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London Breed Wants to Be Everybody’s Mayor

From City Hall to the Golden Gate, from downtown to the neighborhoods, London Breed confronts a fractured city. She has a plan to mend it.

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Then-supervisor London Breed calls for a “neighborhood preference” plan at a 98-unit senior citi- zen housing complex in the Western Addition in 2016.

Photo: Courtesy of Mayor London Breed

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Mayor London Breed is running late.

She was due back at her ornate wood-paneled office in City Hall 20 minutes ago, but there’s traffic, and a university president’s speech went on too long. Here’s the real reason she’s behind schedule, though. On her way down the street from one event to another, a man recognized her. Introducing himself, he said that he was a former drug addict who now worked as a counselor. He wanted to take a picture with her, he said, to show to the people he worked with. Breed—whose sister is died of a drug overdose and whose brother is in prison—is a model of rising from difficult circumstances. And she has risen far.

Brought up by her grandmother in the Western Addition’s notorious Plaza East housing projects, in the shadow of City Hall, Breed became head of the African American Art & Culture Complex (AAACC), a nonprofit cultural center, in 2002, claimed a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 2012, and this year—after the narrowest of elections—became the first African American woman to lead the city’s government. San Franciscans seem eager to grasp hold of her, to make her story their own. These days, parents usher small children forward to meet her. Muni drivers honk their horns at her. Choirs serenade her.

San Francisco is now the largest city in the country with a black woman as mayor, and Breed is poised to take her place in a new pantheon of young women of color reshaping American politics—one that includes newly minted U.S. representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City and Ayanna Pressley of Boston, potential new governor of Georgia Stacey Abrams, and, of course, Senator Kamala Harris of California, a front-tier contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2020 race. (This story went to print before the November election.) In October, Politico dubbed 2018 the Year of the Black Progressive.

But for all the wind at her back, Breed must still face several hurdles on her way through an abbreviated term as mayor. After a nail-biting eight days of vote counting, she eked out a just-under-a-percentage-point margin of victory against her closest competitor, former state senator Mark Leno, to finish out the final term of the late mayor Ed Lee. San Francisco voters will return to the ballot box in November 2019 to elect a mayor to a full four-year term, and Breed has already announced that she will be running in that race. Standing in the way, however, are a Board of Supervisors stacked with her ideological rivals and the mountainous tasks of cleaning the city’s streets of needles and fecal waste, driving down the price of housing, and stitching together a body politic still divided over the cascading effects of a nearly decade-long tech boom. So can London Breed pull it off when the glamour surrounding her inevitably fades? Will the coalition of black voters, white and Asian American moderates, longtime residents, and downtown businesses that propelled her to her first citywide victory deliver her another?

 

When Breed finally arrives at City Hall, she settles in behind the broad desk in her office, and we talk at length about her plans for the city—cleaner streets, safe injection sites, more housing, and her opposition to a proposed new jail. I want to understand her agenda better. I want to understand her better, too.

She’s still adjusting. “It wasn’t even real,” she says about the day she was sworn in to office. “It really wasn’t even real.”

On policy matters, Breed is part of a continuum of moderate mayors that begins with Willie Brown and runs through Gavin Newsom and Lee.

She has been embraced by the activists in the Yes in My Backyard movement, who argue that the solution to San Francisco’s housing crisis lies in increasing the supply of new housing. “When it comes to housing, yes, supply and demand is a real thing,” she said in her inaugural address on July 11. In October, she announced a plan to speed the production of new units by appointing a director of housing delivery to reform the planning process, which can stretch pointlessly over years and across bureaucratic fiefs.

She has also pushed hard to clean up San Francisco’s streets, where accumulations of litter, fecal matter, and discarded needles have reached epic proportions. Part of that work has meant whipping the city’s bureaucrats into action. In August, the city launched a Poop Patrol—a team of five Department of Public Works staffers who, armed with a steam cleaner and reported $71,760 yearly salaries, are tasked with scrubbing human and animal waste from areas like the alleys near Polk Street. (We asked to go along on a patrol, to see the team in action, but a DPW spokesperson, citing the high volume of other reporters who had made the same request, denied us.) Breed also allocated $1.05 million in the city’s 2019 budget to build five new public toilets.

And she’s taken to the streets herself. Just as Lee was known to pull his car over to shovel trash into his back seat, Breed has been surprising random litterbugs with impromptu mayoral scoldings. “I was behind one guy who threw something on the ground. I said, ‘Hey, pick that up.’ He turned around and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Madame Mayor.’ Then he picked it up. I was like, ‘Why are you trashing our streets?’”

On crime, Breed mixes a no-nonsense attitude with hard-earned empathy in the moments when the criminal justice system reaches too far. (On the subject of her incarcerated brother, she stays relentlessly on message—and fairly tight-lipped.) On the Board of Supervisors, she was against the construction of a stand-alone jail. She also authored legislation to reduce the municipal fines and fees levied on convicts post-incarceration, a position drawn from her 10 years heading the AAACC, some of whose employees saw their wages garnisheed after reentering society, making it difficult for them to stay on at aboveboard jobs when drug-dealing income, by contrast, would not be reportable. Breed also supports safe injection sites, where people struggling with addiction can use freely under supervision; she recently met with the mayor of Zurich, which created some of the first such sites 25 years ago.

These are all policy items in the San Francisco mainstream—and spots where Breed may be able to pick off, on an issue-by-issue basis, a few progressive supervisors who might otherwise be opposed to her. For instance, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman is careful in public to note his disagreements with the mayor and state senator Scott Wiener (whom he replaced on the board). However, drawing on his own experience with a severely mentally ill mother, he was a key ally of theirs in the push for a state mental health conservatorship bill. The new law allows the courts to involuntarily commit mentally ill and drug-addicted people.

Policy aside, Breed’s affect is different from that of the mayors who preceded her, especially the reserved bureaucrat who most recently held the office. Where Lee’s sense of humor was dry and filled with dad jokes, the 44-year-old Breed is warm. Her pop culture references skew a generation younger. She rocks in her seat with excitement as she recounts meeting Tina Knowles, Beyoncé’s mother, recently. “She was like, ‘We are so proud of you,’” Breed says. “I almost fell to the floor. You have brought onto this earth the most incredible entertainer, and you are proud of me.”

Alongside the warmth, Breed is also much more willing than Lee was to go off message and show flashes of real temper in public. During her first supervisorial election, in which she unseated Christina Olague, opponents accused her of carrying water for tech, real estate interests, and former mayor Brown, to which she replied furiously, “Why do women have to be a pawn for somebody?… Willie Brown didn’t wipe my ass when I was a baby—my grandmother took care of me.” After she took office, Breed developed a habit of allowing herself to be baited by opponents into intemperate responses on Twitter. While they were sparring over the city’s handling of 4/20 celebrations in the Haight, one critic told her to “hop off your soapbox and do your job.” Her reply: “Have you got the memo? Slavery is over and no one owns me or tells me what to do. Email me if you want to work on real solutions.” In 2013, Breed deleted her account, returning two years later with a noticeably more buttoned-down tone, which she has mostly maintained in public since then—although in 2016 she did call former San Francisco Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond’s 48 Hills website a “bullshit ass blog.” Today, her tweets tend much more toward the anodyne. A recent example: “It’s exciting to see so many new food and entertainment options coming to the Mission Bay neighborhood.” The transformation puts me in mind of a former indie darling who turns into a movie star—a lot more box office business, a lot less personality.

Unlike Lee, who mostly worked with a board that shared his ideological positions, Breed will have plenty of chances to disagree with the city’s progressive supervisors, who will likely hold a majority after the November election. She’s already had one major conflict with them.

Breed’s tenure as acting mayor in the wake of Lee’s death ended in January when her opponents voted 6–3 to replace her with Supervisor Mark Farrell. Although they cited separation-of-power arguments, it was essentially a raw display of political muscle driven by concerns that allowing Breed to remain at the post would give her an insurmountable advantage over Leno and Supervisor Jane Kim, both of whom ran to her left. Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission, said at the time that she would vote to remove Breed because of her backing from the San Francisco business community. “I have to say it, there are white, rich men, billionaires, in this city who have steered the policies of the past two mayoral administrations, if not more,” Ronen said. “I hate to say it, I wish it weren’t so, but those white men are so enthusiastically supporting your candidacy, London Breed. And what you haven’t heard because you’re not in this inside world we all inhabit in City Hall is that they’ve been threatening people. They’re all saying if you don’t support London Breed that people’s careers will be ruined. It is happening right now in this Board of Supervisors chamber. It happened the morning Ed Lee passed away. That’s how gross these people are—because they are gross.”

 

“Breed Power! Breed Power!” Anita Williams chants as London Breed takes the stage in the meeting room of downtown San Francisco’s InterContinental hotel on a recent Saturday morning, two days after Breed and I spoke in her office. With an oxygen tank hooked up to a tube that runs under her nose, the 73-year-old Williams watches Breed take the microphone at the annual meeting of Black Women Organized for Political Action, a 50-year-old professional group that grew out of Ron Dellums’s first bid for Congress, in 1970.

“I’ve come a mighty long way,” Williams says. I assume she’s speaking metaphorically, but she corrects me—she took paratransit this morning from her home in Oakland.

During her BWOPA speech, Breed touches on some core parts of her biography well-known to voters—the sister who died of a drug overdose, the incarcerated brother, the grandmother who raised her—filling in more details here than she usually does, although many of the longtime friends in the audience probably know them by heart. “My grandmother raised me in public housing. We got whuppings,” Breed says to laughter, before turning serious. “It came from a place of love and support and wanting to see us succeed. We were surrounded by poverty and drug dealing and homicides. That was my normal,” but many of the people who surrounded her “wanted something different for my future.”

She touts one of her signature policy proposals, a program to provide a paid internship this summer to every San Francisco high school student who wants one. When Breed was at Galileo High, she interned at the Family School, a Western Addition nonprofit that offers GED courses and childcare for new mothers. “These were some tough women who expected a lot out of me,” Breed says of the staff who ran the organization. “God had a plan,” she concludes. “I think every single day about how I make sure that what happened to my family doesn’t continue to happen to other families.”

After the speech, Williams rolls forward to meet Breed. “I feel renewed,” Williams says as she approaches. Breed is surrounded by a group of high school students brought by Linda Martley-Jordan, who works for the San Francisco Unified School District on African American achievement and leadership. Some of the students here today are enrolled in classes on African American women’s heritage at Mission High, where Breed has agreed to speak. She and Martley-Jordan have known each other since Breed’s time running the AAACC, where they worked together distributing backpacks full of school supplies to in-need students. “I can always call her,” says Martley- Jordan, who made sure the students were paying attention when Breed spoke about the internship program. “The young ladies who were standing there with me asked, ‘When do we start working?’”

 

“She doesn’t have to be introduced,” Sheryl Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, explained in an interview a few weeks before Breed’s speech at the BWOPA meeting. The two women have known each other for more than a decade. In Breed’s circle of friends, that makes her something of a newcomer. “My ex-husband baptized her,” Davis said. To many San Franciscans, especially those who grew up with Breed, it’s breathtaking to see her as mayor. But Davis has noticed that Breed, as a black woman, is often spoken of with a certain level of familiarity that at times barely conceals a form of condescension. Pay attention, Davis says, to how people refer to her: “People will call her London. They’ll tell me, ‘I told London something,’ and I say, ‘You told who?’ I see it happen with [Supervisor] Malia Cohen, too.”

This familiarity—real or assumed—works both for Breed and against her. The city feels as if it already knows her. That creates openings for her to make unexpected moves—but it also means that if the voters turn against her, they will do so in personal terms. Many already have over her opposition to Proposition C, which would levy a new tax on large corporations to fund homelessness services. For now, though, Breed is still basking in the job, bragging about how she spent time with President Barack Obama—at his request.

“He was in the Bay Area, and he wanted to meet me. We had met before—I worked on his campaign—but I didn’t say that. He said, ‘I want to meet Mayor London Breed.’”

But even if Breed doesn’t need to be introduced, she still has inroads to make, especially at her next event, a get-together of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at the Westin St. Francis. Ballots are secret, of course, but if you wanted to take bets on what a Mark Leno voter looked like, the group of mostly older, mostly white gay men gathered here would offer good odds.

As a pianist finishes playing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”—a musical cue that seems pretty darn on the nose—Breed slips her arm through that of state senator Wiener. Is playing the authoritarian populist’s aria a subtweet or just happenstance? I don’t claim to know. But if there are hard feelings lingering from the special election, they aren’t palpable at the moment. Breed thanks the chorus for singing at her inauguration (rumor has it that she wanted Beyoncé, too—never hurts to dream big) and mentions that the chorus used to hold rehearsals in an AAACC space. “We will not be erased,” Breed says. It’s just days after Matthew Shepard, the gay college student beaten to death in a homophobic hate crime in 1998, was finally laid to rest at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and the Trump administration announced that it was considering a massive rollback of federal rights for transgender people. “I’m looking forward to working together over the next couple of years.”

The question of just how much a part of “we” the members of the chorus consider Breed—compared with Leno or Wiener—hangs for a moment. Then Breed is overcome with emotion as the chorus sings an Irish hymn to welcome her. It’s a tradition that has evolved since its earliest days, when the chorus sang the hymn to welcome visiting mothers of its members; it has since expanded to include other family members and allies. “May the road rise up to meet you,” the chorus sings. Well, most of the members sing, that is. More than one of them don’t open their mouths. Breed is in, just not all the way.

 

From the personal to the political and back again—Breed is still figuring out how to make these pivots as smooth as possible. After the Gay Men’s Chorus event, she jumps into a black SUV with Wiener, and the two travel to a Noe Valley park, where Wiener’s office is putting on a pumpkin-carving contest. When she arrives, Breed inspects pumpkins, high-fives little kids, and trades lipstick tips with Mercedez Munro, one of the drag queens there to judge the contest. All personal and all good. But a crack in Breed’s facade emerges when a woman approaches her with a question about the upcoming election. She’s not trying to hector Breed—she’s legitimately chewing her way through the ballot and wants to grab a moment to ruminate over one of the issues with the mayor. “I wanted to know why you were opposed to Proposition C?” the woman asks in a tone of honest confusion. I assume that Breed has some answer ready to go. She does, but it’s not the one I expect.

Breed’s face goes cold as she sees the direction the question is headed in. This is not a discussion she wants to have. “I’m here to talk about anything but politics,” the mayor says to her constituent. The woman’s face falls.

It makes sense to me that she wants to duck this conversation, but it’s still a sour moment, and I’m surprised that Breed doesn’t finesse it better. Her position on C may be good policy (she and many allies have serious concerns about how the money would be spent), but coming out against the S.F. ballot measure was the first political error of her tenure. She, Wiener, and state assemblymember David Chiu jointly indicated their opposition to the new tax on businesses grossing more than $50 million a year to fund housing and services for the homeless. (The city’s controller estimated that it would raise between $250 million and $300 million annually—doubling the city’s current spending.) Trouble was, just days after they came out against the measure, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said that he would be voting for it, sparking weeks of intense debate that put Breed in an awkward position, one that she clearly does not relish the prospect of explaining amid the pumpkins. Even if the measure loses, Breed squandered a chance to get in front of, rather than behind, the issue. She can’t afford too many more errors like that one. Moments later, Breed takes the mic from Wiener and talks about the new mental health conservatorship law. So much for not talking about politics. The mayor is back on message.

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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