Is Sup. Alioto-Pier's heart in San Francisco -- or at her house in St. Helena?
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Michela Alioto-Pier, carpetbagger.
That's what her Democratic primary challenger called her in 1996, when Alioto-Pier ran for the House of Representatives from the 1st congressional district, which hugs the California coastline from the town of Napa to the Oregon border.
Alioto-Pier, a San Francisco native, had spent the previous two and a half years at the White House advising Al Gore on telecommunications issues. After returning to the West Coast, the ambitious 26-year-old packed up her belongings and moved to St. Helena in Napa County, buying a home there in November 1995 and registering to vote the following month.
Her opponent, Monica Marvin, promptly attacked with a commercial showing a moving van heading across the Golden Gate Bridge alongside a photo of Alioto-Pier and a voice-over condemning outside candidates.
"I think the perception was that someone who'd lived most of her life in the district had a more comprehensive grasp of the issues and the culture reflected by those constituents," Marvin told the Guardian recently.
Alioto-Pier nonetheless won the primary, but she narrowly lost the general election to a Republican incumbent named Frank Riggs. He too assailed her for moving to the district just before the race.
More than a decade later, District 2 supervisor Alioto-Pier hasn't managed to escape accusations that she's detached from her constituents, nor has she succeeded in clearly reestablishing residency here since beginning a new political career at San Francisco's City Hall.
Alioto-Pier is registered to vote at a Vallejo Street condo that she bought in 2005 for $1.9 million, and she told us that she, husband Thomas Paul Pier, and their three children make it their primary residence.
"Depending on the time of year, we spend some weekends at our St. Helena house, which is on the same street as Congresswoman [Nancy] Pelosi's St. Helena house," she said in a written response to our questions.
An Alioto-Pier office assistant, Gene Eplett, left a voice message with the Guardian insisting that second homes are commonplace. "You probably have one as well," Eplett said.
Not exactly. Particularly not one with a taxable value of $774,793.
And in some legal documents, Alioto-Pier lists the Napa County house as her residence.
In August the supervisor formed a limited liability company for the purpose of "wine production" with Pier, called Alioto-Pier Vineyards, according to state business registration records. Both listed their home address as the three-bedroom, two-bath St. Helena home on Zinfandel Lane. Alioto-Pier paid $590,000 for the place, which sits on 2.6 acres of world-famous Napa County soil.
Within days of Mayor Gavin Newsom's appointing her to the Board of Supervisors in January 2004, she signed a deed of trust for a $100,000 equity line of credit, again listing the Zinfandel Lane property as her home address, according to Napa County records.
In early May 2003, not long before she joined the board, former mayor Willie Brown tapped her to sit on the powerful San Francisco Port Commission. That same week she reregistered another wine-making business in Napa County she'd founded years before called Alioto Cellars, a.k.a. Alioto Winery. In the area of the original form asking for a residence, she began to list the St. Helena property but thought better of it, crossing it out and replacing it with a San Francisco address on Jackson Street that she appears to have used for at least two years, according to Napa County records.
In response to questions regarding the business registration records for Alioto-Pier Vineyards, the supervisor said neither she nor her husband signed the form and that it was filled out by their attorney.
"Alioto-Pier Vineyards LLC is a small wine producing business (approximately 250 cases per year) whose business address is more suitable to where our vineyard (approximately one acre) is located at our St. Helena property," she wrote.
The form asks for the addresses of the company's managers separate from the location of the principal executive office. For both Alioto-Pier and her husband, Zinfandel Lane is given as the home address.
As a supervisor, Alioto-Pier has exhibited savvy on emergency preparedness, mothers in the workplace, energy use, and the threatened demise of St. Luke's Hospital in the Mission, which treats primarily low-income patients.
Mick Suverkrubbe, president of the Marina Merchants Association, said the supervisor always has a presence at the group's meetings.
"If she doesn't show up, one of her aides shows up," Suverkrubbe said. "She's always been real responsive when we've had questions."
But some critics say Alioto-Pier appears all too willing to take direction from the Mayor's Office, well-financed business interests, and Democratic party functionaries rather than independently arriving at positions.
"She's like the windup doll," said one City Hall insider who asked not to be named. "It's fair to say every time I see Sean Elsbernd [her board ally] make a decision, I know that it's coming from a policy perspective, not someone yanking his chain. It's the exception, not the rule, that she comes up with her own policy perspective."
"She has three more years, and hopefully they'll be better," Bill Barnes, an aide to Assemblymember Fiona Ma who formerly worked for Sup. Chris Daly, said of Alioto-Pier's current board term. "The point of district elections is that supervisors respond to their neighborhood. The values and concerns in District 2 are going to be more moderate and conservative than some other areas, but you still have to provide that basic level of service."
Alioto-Pier's attendance record has also caused her trouble and made her an easy target for political adversaries.
"I see her here on Tuesday afternoons," when the board meets, one City Hall staffer said. "She probably spends a full day here when she has a committee hearing with an item. Beyond that, her office is routinely shut on Fridays."
Alioto-Pier missed 17 of 160 board and committee meetings in 2004 and 2005 that's only about 10 percent. But throughout her tenure as a supervisor, she's attended barely half of the meetings of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, where each of the supervisors automatically serves as a director, according to an analysis of the $100 payments the members receive for attending meetings.
"I missed Transportation Authority meetings related to the birth of my third child and the complications of that pregnancy," Alioto-Pier told us.
Alioto-Pier noted, as did others at City Hall, that she had health problems in 2006. She was pregnant with her third child, and there were complications. Further, she said, supervisors don't get time off for maternity.
"All city employees with the exception of members of the Board of Supervisors are allowed to take a four-month maternity leave. I was the first member of the board in the history of San Francisco to give birth while in office. As such, there were no guidelines in place, and I had to place the health and safety of my newborn first," she said.
But for many months in 2004 and 2005, before that pregnancy, she missed all or almost all of the Transportation Authority meetings.
She also missed 16 of 20 scheduled meetings, including three public hearings, during the short time in 2004 that she spent as a director for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.
Alioto-Pier left the district before her term was set to expire after serving only six months, complaining that she didn't have enough time for the position. In her resignation letter, she acknowledged that the bridge was adjacent to her district and "given my ongoing commitment to improving waterfront security in San Francisco, I hope in the future I will once again be able to work with you and serve as a director." She never has, but four other supervisors have served on the district's board for years.
And she's apparently not too busy to be running a winery in St. Helena. It's a modest operation, but it has to take some of her time.
Alioto-Pier's voter registration history is confusing.
She doesn't appear to have voted at all in the November 1999 election at least not in Napa or San Francisco counties but, curiously, she did vote in that year's December runoff, when Willie Brown won a second term over Sup. Tom Ammiano.
She cast a ballot as an absentee in Napa County one year later, even though she was registered at that time to vote in San Francisco under the name Michela Angelina Alioto-Pier, public records show. She voted here in November 1998 with the last name Alioto-Pier, but she didn't marry her lawyer husband until May 2000, county records show.
In 2002 she voted in San Francisco during the primary and general elections under the name Michela Angelina Driscol Alioto, yet she was still registered concurrently under the name Michela Angelina Alioto-Pier.
Alioto-Pier said that she and her husband returned to St. Helena in July 2000 but moved back here in early 2001, reregistering in both places. She added that San Francisco and Napa counties were at that time slow to remove "deadwood" registrations from their rolls.
"Clearly, once one reregisters, the county has the obligation to cancel all previous registrations for that person," she said. Alioto-Pier insisted that she voted in San Francisco's November 1999 election, but an office attendant at the Department of Elections asserted that the system "says she was eligible but she did not vote."
Her 1996 Republican opponent, Riggs, also castigated her for failing to vote in 1994 and 1995. Alioto-Pier's explanation, according to press accounts? Her permanent residency wasn't clear.
"As best as I can recall from the events of a decade ago, I responded to Republican Frank Riggs by saying there was a mix-up with my absentee ballots," Alioto-Pier told us.
She's listed a string of San Francisco addresses in public records over the past two decades in addition to her St. Helena dwelling. But in 2005 she finally bought the condo on Vallejo Street in San Francisco. She didn't file for a homeowner's exemption on the condo in 2006, but neither has she taken advantage of the tax break on her Zinfandel Lane home during any year since 1997, according to property records.
Alioto-Pier said she was unaware of qualifying for the homeowner's tax exemption. "However, we declare as a deduction the mortgage interest from our Vallejo Street home on our federal tax returns," she said. Taxpayers are permitted to benefit from the deduction on a second residence.
Whispers at City Hall surrounding the time Alioto-Pier spends in St. Helena and away from her District 2 constituents have dogged her increasingly since she replaced Newsom.
But she's never faced the punishing regimen of banner headlines endured by District 4's onetime supervisor Ed Jew. He's also been suspended by the mayor and faces civil charges that he lied to voters about living permanently in the district he was elected to represent.
Alioto-Pier offered a few telling words in a recent robocall to San Francisco voters opposing mandated appearances by the mayor before the Board of Supervisors: "We need to get our house in order before we invite any guests."
Now, which house would that be?