- Eat & Drink
- News & Features
- City Life
- The Hamptons
- Las Vegas
- Los Angeles
- New York
- Orange County
- Palm Beach
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- Silicon Valley
- Washington, D.C.
Joe Eskenazi | Photo: Jake Stangel | December 7, 2016
For powerful entities with big stories to sell (or big scandals to squash), Nathan Ballard and P.J. Johnston are ready to go to war.
Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about local influencers, insiders, and rabble rousers that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the December 2016 Power Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue’s contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
Ascend the two flights of stairs to the door reading “Ministry of Information,” and you’ll find yourself entering a sumptuous Cow Hollow flat subdivided into several well-appointed offices, a realm of gracefully aging wood paneling and Edison lights befitting Jeeves and Wooster. The office’s principal occupants are P.J. Johnston and Nathan Ballard, PR flacks of the old school, who represent a veritable Yellow Pages of powerful clients. Both former press secretaries for San Francisco mayors (Johnston for Willie Brown, Ballard for Gavin Newsom), they now operate as the city’s preeminent media whisperers, and it’s a rare day that one or both aren’t quoted in the papers—or, presumably, don’t keep an unwanted story out of the papers.
Inside the flat, Ballard has a packed shelf of books about politics and city history on display over his fireplace. (His office has a fireplace, yes.) But it’s uncertain how he finds time to read them. These are heady days for Ballard and Johnston and the power structure they represent: corporations, developers, wealthy individuals, centrist politicians, and anyone else who needs a guide to navigating the modern-day media landscape. Developers are eager to develop, companies are aggressively pursuing their aims, and political leaders are looking for that next gig—all of which necessitates a lot of smartly placed press and well-twisted ears. Clearly, Ballard and Johnston are just the guys to do it. “I think they have as much work as their schedules will allow,” says one City Hall veteran. “Also, we’re in a boom. Better make your money now.”
Though they occupy the same office and often work alongside each other (and never, they both say, against each other), the duo aren’t technically in business together. Ballard four years ago came up with the notion of “a loosely affiliated league of extraordinary gentlemen” operating out of a communal lair. Also working within the Ministry of Information are former Newsom flacks Brian Purchia, Joe Arellano, and Max Wertheimer. Think of it as a flack Grotto, or a postcollegiate frat house for a posse one competitor refers to as “PR bros.”
This fraternity is an active one. To name but a few recent clients, Johnston has lately been the public face of the developers of Parkmerced; Millennium Partners, the builders of the troubled Millennium Tower; Mayor Ed Lee’s anticlimactic reelection campaign; and developer Simon Snellgrove’s Pacific Waterfront Partners. Ballard has served as the much-quoted spokesman for the San Francisco Police Officers Association, moderate supervisor Mark Farrell, and, among other ballot propositions, Farrell’s Proposition Q, the homeless tents measure. Both men were contracted by the Super Bowl 50 host committee and are among the hired guns speaking on behalf of the Golden State Warriors in their quest to relocate to San Francisco.
Even more than their mirror-image client rolls, their thumbnail biographies read eerily alike. Both are tall, handsome, and gregarious. Both are straight, white, 47-year-old fathers of three who grew up in the Central Valley—Kansas to San Francisco’s Oz. After arriving here as hungry twentysomethings, both worked their way into the heart of the city’s business and political establishment. But in their chosen field, they are very different men. “P.J. is the smooth-talking son of a politician, from a political family, who can size up a room and find common ground,” sums up one colleague. Ballard “is the angry man with a chip on his shoulder who is perfectly happy to burn the room down.” It’s a good cop–bad cop dynamic, says the associate. “And they are a good team. A very good team.”
When Johnston was in second grade, his father, Patrick Sr., who would serve as an assemblyman and state senator out of San Joaquin County from 1980 until 2000, uprooted the family from Haight-Ashbury to Stockton. Johnston’s parents still reside in Stockton, the place where he went to high school and which he today describes as “a godawful Central Valley town.” Returning to San Francisco was his life’s dream, and he fulfilled it as an unpaid intern and meagerly paid stringer for the doctrinaire leftist weekly the San Francisco Bay Guardian in the early 1990s. No full-time job materialized, so he returned to the Central Valley for a reporting position at the Tracy Press. He managed a return trip to San Francisco by landing a slot flacking for the once and future bête noire of his Guardian editors: his dad’s legislative colleague Willie L. Brown Jr. “I not only worked for Willie all those years,” Johnston says, “but I absolutely love Willie Brown.”
And he should: Brown set him on his professional path, which also led to Karin Carlson, who was an aide to Brown appointee Supervisor Michael Yaki and, later, Brown himself. Now Karin Johnston, she is his wife of 15 years and the president of the lobbying firm HMS Associates, working alongside founder Marcia Smolens, the grande dame of city lobbyists. Peruse HMS’s client list—Pacific Waterfront Partners, Parkmerced, Millennium Partners—and you’ll find no small degree of crossover with P.J. Johnston’s client list.
Johnston does not deny that it’s helpful to have influential family and friends. “Of course it doesn’t hurt,” he says with a laugh. “It’d be bullshit to say it does.” He and his wife are close with powerful mayoral chief of staff Steve Kawa and his husband: The Johnstons bought a house one block over from Kawa, and Johnston says he loves Kawa’s kids as if they were his own. “It’s not that P.J. isn’t talented,” says a colleague. “He’s very talented. But he’s very connected. Going to borrow a cup of sugar from the de facto mayor and making sure he understands issues the way you’d like him to is an awfully powerful position.”
Or, as Ballard puts it, “P.J. was to the manner born.” Ballard, meanwhile, grew up in Davis, a plight he likens to life on Tatooine. His mother taught high school English, and his father was UC Davis’s director of international student education. In retirement, his mother got a Fulbright grant to teach in Bulgaria, and both elder Ballards worked for a year at a Thai university. Still, in the world of politics, he was an outsider. He had to work his way in, and, not surprisingly, his inclinations are rougher than Johnston’s.
Ballard earned a law degree at UC Hastings and started out in this city as a litigator in the City Attorney’s Office, working on the same floor as cub barristers Kamala Harris and David Campos—later to become attorney general (and senator-elect) and city supervisor, respectively. He was then tapped to be City Attorney Louise Renne’s spokesman. That was 17 years ago. Cribbing a line from the bio of V.S. Naipaul, several of whose novels grace Ballard’s bookshelf, he says, “Since then, I have followed no other profession.”
In person, Ballard is measured, gracious, funny, and well-spoken. But that’s not what he gets paid for, and, depending on whom you talk to, that’s not who he is. While Johnston says he tries to avoid saying nasty things in print, Ballard considers that “part of my brand.” He frames news stories containing his favorite put-downs and hangs them on the wall. “Art Agnos just won a game of ping-pong, and now he thinks he’s a Wimbledon champion” is one of his funniest from 2013. (But it was funnier for Ballard before Agnos chased his client, the Warriors, off the waterfront.)
Johnston, meanwhile, admits to less-mercenary career goals. “If I pursued my passion, I’d be a film critic, writing a blog, and starving to death,” he says. Contemplating the rancor of city politics, he says, “Sometimes I find it all a little absurd, too.” Ballard doesn’t seem to get hung up like this. Strafing enemies is his passion, if not his raison d’être. “It’s a rough game,” he says. “I enjoy the fight.”
It shows. Internal Police Officers Association messages compliment Ballard for a March news story reporting that several POA higher-ups claimed in sworn affidavits that their nemesis, District Attorney George Gascón, acted like a racist buffoon at a boozy dinner six years ago. The story served as an out-and-out political kneecapping. “Fantastic job, Mr. Ballard,” read an email snippet from POA attorney Gregg Adam reprinted in the Examiner. Ballard certainly relishes tweaking political foes, none more than progressive shot caller Aaron Peskin. “He’s a brilliant tactician,” Ballard says of the North Beach supervisor. “But he’s a foil straight out of central casting—he even looks like the villain who ties the fair maiden to the railroad tracks in a silent movie.”
Peskin shrugs this caricature off: “He’s a mean, bitter guy,” he says of Ballard. And yet a former colleague says that Ballard’s junkyard dog persona “is almost completely an act. I don’t think he’s working to create a more negative world. I think he feels this is just the best way to do his job.”
Because PR pros are selling one truth among many, they must thrust and parry with the arbiters of those truths, the media. “Every reporter who’s had more than half a dozen interactions with me has had some level of battle with me,” says Johnston. “But I try to bear in mind reporters’ jobs while doing my job. I know I can probably be a total pain in the ass for a reporter at any given time.” (No comment.)
But grappling with journalists is not all that PR mavens are hired to do. Clients tap Johnston and Ballard for their connections to people like the mayor and his inner circle. When the shit hits the fan in City Hall, notes a denizen of that building, “P.J. is the person they call.”
That’s something private clients are counting on. The former inside men have an inside track on what’s happening in the upper echelons of city government. It’s valuable to be able to tell clients what’s up at City Hall. And it’s also valuable to be able to tell City Hall what’s up with one’s clients.
But the insularity of this city’s political class does lead to some overlapping. It was not unnoticed that when Ballard client Farrell wrote in the Chronicle that star-crossed police chief Greg Suhr should keep his job, he echoed the position of another Ballard client, the POA.
Or take a recent Chron article about London Breed and Peskin’s proposed legislation to limit Airbnb hosts to a hard 60-day yearly cap: “By aggressively going after Airbnb, [Breed] is making some very powerful enemies,” Ballard was quoted as saying. In city political circles, this message for Breed was repeatedly likened to the Godfather scene in which a movie producer awakens to a horse’s severed head in his bed. But on whose behalf was Ballard delivering such an unsubtle threat? He serves as a consigliere to many; it’s hard to tell. Would it be from his client the POA, whose leaders are furious with Breed over other matters? (See “The Force Inside the Force.”) Was it a brushback pitch on behalf of the politically involved tech companies and VCs that bolster his client Farrell and his ally Mayor Lee? Was it a shout-out for Airbnb political director Chris Lehane, Ballard’s mentor? Or was it all of these?
Breed, for one, doesn’t seem to much care. “I think Nate is just talking shit,” she says. But, she quickly adds, it’s not Ballard to whom she gives a moment’s thought—it’s his colleague. She adores Johnston—“my boo,” whom she has known since they were both young soldiers in Willie Brown’s army. “Don’t you write anything bad about P.J.,” she orders.
Ballard, for his part, says he wasn’t delivering a message for any one entity—it was, in essence, for all of them. “There’s no mystery that my analysis is as a political moderate,” he says. “I believe, overall, that tech companies are a force for good in San Francisco. Generally, I am pro–Ed Lee. It’s no secret. My political life is pretty well documented in on-the-record quotes to newspapers.”
And it ain’t a bad life. Back in his office with the fireplace, Ballard smiles. “It’s hand-to-hand combat every day. But it’s also a lot of fun.”
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco