Mayor London Breed’s road to reelection is getting as crowded as a WrestleMania ring, and there will likely be no shortage of skullduggery and political body slams between now and November 2024.
Supervisor Ahsha Safaí announced his candidacy in the spring and immediately started taking digs at Breed as a weak leader. Anti-poverty nonprofit founder Daniel Lurie launched his campaign last week and a day later was attacking the mayor’s plan to force drug-addicted welfare recipients into treatment. As the moderate candidates duke it out, the door is open for a progressive to carve out a lane and take advantage of the city’s ranked-choice voting system.
But so far, no one has emerged to … wait … no, it can’t be … bah gawd, is that Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s theme music?!
In an interview last week, Peskin told The Standard that supporters have been telling him to join the fray.
“I’d be lying to you if I did not say that people encourage me to run for mayor,” Peskin said. “But, thus far, I have not succumbed to their entreaties.”
Over the last two decades, no elected official in San Francisco has been in office longer than Peskin, a supervisor for North Beach and surrounding neighborhoods who is now in his fourth term in office after an original stint from 2001 to 2009.
Nicknamed “The Bearded One” for his signature look—as well as “The Napoleon of North Beach” for his at-times caustic approach to governing—Peskin has climbed the ladder of power multiple times. In 2021, he made an embarrassing admission of drinking on the job and inappropriately berating city staff, and he took a brief leave of absence to enter treatment. It didn’t take long for Peskin to ascend again this past year, when his peers elected him president of the Board of Supervisors.
Eric Jaye, a longtime political consultant in San Francisco, described Peskin as a savvy operator who knows the city and how departments work. Given that three-quarters of residents think San Francisco is headed down the wrong track, he added, such experience could be attractive to some voters.
“Peskin’s viability comes down to what voters are looking for on Election Day,” Jaye said. “Peskin is a master mechanic. If voters want someone who can make the city run, Peskin will be formidable. If they are looking for political star power, he will have a tougher time.”
But he’s also made his share of enemies, and there’s always been a question of whether Peskin could win an election outside of District 3, which includes Chinatown and the Financial District. Peskin’s focus on neighborhood and preservation concerns has drawn the ire of YIMBYs and developers. And some of his political ploys have backfired, such as a public forum on the drug crisis that turned into a spectacle at United Nations Plaza.
Conor Johnston, an advisor to Breed’s campaign, dismissed a potential Peskin candidacy, saying he has spent the better part of the last quarter-century creating the very problems Breed is trying to fix as mayor.
“It’d be like hiring an arsonist to be your fire chief,” Johnston said.
Polling has shown that the Board of Supervisors has even lower approval ratings than the mayor.
“I think right now, Breed versus Peskin, Breed would win,” said Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University. “There’s not a majority of voters right now that I think support Peskin over Breed. And yet, I think you have a situation where someone like Peskin could win because of ranked-choice voting transfers.”
Peskin said he has no current plans to run. But San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system means a candidate can win without receiving a majority of first-choice votes. Safaí is attempting to court labor union support, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll become the city’s premier progressive candidate. The ranked-choice voting system could open the door for Peskin or another progressive candidate to lock up a chunk of first-place votes while picking up second- and third-place votes from losing moderate candidates.
Former Mayor Willie Brown pointed to the way ranked-choice voting played out in the 2010 mayor’s race in Oakland, where Jean Quan defeated moderate former state Senate Pro Tem Don Perata despite trailing heavily after the first ballot count.
Brown, who has coffee with Peskin on a weekly basis, said it wouldn’t surprise him if Peskin or someone else defeats Breed, who he said is being unfairly blamed for issues because she is the incumbent.
“I think in ranked-choice voting, everyone has a viable chance of winning,” Brown said.
However, Brown said the supervisor would likely hold off on announcing so different factions in the progressive camp can independently coalesce around Peskin rather than him needing to court each different entity.
Peskin said he and his political consultant, Jim Stearns, have not discussed him running for mayor, but whoever wins the 2024 race will need to be somebody who brings San Francisco together in a time when progressive and moderate Democrats are extremely polarized.
“I believe in my heart—and I mean this sincerely—that what San Francisco needs right now is a big dose of unity,” Peskin said. “And we should not go down the road of Trumpian division. We’re better than that.”
Josh Koehn can be reached at email@example.com