The successor: London Breed grew up in city’s rough projects
She was the native San Franciscan raised in the housing projects who had somehow escaped the violent fates that befell family and friends and was climbing the ranks at City Hall.
Now London Breed is the city’s acting mayor.
As president of the Board of Supervisors, Breed was the legal successor to Mayor Ed Lee, who suffered a heart attack while grocery shopping late Monday night and died early Tuesday morning. Breed, 43, could serve as acting mayor until a June 2018 election. The supervisors could also name her interim mayor or choose another candidate.
It seems more likely that Breed, who has led the Board of Supervisors since 2015, will be confirmed as interim mayor by her colleagues in spite of the
political discord between moderate liberals like Breed and the more progressive supervisors. If the supervisors take no action, Breed would remain acting mayor.
Prior to the mayor’s unexpected death, it was widely speculated that Breed would be among a handful of mayoral hopefuls running to replace the termed-out Lee in 2020. Although the list of potential candidates is long, only Mark Leno, a former state legislator and city supervisor, has announced his candidacy.
Now, instead of preparing for a 2019 election, hopefuls have only weeks to decide whether to fight for the job in this summer’s primary election.
“It’s an extraordinarily fluid situation,” political analyst Jim Ross said. “Breed already has the job. Now she has to get confirmed. And then she has to decide if she wants to run for mayor in June. Moving forward, someone will really have the power to shape the direction the city is headed.”
Probably the first constituent to greet Breed as acting mayor was her houseguest, Errol Hall. The 79-year-old is staying in Breed’s three-bedroom apartment in the lower Haight.
“Congratulations. I’m the first to address you as Madame Mayor,” he said to her Tuesday morning. He added, “She’ll be an excellent mayor. She knows the city. She knows the government. She’s smart as a whip.”
Breed acts out of a deep sense of service and justice, and commitment to the people she grew up with in some of the city’s worst public housing, according to interviews with more than a dozen of her friends, colleagues and adversaries.
She grew up about half a mile from City Hall in a housing project that was later razed by the city. She often speaks in public about growing up poor and surrounded by violence. Her brother is in prison and her younger sister died of a drug overdose. At a recent toy drive, she spoke about how her only childhood Christmas gifts were school clothes until the Fire Department started its toy-collection efforts.
She was larger than life in the projects, said Lateefah Simon, who serves on the BART Board of Directors and grew up with Breed. There, she was known as Big Paul’s sister, Queen B and “a homegirl from the Fillmore.”
When Breed, after graduating from San Francisco’s Galileo High School, got into UC Davis — where she earned a bachelor’s degree before receiving her master’s degree in public administration at the University of San Francisco — Simon said no one was surprised.
“I was in the juvenile justice system and didn’t have any friends going to college,” Simon said. “I was like, ‘London is going to Davis?’ I cried, I was so happy for her. She has been a shining light for so many girls in our neighborhood of what is possible.
“London has to walk down the street every day in front of generations of people who knew her and her grandmother. Her accountability is the fact that she was a kid playing double dutch on the sidewalk here. She feels that deeply.”
Friends and critics describe Breed as brash and bold — the kind of woman who was raised by a strict grandmother. But Breed’s style nearly cost her her early political career. During her 2012 supervisorial race, Breed posted an expletiveladen diatribe that cost her the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
“She lost control of her temper,” said Breed’s longtime campaign manager, Maggie Muir. “As a campaign, we had to figure out how to deal with it. There was a divide between those who felt like it was awful and those who appreciated it. That’s London. She says what she thinks.”
Her frank style has historically been polarizing, ruffling both colleagues and opponents, though she has tempered her public rants and channeled the brashness into enforcing parliamentary procedure at board meetings.
“I expect that she will work in her own direction, period,” said former Supervisor John Avalos, who frequently clashed with Breed. “It’s important to be open about what the different possibilities are here, even in regards to London. Anyone who is in that position has a tremendous opportunity to create a vision for the city.”
It would have been difficult to predict such a change in political fortune months ago when Breed was challenged from the left for re-election. Her district, which includes the Haight-Ashbury, Hayes Valley, Fillmore and Western Addition neighborhoods, has traditionally been one of the most liberal in San Francisco. Frustrations among voters focused on issues like the scarcity of affordable housing and a perception that City Hall’s moderate wing, Breed included, caters to tech companies and gentrifiers.
She won with 52 percent of the vote, but the same issues that made the race competitive will follow whoever fills Lee’s office.
If Breed is ultimately elected mayor, her path will be akin to how Feinstein became acting mayor in December 1978 after the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Feinstein was elected by voters the following year.
Lee himself was named acting mayor by the Board of Supervisors before he was elected by voters in November 2011. He was named to the position upon the recommendation of then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, who left office in January 2011 after being elected California’s lieutenant governor.
Breed will mark a change from the mild-mannered Lee.
“Ed was always very understated,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who served on the board with Breed. “He had a real personality, but it often didn’t come out in public. London has a much bigger personality. She’s very effusive and warm. They’re very different people.”
“London has to walk down the street every day in front of generations of people who knew her and her grandmother . ... She feels that deeply.”
Lateefah Simon, BART director, who grew up with Breed
Breed has historically prioritized public housing and other issues concentrated in her district, drawing criticisms from some that her policy interests are too myopic.
She got her start in politics working as an intern for the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services under former Mayor Willie Brown, now a Chronicle columnist. She worked for Brown’s campaign and was later hired at the Treasure Island Development Authority.
For a decade, she ran the African American Art & Culture Complex, a city-funded but privately managed cultural center, overseeing millions of dollars in renovations. She was widely credited with helping turn the complex around.
During Breed’s stint at the development authority, she met Debbie Mesloh, a longtime political operative and former adviser to now-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
“London doesn’t have time to waste,” Mesloh said. “She assumes others don’t either. She wants to get stuff done in the time she has. She’s a strong, strong person. I think we need that as a city. And she’s San Franciscan to the core.”
Melonie (left) and Melorra Green, co-executive directors of the African American Art & Culture Complex, say London Breed was key in getting funding for projects at the complex.
Above: Acting Mayor London Breed is surrounded by officials during a City Hall news conference after the announcement that Mayor Ed Lee had died. Left: Errol Hall, London Breed’s houseguest, says, “She’ll be an excellent mayor . ... She’s smart as a...