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Politics & Policy

A politico’s horrifying night in Napa comes back to haunt San Francisco mayor’s race

An illustration that features a profile photo of San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell and a mugshot of Nathan Ballard.
Mark Farrell, a candidate for San Francisco mayor, wrote a letter of support for Nathan Ballard during a domestic violence case in 2020. | Source: Illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard; Photos by The Standard; Courtesy Napa Country Sheriff’s Office

Nathan Ballard developed an elite Rolodex of clients that included the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco’s police union after handling media and crisis communications for Gavin Newsom during his tumultuous second term as mayor.

But in late 2020, Ballard found himself at the center of his own ugly scandal as he was accused of drunkenly shoving his wife’s head into a glass door and smothering his 4-year-old daughter with a pillow during a family trip to Napa. 

At risk of losing control of the narrative on the one story that mattered most—his own—Ballard’s response, naturally, took the form of a PR blitz. He solicited no fewer than 45 letters of support from a who’s who of local political leaders and other notable names to vouch for his personal and professional character to prosecutors. 

Former Police Chief Greg Suhr said the child abuse allegations against Ballard were “inconceivable,” while former Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier wrote that Ballard had “never been anything but loving and caring” for his children. Mark Farrell, who was briefly appointed mayor in 2018 and is now seeking to reclaim the city’s highest office, used personalized letterhead touting his old title as San Francisco’s 44th mayor and said he had “witnessed first-hand [Ballard’s] dedicated and loving approach to fatherhood.”

An image of a letter from Mark E. Farrell, 44th Mayor of San Francisco, stating support for Nate Ballard.
Mark Farrell created personalized letterhead that touted his time as mayor of San Francisco when writing a letter of support for Nathan Ballard in his domestic violence case in 2021.

The staggering number of letters may have helped Ballard avoid jail time with a no-contest plea deal in the summer of 2021. But they’re now receiving closer inspection after a number of political figures in San Francisco have recently been accused of sexual assault and abuse. Ballard’s most prominent defenders are now being forced to explain their gushing letters of support for a man who was convicted of misdemeanor child endangerment and corporal injury to an intimate partner.

Alioto-Pier, who recently pulled papers for another run for supervisor, stepped down from a committee looking into sexual assault allegations after she came under scrutiny last month. She told The Standard she would not write a letter for Ballard if given a second chance.

Farrell has been more defensive about his letter of support, with critics accusing him of misusing his official status and changing his story now that he’s a candidate for mayor. 

Now, Ballard is once again trying to control the narrative. After The Standard referred to him as a “disgraced Newsom aide,” Ballard reached out to take issue with the characterization, arguing that his no-contest plea was not an admission of guilt. In multiple texts, phone calls and an eight-page memo he sent by email, Ballard professed his innocence while accusing his ex-wife of repeatedly lying about a history of abuse against her and their children.

Nadia Rahman, a former president of the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee, which has been at the forefront of calling out political figures accused of sexual assault as well as their powerful allies, was taken aback by Ballard’s aggressive approach to relitigating his case.

“I don’t know him personally, but these behaviors strike me as narcissistic and controlling,” Rahman said.

Nathan Ballard smiles as he wears a suit and leans on a briefcase in an office adorned with various political posters and certificates.
Nathan Ballard—seen in October 2009—served in the administration of former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom before going on to work as a spokesperson for a roster of high-paying clients. | Source: Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

Ballard now lives in Marin County and works as a private attorney and crisis communications expert. He declined to reveal any of his clients. He claims the only mistake he made that fateful night in Napa was getting falling-down drunk and passing out next to his daughter. He accused his ex-wife of telling “major lies so frequently that her conduct must be either intentional or reckless.”

“My primary goal [in taking the plea deal] was to spare my daughter from testifying against her mother, and I also wanted to spare my older children from further humiliation,” said Ballard, who was sentenced to four years probation and ordered to have no contact with his ex-wife and two young children for six years.

Ballard took special umbrage with a comprehensive KQED report, which he said “regurgitated” his ex-wife’s claims of years of abuse. “I lost my way in our relationship and allowed Nate to do unspeakable things to me,” she said. 

Ballard called the story “a masterpiece of character assassination.”

Amanda Bevins, an attorney for Ballard’s ex-wife, who declined to comment for this story, said that she was unsurprised by Ballard’s claims, comparing his strategy of never admitting fault to that of Donald Trump.

“I’m not at all surprised he’s still trying to control the story and spin it,” Bevins said. “It sounds a lot like somebody who’s on trial in New York right now.”

One letter, two stories

In a typical criminal trial, a defendant might offer half a dozen or so letters testifying to his or her good character. Bevins called Ballard’s tactic of deluging the court with 45 letters “beyond the pale,” adding that high-profile clients she’s represented usually submit letters of “quality over quantity.”

A more restrained show of support might have limited the collateral damage now taking place, as the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee and other groups have been discussing Farrell’s support for Ballard. Social media criticism of Farrell’s letter has been percolating since The Standard’s report on allegations of rape and abuse against progressive political organizer Jon Jacobo.

Ballard said he never discussed the facts of his case with Farrell or anyone else before they wrote letters on his behalf, and he regretted that his legal problems might become an issue on the campaign trail.

“I don’t think it’s fair to assume that anyone is guilty by association,” Ballard said, “but politics is a rough game, and I’m sorry for putting my friends in a vulnerable position.”

A man in a suit speaks in front of a microphone pointing with his finger.
Mark Farrell, a former San Francisco mayor and supervisor, is facing scrutiny for a letter he wrote on behalf of Nathan Ballard in a 2021 domestic violence case. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Farrell told The Standard in an interview this month that he “agreed to write a letter solely describing my personal experience working with Nate over a decade. Nate was ultimately held accountable by the courts. Period.”

However, a review of Farrell’s 2021 letter shows that he didn’t just vouch for Ballard’s political service—he also wrote glowingly about their families hanging out at social gatherings around the Bay Area, attending children’s sporting events together and spending time at Farrell’s home.

“I consider Nate a close personal friend,” Farrell wrote. “Beyond his professional talents, what I have always admired about Nate is his down-to-earth and grounded personality that values family above all else.”

David Latterman, a longtime political analyst in San Francisco, said the discrepancy between what Farrell wrote then and what he is saying now deserves scrutiny.

“Farrell does have to represent what he said accurately in the letter,” Latterman said. “He went above and beyond.”

Mayor London Breed—who is attempting to fend off reelection challenges from Farrell and others—wrote a letter similar to Farrell’s in 2018. She asked then-Gov. Jerry Brown to release her brother, Napoleon Brown, from prison after he was given a 44-year sentence for a 2000 robbery that led to the death of Lenties White.

Mayor London Breed in a blue blazer appears focused, with people and a camera in the blurred background.
Mayor London Breed received an ethics fine for referencing her title as mayor on personalized letterhead while asking then-Gov. Jerry Brown to grant her brother an early release from prison. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Breed used personal stationery that referenced her title as mayor, leading to a $2,500 fine from the San Francisco Ethics Commission. The difference for Farrell is that he had already left office at the time he sent the letter supporting Ballard.

“It does appear to be an awfully similar event to Mayor Breed using her influence to try and mitigate her brother’s sentence,” Latterman said. “There is clearly a parallel here.”

Breed declined to comment for this story. 

However, her campaign spokesperson, Joe Arellano—who worked with Ballard in Newsom’s administration and also wrote a letter of mitigation—said that he wrote a letter for Ballard based on 14 years of friendship and mentorship.

“I feel terrible for everyone involved, but especially for the children, who have had to experience this ordeal and will forever have their lives changed,” Arellano said.

Aaron Peskin, a supervisor and fellow candidate for mayor, may also have some explaining to do. Ballard provided an audio file of Peskin leaving what seems to be a taunting voicemail for Ballard following his arrest.

Nathan Ballard said he received this voicemail message from Supervisor Aaron Peskin after his arrest in 2020.

“That was probably one of the roughest days in my life, when my world came crashing down, and that was Aaron Peskin’s response,” Ballard said. “Long ago, I had learned not to accept calls from Aaron Peskin after 6 p.m.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin looks forward in a suit at his chair during the Board of Supervisors public comment at city hall.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he did not recall leaving a voicemail for Nathan Ballard after the latter's arrest on domestic violence charges in late 2020. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Peskin, who went into recovery in 2021 to deal with his own alcohol issues, initially denied calling Ballard before listening to the voicemail.

“While I don’t recollect that particular call from many years ago, I will say that my heart goes out to the people he hurt as much today as it did back then,” Peskin said.

Ballard said he has been complying with the conditions of his probation and maintaining his sobriety, and efforts to be reunited with his children are moving forward. As a condition of his plea deal, Ballard said, the stay-away order could soon be dropped. 

Farrell declined to say whether he would have written a letter for Ballard if given another opportunity. Asked about the burgeoning MeToo moment taking place in San Francisco, the former mayor and candidate said he had “nothing specific to add.”