Progressive Candidate Could Upend the San Francisco Mayor’s Race

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San Francisco residents have repeatedly told pollsters they don’t support Mayor London Breed. But until now, every one of her challengers in the November election has sounded a lot like her.

They have talked about adding police officers and taking a tough-on-crime approach to the drug and mental health crises on the city’s streets. They have tried to appeal to frustrated voters who recalled school board members and the city’s prosecutor two years ago, then expanded police powers and restricted welfare benefits last month.

But as those mayoral contenders try to outmaneuver one another from the middle, they may have left an opening for a candidate on the left. Into that void has stepped Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Mr. Peskin, 59, confirmed in an interview that he will file papers on Friday to run for mayor. While other rivals thought Ms. Breed might be ousted by someone to her right, Mr. Peskin could win the race if enough liberals coalesce around him in a city known for its left-wing politics.

Mr. Peskin said this week that he agrees with the other candidates that the San Francisco Police Department needs more officers, and he would try to create a program to seek recruits from local colleges. He said he also agrees that fentanyl dealers must be arrested and jailed.

But unlike some of his rivals, he does not believe police should crack down on public drug use. He also said Ms. Breed had not done enough to expand treatment options for those addicted to drugs, and he opposed her successful measure on the March ballot to require welfare recipients to undergo drug screening.

San Francisco’s reputation has been battered since the start of the pandemic, many residents say unfairly so, for its soaring number of drug overdose deaths, property crime epidemic, hollowed-out downtown and homelessness crisis. Voters have repeatedly given Ms. Breed very low approval ratings and said they were not optimistic about their city’s future.

In the past, Mr. Peskin and Ms. Breed have diverged most on how to address housing problems in a city wracked with a shrinking middle class and not enough affordable units.

Ms. Breed supports building taller, denser housing for people of all income levels across the city and has pledged to try to have 82,000 new units built by 2031, the target set by the state.

Mr. Peskin sees that goal as unrealistic and believes San Francisco should retain local control over its housing development rather than have the state intervene.

Just last month, Mr. Peskin spearheaded a city ordinance limiting dense housing construction near his home in Telegraph Hill in the city’s northeast corner. After Ms. Breed vetoed it, Mr. Peskin rallied enough colleagues to override her veto, the first time that has happened in her administration. Critics accused Mr. Peskin of caring less about housing affordability than preserving the character of his own neighborhood, which is dotted with lovely homes and lush gardens and topped by Coit Tower.

Mr. Peskin said he has worked since his first election to the Board of Supervisors in 2000 to rezone some parts of the city for more housing while he has tried to protect the character, culture and history of its neighborhoods.

“I firmly believe we can grow San Francisco without ruining San Francisco,” he said.

He said he wants to focus on fixing “the dysfunctional planning and building departments” where projects regularly languish for months or years. He said he would be a better department manager than Ms. Breed.

Ms. Breed’s spokesman, Joe Arellano, said Mr. Peskin’s views on housing would set back progress.

“Aaron Peskin is synonymous with intimidation, obstruction and dysfunction,” he said.

Candidates on the left of the city’s narrow, mostly liberal political spectrum typically have a reliable base of about 35 percent of voters. But some political experts said that Mr. Peskin could win under the city’s ranked choice voting system.

It allows voters to rank their top three candidates in order. If nobody receives the majority of first-choice votes, the person who receives the fewest No. 1 picks is eliminated and the second and third picks on those ballots are redistributed. The process continues until somebody has the most votes, avoiding a traditional two-person runoff.

Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said Mr. Peskin “is well-positioned to come out victorious” because the moderate candidates could split the vote. He said the centrist candidates would be wise to form an “anybody but Peskin” slate and tell their supporters to pick each other as their No. 2 and No. 3 votes.

Mark Farrell, the venture capitalist who served as interim mayor for six months after the 2017 death of Mayor Ed Lee, is already pushing that idea. He is also organizing a counterrally at Mr. Peskin’s kickoff event in Chinatown on Saturday.

“It is in the best interest of San Francisco and all of the moderate candidates to work together to stop Aaron Peskin from becoming mayor,” Mr. Farrell said in an email.

He called his former board colleague “abusive, toxic and a documented obstructionist to the progress San Francisco needs to get back on track.”

In 2021, several colleagues complained about Mr. Peskin’s bullying behavior and the fact he sometimes appeared visibly intoxicated in meetings. He said this week that alcohol had brought out the worst in him and had led to some rancorous outbursts. He said he will have three years of sobriety in June and that he still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“We’re a city in need of recovery,” Mr. Peskin said. “Recovery is something I’ve come to know about. It’s hard work, but it’s not about beating up on yourself and not about beating up on your city.”

Daniel Lurie, an anti-poverty nonprofit founder and an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, did not jump at the idea of banding with other moderate candidates. Instead, his campaign pointed out that he is the only one who has not served at City Hall. Every other major candidate, including Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, has been on the Board of Supervisors.

“The people who got us into this mess are not equipped to get us out of it,” said Mr. Lurie’s consultant, Tyler Law.

Mr. Safai said Mr. Peskin’s entry into the race was an indictment of Ms. Breed and “her inability to lead and collaborate.”

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