A quiet race to succeed Pelosi is underway in San Francisco

A quiet race to succeed Pelosi is underway in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — A state politician with an activist reputation was making what sounded like a stump speech to tech workers on the San Francisco waterfront, promising to tackle the major issues confronting the city.

“The politics of San Francisco are shifting,” state Sen. Scott Wiener told Google employees last month, “so we’re going to solve some of these problems.”

Wiener didn’t mention one detail: He might be doing it from Washington.

Whether his next stop is, in fact, Congress sits at the heart of a behind-the-scenes political drama — one so sensitive the players won’t mention it in public, even as the rest of San Francisco and the country chatters about it.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a towering figure who has represented San Francisco for 35 years, is widely expected to step down if Republicans reclaim the House next week. In San Francisco, that’s a generational political event — opening up a seat in Congress that can amount to a lifetime tenure representing one of America’s wealthiest and most liberal cities. The scenario has everyone loyal to the speaker, including Wiener, tip-toeing around an impending political drama.  

“Nancy Pelosi is so well respected and so well appreciated that no one is looking forward to seeing her leave, and the last thing anybody wants is to be viewed as making even the littlest insult to the speaker,” said Todd David, a former political director for Wiener. “From a pure practical, political point of view, no one wants to offend Nancy Pelosi.”

The speaker’s political stature was thrown into relief last week when a man who held extremist beliefs and sought to kidnap Pelosi broke into her home while she was in Washington and knocked her husband, Paul, unconscious with a hammer, according to prosecutors. The crime shocked San Francisco and underscored the extent to which Pelosi has become synonymous with the national Democratic Party.

Wiener would be an obvious candidate for the open seat as a respected state politician whose legislative agenda makes him a fixture in the news. Except for one thing: The speaker may favor someone else who also happens to be named Pelosi.

Christine Pelosi, a Democratic activist who has served as a surrogate for her mother, is widely expected to pursue the seat if it opens. While she has made no public statements that could even be construed as an acknowledgment of her intentions, she regularly comments on social media and is active in Democratic Party affairs. She declined requests to comment about the future race for the seat, adding that she could talk after the November election.

But just because no one is publicly running for Nancy Pelosi’s seat doesn’t mean the campaign isn’t already underway.

“Given the fact that these positions don’t have term limits, and given the ATM that is San Francisco, this is going to be a brawl,” said Max Szabo, a San Francisco-based Democratic consultant. “No one is going to leave anything on the field.”

In a city where the political spectrum runs from left to center-left, party allegiance matters less than specific issues like housing and support from key Democratic factions.

While Wiener is considered a centrist by some San Francisco standards, he has frequently challenged colleagues in Sacramento by defining the Legislature’s progressive flank, this year pushing measures to allow supervised drug-consumption sites and decriminalize psychedelic drugs. Christine Pelosi embodies the speaker’s politics, publicly championing Democrats’ agenda while advocating for women and pushing the party to emphasize climate change and support for veterans.

“I think each of them would be formidable candidates,” said David Campos, a former San Francisco supervisor who just lost a fiercely contested Assembly race to another Democrat, but “the reality is that most of the people running for that seat will have similar views.”

Christine Pelosi often joins her mother at parades and campaign rallies in the Bay Area and events in Washington. She wrote a book about the speaker — who has praised Christine by name on the House floor — and tweets a clip, every Sunday morning, of her mother within the rising sun.

She has never held elected office, though she served as a prosecutor in San Francisco, worked for the Clinton administration and was chief of staff to former Rep. John Tierney. She has a long history in the Democratic trenches, serving as a Democratic National Committee member and chairing the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus.

She also gave legal counsel to a movement that exposed sexual misconduct in California politics, fueling the resignations of multiple members of the state Legislature.

“She’s very thoughtful about how she uses her name, because she knows it does have weight,” said Adama Iwu, a political consultant who helped lead the We Said Enough movement.

Christine Pelosi’s party activism, Capitol Hill ties and work training emerging female leaders have helped her build a network of political players — some of whom could become allies in a House race.

“The more people you are connected with, absolutely the better you’re served if you’re trying to do something else,” said Carolyn Fowler, the current Women’s Caucus chair. “Having those connections, let me call so-and-so and see what they think, that becomes politically important.”

It could be far more consequential if Speaker Pelosi activates her formidable political machine on her daughter’s behalf, including a powerful national fundraising apparatus, helping to secure endorsements or pile up campaign funds.

But Wiener brings advantages Pelosi lacks, including a decade in elected office. His sphere of establishment San Francisco power players includes Mayor London Breed as an ally. He knows the ground game of winning local endorsements, which would give him a head start over other contenders.

When he’s not working bills in Sacramento, Wiener can be found ricocheting between events and meetings on the streets of his district, where he is regularly recognized thanks in part to his 6-foot-7 frame. Strangers and political players will frequently stop to offer him praise, discuss their pet issue or simply to register recognition. He delights in antagonizing conservatives on Twitter.

Wiener began a recent afternoon by visiting a church to discuss an affordable housing project, delving into zoning details. He huddled with San Francisco supervisors about how to tackle addiction after Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed his controversial bill that would have allowed supervised drug use in the city.

Then it was on to Google’s offices, where he celebrated the company’s 15-year anniversary in San Francisco by cutting a cake decorated with the company logo and a frosted Golden Gate bridge. He capped his day at a glittering gala for activists working to loosen restrictions on new housing in California.

More than any other issue, Wiener is identified with housing policy, a champion of a movement to allay California’s severe housing crunch by easing barriers to construction, particularly of multi-unit buildings. That stance has aligned him with real estate interests that backed his election. It has also helped him build a fervent network of San Francisco supporters, some of whom work in the tech industry.

At the housing gala, Wiener chatted at the entrance with San Francisco’s mayor and then peeled off to ask a man about his “Ask Me About California’s first Car-Free Community” poster. Later, during a rooftop VIP reception, Wiener got sustained applause as an emcee read off a list of elected officials in attendance.

“We are winning,” Wiener told the crowd. “We’re done with the bullshit around housing.”

San Francisco’s LGBTQ community also has a champion in Wiener, who would be the first openly gay member of Congress to represent the city. Wiener has fought for bills and budget outlays that would directly boost the community — and occasionally has received death threats for doing so, as with a bill to reform California’s sex registry law by erasing distinctions between penalties for same-sex and heterosexual acts.

“He has taken on some of the toughest issues regardless of any repercussions,” said Tony Hoang, executive director of the group Equality California, which spent roughly a million dollars last cycle to help Wiener survive a challenge from the left.

“It’s really important we have LGBTQ representation in a place like San Francisco that we could consider to be the mecca for queer folks, and that pipeline of leadership,” Hoang added — although he stressed his support for Speaker Pelosi.

But Wiener has detractors as well. Skeptical progressives see Wiener as an extension of developers and other business interests who embody a gentrifying, increasingly homogeneous city driven by the region’s tech boom. His aggressive housing agenda has antagonized both homeowners and union groups who believe Wiener is undercutting labor standards.

Labor activists are considering whether to field an internal candidate.

“We know there’s horses that have been jockeying for the seat for years, and we know there are going to be some new horses,” San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Kim Tavaglione said. Wiener “would really have to change his housing policy for him to get an endorsement.”

Anti-Wiener sentiment could benefit a Christine Pelosi run. It could also boost a candidate from San Francisco’s progressive left like former Supervisor Jane Kim, a Bernie Sanders-aligned Democrat whom Wiener defeated in an enormously expensive 2016 state Senate race. Kim said she had not ruled out a House run.

But progressive former Supervisor John Avalos, now a San Francisco Democratic Party official, was skeptical that a member of the party’s left flank could prevail in an expensive citywide contest.

“I don’t see that happening without some sort of cataclysmic event,” Avalos said.

Avalos also said he thinks Speaker Pelosi will have limited influence in the San Francisco race. Once she steps aside, he said, “she becomes irrelevant in terms of determining who’s going to be replacing her.”

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