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Politics & Policy

Aaron Peskin sees ‘a lane’ to winning San Francisco mayor’s race

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, in a blue jacket, answers a reporter's question outside city hall in San Francisco.
Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, is “warming up” to the idea of challenging Mayor London Breed in November’s election. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Supervisor Aaron Peskin has yet to formally announce he’s running for mayor of San Francisco, but he’s been on a fact-finding mission in neighborhoods across the city to gauge support.

Peskin, who would become the most progressive candidate in the race, has never sought citywide office, which is why he said he specifically ventured out to the Sunset and Crocker-Amazon neighborhoods.

“It is no secret that I’ve been checking people’s level of interest, and I’ve been warming up to the idea,” Peskin told The Standard in a call Friday. “None of that is a secret or new news.” 

Peskin—whose district includes North Beach, Chinatown, Nob Hill and the Financial District—dodged and weaved when The Standard repeatedly asked if he was indeed telling people he’s definitely running. Peskin has been telling associates he will challenge Mayor London Breed in November’s election, according to The Standard’s own sources and the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I’m not trying to play hard to get,” Peskin said. “I’m still grappling with it.”

Jim Stearns, a political consultant in the city who ran all five of Peskin’s supervisor campaigns, said he was “all in” for a Peskin run for mayor. 

“But as of right now, I have not gotten the green light,” he said.

Peskin’s prospective entry into the race already has many seeing red, as his involvement in politics for decades has earned him his fair share of enemies. He has drawn the ire of everyone from city staff and developers to elected colleagues and YIMBYs. 

However, Stearns suggested Peskin has a strong chance of winning because of his “deep roots in the progressive community” and neighborhood connections (perhaps most notably with Asian American voters in Chinatown). He noted that Breed is vulnerable due to her low polling numbers and residents’ dissatisfaction with the state of San Francisco.

Aaron Peskin listens intently in a crowd while Mayor London Breed speaks.
Aaron Peskin has until June 11 to decide if he will challenge Mayor London Breed in November's election, but a decision will likely be made much sooner. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

“I really feel like the work of government hasn’t been getting done the last five years, because it’s been at this [heightened] political level,” Stearns said. 

The mayor is already facing challenges from other moderate Democrats in former Mayor Mark Farrell and well-funded nonprofit founder Daniel Lurie. Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who has been tacking left of the field, is also running.

David Latterman, a longtime political analyst in San Francisco, suggested that the ranked-choice voting system could also open the door to Peskin. Breed is likely to be fiercely defensive of her record, and moderates may be more focused on attacking her and one another.

“They’re playing with fire,” Latterman said. “What they all need to do is pound on Peskin.”

Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, suggested that Peskin would be able to rally progressives who are pushing back against wealthy tech executives and others supporting a more moderate agenda.

“I expect the progressive movement leaders and organizations to unite behind his candidacy to send that signal to voters that he is the strong progressive candidate facing off against the moderate establishment,” McDaniel said.

He added that voters may not align with Peskin’s policy positions, but many people could rank him second on their ballot—allowing him to pick up key votes if their preferred candidate loses—because they see Peskin as a “familiar and experienced” face who has frequently opposed Breed.

Aaron Peskin sits contemplatively in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors chambers with a hand on his chin. A woman, also absorbed, is partially visible in the foreground.
Aaron Peskin, president of the Board of Supervisors, has made his fair share of political enemies over the last two decades. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Peskin has always been quick on the draw with a pithy quote, but he also has a sharp tongue. He’s frequently lashed out at staff and political opponents in closed-door meetings. During the pandemic, he acknowledged that he has a drinking problem and later said he went to rehab.

“I would say, just knowing him for a long time, his recovery and sobriety has changed his outlook,” Stearns said. “This is a city of second chances. I think Aaron has changed dramatically in the last few years.”

Regardless, a public record spanning more than two decades will certainly be a gold mine for opposition researchers. Peskin, 59, was born and raised in Berkeley and graduated from UC Santa Cruz. In addition to serving as a supervisor, he and his wife run a nonprofit called the Great Basin Land and Water, which represents and negotiates with Native American tribes on water rights and land acquisitions in California, Nevada and Utah.

During his time on the board, Peskin has frequently voted against new developments in the name of neighborhood preservation, earning a reputation as the city’s preeminent NIMBY among housing activists.

“His recent bevy of anti-housing legislation is a transparent attempt to cultivate the support of NIMBY voters,” said Corey Smith, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition. “At a time where we need to build as much affordable housing as possible, Peskin’s continued efforts to sabotage new housing must be rejected.”

Despite his polarizing record, Latterman suggested that Peskin could snag as much as 30% of the vote just for his positions on social justice issues and institutional support from labor unions, progressives and far-left organizations. He added that other groups that might not seem politically aligned with Peskin could also be in play to support him if they think Peskin could be an ally in office.

“Do not underestimate Aaron,” Latterman said. “Don’t underestimate his ability to cut a deal.” 

Peskin has until June 11 to announce his candidacy, and he’d likely face a fundraising deficit. His potential opponents are expected to have substantial war chests in what is already shaping up to be the most expensive mayor’s race in city history. But Peskin believes he’s a legitimate contender to become the city’s 46th mayor.

“It’s a massive job at a tough time. But I think there are experiences I have that qualify me to do it,” Peskin said. “There’s definitely a lane.”