of Supervisors. He so rarely drives his car that he gave up his parking spot at City Hall, preferring to take Muni everywhere he goes. For exercise, he practices yoga. For “fun,” he attends up to five community events a night.

Indeed, the common perception of Wiener as a political automaton who’s built an inordinately ambitious agenda for a first-term representative is largely correct. He’s doing so much, so fast, in fact, that the makings of what you might call a Wiener Doctrine are starting to take shape. If Bill Clinton’s approach to issues was triangulation, Wiener’s philosophy can be described as “untangulation”—refusing to get bogged down in red tape, activists’ shenanigans, or general procedural BS. He’s willing to listen to opposing points of view, but if all he needs to pass a law is six votes, he’ll settle for exactly that many. As his sometime opponent Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City and the president of BART’s board of directors, says, “Scott’s favorite term is ‘We’ll agree to disagree,’ and his vibe is ‘Keep it going, keep it going, keep it going.’”

Not surprisingly, Wiener’s perceived impatience has earned the wrath of a good many local activists. One of them is Gary Virginia, an LGBT community organizer who, despite his denials so far, is on the short list of people likely to run against Wiener when he comes up for reelection in 2014. Virginia, who has clashed repeatedly with Wiener over condo conversions, public nudity, and the sit-lie law, lays out the most common accusation against the supervisor: “Over and over again, you get people who are blindsided by his legislation... The first time different perspectives have a chance to meet one another should not be at the Board of Supervisors with a room full of people and a spillover room watching it on TV.”

Exhibit A for Wiener detractors is what they see as his high-handedness in September 2011, when he bypassed meetings at the Historical Preservation Commission in proposing a law restricting the commission’s power. Radulovich chuckles when describing Wiener’s approach in this and other instances: “Throw everything in there, stir it up, and see what you can get accomplished.” What Wiener accomplished in this case was giving the Planning Commission some oversight over the HPC, which still enrages preservation activists.

That Wiener shoots first and aims later is a recurring complaint from his opponents. And the strategy isn’t always successful. When Wiener tried in December of last year to close a loophole that exempts huge nonprofits like hospitals and colleges from paying the transit impact fees to Muni that are required of commercial developers, nonprofits kicked into overdrive. Even entities far too small to be affected by the fee came out against it. Their chief complaint? Not enough dialogue. This despite the fact that Wiener had postponed the vote on the fees four times over three months to allow for more community feedback. Under the umbrella of a newly formed group called NOTT (Nonprofits Opposed to Transit Tax) that was associated with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the organizations managed to kill the legislation, but promised that they would consider paying such fees next year, when they would not be “caught by surprise.”

When I ask Wiener to respond to the notion that he doesn’t do enough outreach, not surprisingly, he disagrees. “First of all, that criticism is bogus,” he says, approaching something like passion for the first time in our conversation. “A lot of times when people say that there wasn’t enough outreach, it’s really their way of saying, ‘I don’t agree with this legislation.’ Rather than defend the fact that a mega-hospital or university campus doesn’t have to pay a penny in transit impact fees—because that is an indefensible position—they say, ‘Oh, you didn’t reach out.’” Wiener maintains that the legislation had been around for years and that the mayor’s office had already done plenty of outreach. He claims that he spent three months meeting with “scores of nonprofits,” but that, in the end, they just didn’t want to negotiate. “And that was that.”

Ending the dialogue—even repetitive, circular dialogue—can be a cardinal sin in the consensus-obsessed world of San Francisco politics. But even occasional Wiener detractors like Radulovich agree that the supervisor should be praised for refusing to feed this toxic vein of the local culture. “Some people,” Radulovich says, “expect superhuman amounts of outreach, and at some point, that’s just a delay tactic.”

Of course, it’s not just the way Wiener has chosen to legislate that gets activists’ knickers in a twist—it’s what he has decided to focus on. Put in startup-speak, Wiener is platform-agnostic. He has no problem switching from the highbrow (tenancy-incommon reform, CEQA process streamlining) to the lowbrow (city-run tree pruning, street-furniture cleanups, booting naked guys out of the Castro). Perhaps his efficient approach would be less bothersome if he chose safer—or simply fewer—issues to tackle. “Taking on nudity, food trucks, camping in plazas, taxi service, and historic preservation, he gets the goat of the people on the left,” says board president Chiu, who has known Wiener since both attended law school at Harvard.

It’s for that very approach, however, that many San Franciscans applaud Wiener. “Legislatively, he has not been shy to address more challenging issues facing the city. It shows his fearlessness,” says state senator Mark Leno. “Fear can freeze some people and prevent leadership.” Radulovich explains the difference thusly: “For Scott, if the issue is right and in line with his values, he’ll go for it. Other supervisors are making the calculation, ‘Will I get in trouble? Will I be popular?’”

Asked why he’s not afraid to touch the sticky subjects, Wiener responds in typically vanilla fashion: “I’ve chosen to be a public official. If I’m just going to be a bump on a log and be timid and not actually push to make change, then why am I doing this?” Grinding through controversial proposals can be a risky path, of course, but if one’s goal is to propel oneself to citywide prominence, it’s an extremely good course of action. Then again, Wiener doesn’t seem to be modeling himself on particularly flashy folks.

His political heroes, Wiener tells me, aren’t the controversy-seeking Jerry Browns and Chris Christies of the world, or the headline-hungry Willie Browns and Gavin Newsoms. Rather, they are a pair of fellow New Jersey Democrats: the wonky and aloof (and also very tall) Bill Bradley, best known for revamping the federal tax code, and Jim Florio, “who was elected governor of New Jersey in the late ’80s during a horrible budget time, a recession, and he had to do the right thing and raise taxes. He needed to. And they tossed him out of office.”

Like many San Francisco transplants, Wiener has a perspective formed far from our lovely bubble by the bay. His family is tight-knit. His mother is an optician and a former biology teacher; his father is an optometrist. When he talks about growing up, alongside his younger sister, Melissa, now a doctor in New York, a pattern emerges: one of sincerely held beliefs backed by a methodical work ethic. Upon arriving as a freshman at Duke University, Wiener discovered that there was no longer a club for college Democrats. Instead of cursing his fate, he got together with some friends and started one. As a law student at Harvard, he helped lead a boycott to keep students from interviewing at the law firm Sidley Austin after one of the firm’s partners went before the Supreme Court to defend a homophobic law passed in Colorado. “I was sort of a rabble-rouser,” he tells me, though he admits that he sat down and spoke to firm representatives to explain his position in a civil manner. They agreed to disagree.

Soon after Harvard, Wiener moved to San Francisco, where he worked for the late, great law firm of Heller Ehrman. His focus was civil litigation, representing companies that were suing other companies. But the firm was also famous for allowing its associates to do lots of pro bono work, and Wiener did that, too. In 2002, he left the firm to join the city attorney’s office and then ran for the Democratic County Central Committee. He got his first taste of political chicanery in 2006 when, as the DCCC chairman, he selected his friend David Chiu to fill a committee vacancy, only to be doublecrossed when Chiu voted to oust him as chairman. Chiu’s vote—the deciding one in the election, it turned out—went to Aaron Peskin, whose endorsement Chiu sought as he gunned for the soon-to-be-termed-out District 3 supervisor’s seat on the board.

After all that drama, one would expect there to be serious animus between Wiener and Chiu. Willie Brown, for one, faults Wiener for not actively seeking revenge on his once and current colleague. “I wish he’d be tougher on dealing with people who have wronged him,” says the ex-mayor. But if there is any lingering bad blood between the supes, Wiener won’t cop to it. You could say, though, that this absence of rancor speaks less to the lawmaker’s better angels than it does to his single-minded determination to get things done. Chiu is a vote, and Wiener needs votes. While Wiener lobbied hard behind the scenes to succeed Chiu as the next board president in January, he knew better than to take the fight public. Wiener ended up seconding the nomination of Chiu for board president, and Chiu responded by appointing Wiener head of the coveted land use committee.

Tit. Tat. Keep it moving. Keep it moving. Keep it moving.

His enemies may rail about Wiener’s supposed conservatism (the ever–hyperbolic Peskin recently told the Bay Guardian that Wiener is “fundamentally a very ideologically conservative person. He’s radical in his conservatism”), but what they really seem to hate is his pragmatism. Ideologically, he’s a tough guy to pin down. Speaking of his former Harvard classmates Chiu and fellow board member David Campos, Wiener quips, “I would say we’re left, lefter, and leftist. We’re all liberal Democrats here. But for some people, that is not left enough.”

Perhaps it is because of his infuriatingly calm and unflappable demeanor that Wiener is so often the target of personal insults. At the November committee hearing on the nudity ban, he was compared to Joseph Goebbels, accused of being controlled by fascists, and called a “regressive,” a “money changer,” and a “disgruntled conservative.” Given that many people would crawl under a table if faced with such attacks, I ask Wiener how he can just sit there and take it. “We were never a family of drama,” he recalls. “I grew up Jewish in a very, very non-Jewish place where there was plenty of anti-Semitism. I learned early on that it’s not helpful to get upset or freak out just because someone calls you a bad name. I was called ‘kike’ on various occasions growing up, and other people got called that and worse.”

Of course, Wiener—the son of a long line of “dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt Democrats”—was never called a Republican before moving to San Francisco. In fact, the subject produces some honest- to-goodness mirth in him. “When I tell [family members] that I, along with Nancy Pelosi, am considered middle-of-the-road in San Francisco, they think it’s pretty funny,” he says. “I’d chuckle when I was called a fascist and a Nazi during the nudity debate, when just a couple of months before I had played a key role in delivering transgender health benefits through Healthy S.F. Only in San Francisco would you be called conservative when you help deliver transgender health benefits and support affordable housing.”

So whom does Wiener consider a role model locally? Clearly, he looks up to his former boss, City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Wiener was an early and staunch supporter of Herrera’s bid for mayor in 2011, and Herrera calls Wiener “one of the hardestworking people I’ve ever met in my entire life.” But it’s much easier to compare Wiener to state senator Leno, whose campaigns he has long supported. “Mark is careful not to be just the gay candidate,” offers Willie Brown. “Scott is the same way. He cares about gay issues, but he is a citywide politician.” And their similarities aren’t confined to identity politics: While both are intensely private about their personal lives, they also keep positively manic social calendars.

Wiener is proud of his and Leno’s common approach to community outreach, saying that “as an elected official, you have a responsibility to be in the community.” But there’s another obvious benefit to going to events and riding Muni to work each day: perspective. It’s no surprise that Wiener’s list of priorities—transit, affordable housing, streamlining regulations—sounds like something heard in every elevator, in every supermarket line, and at every cocktail party in the city.

“I always keep in mind,” Wiener says, “one thing that Mayor Newsom would say when he held mass swearing-ins for commissioners: ‘Just remember when you’re up there making those decisions, you don’t just represent the people who have the time to spend all night at your hearing. You represent everyone, including the vast majority of people who don’t know the meeting is going on and have no time or ability to be there.’ That’s always stuck in my head, because it is so easy to get caught up and be scared because you have 20, 30, 50 people yelling at you, claiming that they are the voice of the community—and you know, by just being in the community all the time, that it’s not true.”

It’s with the non-screaming, non-epithet-tossing silent majority—the kind of people who’d rather spend a day window-shopping on 24th Street than picketing City Hall in their birthday suits—that Wiener is most politically aligned. And for this group, which is growing in strength and numbers in this fast-gentrifying city, his politics are pretty much unimpeachable. Indeed, his bold moves and frequent appearances around town have earned him a sizable fan base. Though Wiener is not normally identified as a gay leader, that didn’t stop users of the gay hookup app Grindr from voting him San Francisco’s “local hero/community advocate of the year” in 2012 (putting him in the company of Barack Obama for Washington, D.C., Anderson Cooper for New York City, and Senator Elizabeth Warren for Boston). Tellingly, only one person, a nudist named George Davis, has announced plans to run against Wiener next year when he’s up for reelection.

Finding a way to survive and thrive in the whacked, intense, and bruising world of San Francisco politics can qualify a person for many things, including higher office. “The best master class for a seat in the [state] legislature is a term on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors,” says Leno, a future alumnus of both. “Here in Sacramento, you see legislators fresh from their school board or the city council in a place with 50,000 people, and, let’s just say, we are much better prepared.”

Leno will be termed out of state office in 2016, and Wiener is already on many politics watchers’ short lists for his senate seat, especially now that Leno’s district has been redrawn to include more moderate neighbors to the south. Still, 2016 is an eternity away in politics, and anything can happen between now and then. Wiener, on message as always, claims to be focused only on making positive changes in his district. “To me, it’s not just about protecting myself in office and being able to climb the ladder. I don’t fight for the sake of fighting. Most of my legislation is uncontroversial or not very controversial. But for things that need to be pushed for, I’m willing to push.”

Scott Wiener still doesn’t want to play army. He’s just trying to build a grand fort. ❒


Everything you didn’t need to know about the D8 Supe

Born: May 11, 1970, in Philadelphia

Sign: Taurus

Pet: Tabitha, a 17-year-old gray cat named after the Bewitched character

High School Sport: Swim team lunch: Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the downstairs cafeteria in City Hall. “When I walk in, the folks there know exactly what I’m getting.”

Getaway: An annual trip with friends to a horse ranch in Wyoming

Weakness: Anything with ginger. Wiener goes on about this subject like he’s Bubba from Forrest Gump—“Ginger ale, ginger cookies, ginger cake….”

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