Skip to main content

Culture warrior and housing rebel: SF’s state senator, Scott Wiener, carves a fresh path

Senator Scott Wiener speaks outside Glide memorial Church during a press conference about safe consumption sites, which hang in the balance as the bill, authored by Sen. Weiner, is waiting for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s approval, on Thursday, August 11, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Stand

By Dan Morain

Dan Morain is the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee and the author of “Kamala’s Way, An American Life.”

As the state legislative session draws to a close, San Francisco’s popular state senator, Scott Wiener, finds himself in a place that’s become his comfort zone: at the center of the culture wars.

This time, he’s pushing legislation that would offer sanctuary for out-of-state parents who seek gender-affirming medical care for their trans-children, along with a satchel of other bills on topics including keeping bars open until 4:00 a.m. He’s becoming something of a human rejoinder to national pundits who read the recalls of school board members (which Wiener supported) and former District Attorney Chesa Boudin (which he ducked) that San Francisco has turned to the right.

It’s an only-in-San Francisco thing that Wiener would be seen as anything other than a very left-wing Democrat. But he’s carving out a more nuanced path by marrying his firmly progressive values on social issues and criminal justice with a practical, centrist view on other key issues, namely housing and homelessness.

Senator Scott Wiener, right, speaks during a press conference announcing revisions to Senate Bill 50, the "More HOMES Act," on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 in Oakland, Calif. | Aric Crabb via Getty Images

If he can keep making it work, it could represent a fresh approach for California Democrats who have largely vanquished the GOP only to find themselves caught in an intractable conflict between progressives and moderates. And if Wiener can ride that philosophy to higher office, as most assume he will attempt, he could become a new standard-bearer for a city and a state that both enjoy outsize influence on the national party.

Wiener challenges slow-growth proponents on the left by pushing for more housing development, urging the state to crack down on San Francisco for the many ways its leaders have found to block new housing. He also crosses civil libertarians by arguing for more assertive care for people who are severely mentally ill and living on the streets; he’s won Republican support for legislation increasing access to addiction treatment.

And he likes to legislate: Wiener currently has 18 bills pending in the Legislature, and a history of carrying complicated legislation like the “net neutrality” bill barring internet service providers from impeding access to sites they don’t like.

All that makes for a politician with a promising future. In fractious San Francisco, the genial Wiener is perhaps the only prominent politician who enjoys at least some support among many warring factions—but he evinces little interest in running for mayor.  

Instead, his most likely next step would be to run for the congressional seat held since 1987 by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi will step down at some point, perhaps after her reelection this November, setting off a once-in-a-generation slugfest for the coveted seat.

Speaker Pelosi’s daughter, attorney and Democratic Party activist Christine Pelosi, almost certainly will run. She’d be formidable, benefiting from the speaker’s political organization and fund-raising apparatus, not to mention the Pelosi name.

Wiener knows well that, as the saying goes, no one gives power away, it must be seized. And he has plenty of experience with the “knife fight in a phone booth,” as he referred to it, that can be San Francisco politics.

Wiener moved to San Francisco in 1995 from New Jersey, where he was raised, and started his political career as one of 56 candidates running for 12 seats on the San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee in 2004. He placed 11th. Even after successfully climbing the ladder—chair of the Central Committee, deputy to former City Attorney Dennis Herrera, two-term member of the Board of Supervisors—and winning friends, he still faced a stiff challenge from the left in his 2020 senate re-election race and had to raise $1.5 million to hold his seat. 

Wiener, like everyone else, won’t touch the question of a Congressional run as long as Pelosi hasn’t made her intentions known. When I asked him about it, he answered by praising Speaker Pelosi as a “bulwark” on behalf of democracy. “The longer she stays, the better for the city and the better for the country,” he said. “Whenever Nancy retires, we will see what happens.”

When that does happen, and if Wiener were to run and win, his record in Sacramento suggests he could make a stir on the left.

One of Wiener’s bills that’s earned Governor Newsom’s signature will decriminalize loitering with intent to commit prostitution, reversing a 1995 law signed by Gov. Pete Wilson aimed at combating sex workers and drug dealers from plying their trades on the streets. 

He’s also trying to get Newsom’s support on bill that would authorize officials in San Francisco, Oakland and L.A. to establish safe injection sites for those addicted to drugs. (He shouldn’t hold his breath.) 

Then there’s the one that would provide some safeguards to out-of-state parents who seek care for their trans-children and come here from states such as Texas where that care is being criminalized. Under the bill, for example, California courts would not have to enforce subpoenas from those states seeking information about gender-affirming care. 

The combatants are familiar. Representatives of Equality California, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ rights, and Planned Parenthood are backing the bill. Foes include the California Family Council, which describes its mission as “advancing God’s design for life, family and liberty,” and refers to Wiener as a “notorious” San Francisco senator. 

A legislative staff analysis of the legislation questioned whether the concept might run afoul of the U.S. constitutional provision that requires one state to honor legitimate requests by other states. 

Wiener, a lawyer, insists nothing in the legislation violates the constitution and said his goal is merely to protect parents trying to care for their children. He also knows we’re in a culture war, and he sees little choice but to join the fight. The Legislature likely will approve the bill, on a party-line vote. 

While he fights the national religious right on social issues, he’s simultaneously battling fellow SF Democrats on housing, pushing the state to sue the city to force it to build more. He’s the author of a key state housing law that eliminated single-family zoning and in a recent interview with The Standard, he called SF’s housing system “rotten to the core.”

It’s a bit ironic that he seems to be having more success in Sacramento battling the right on culture war issues, than he is persuading NIMBYs to stand down. But such is the politics of San Francisco.

We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our opinion articles. You can email us at Interested in submitting an opinion piece of your own? Review our submission guidelines.