Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Leno unsure of future


State Senator Mark Leno. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Sunday, December 4 gay state Senator Mark Leno's time in the Statehouse will officially come to an end.

The San Francisco Democrat is being termed out of office, having spent the last eights years representing the state's 11th Senate District and serving in the Assembly the six years prior. Come December 5 the man he endorsed to succeed him, gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, will be sworn into office.

It will mark the first time since April 1998, when he was chosen to fill a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors, that Leno has not held public office. And it remains an open question if his name will appear on a future ballot.

He has ruled out making a bid to become the first LGBT person elected to a statewide office by running for lieutenant governor in 2018. This week he endorsed state Senator Ed Hernandez's (D-West Covina) bid for the position.

Nor is he ready to announce running for mayor of San Francisco in 2019. Having decided not to contest Mayor Ed Lee last year, the 65-year-old Leno is being urged by a number of LGBT community leaders and progressives to seek the position when Lee is termed out of office.

"I told him he has my undying support if he runs for mayor," District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose name is often mentioned as a mayoral candidate, told the Bay Area Reporter this fall.

Should he win, Leno would become the city's first gay mayor. But he would face a host of issues, from homelessness to housing costs, with no easy solutions.

During an interview last week with the B.A.R. in his district office overlooking the Civic Center and City Hall, Leno said he had yet to decide on running for mayor.

"I really do not know what's next," said Leno. "I consider this a privileged time in my life, having worked intensely the last 40 years. This is a rare opportunity to take a deep breath and look at the world from a stop position rather than a whirling dervish."

Nearly everyone he meets these days is asking what he will do next, said Leno. As for entering the mayoral race, he is giving himself the next 12 months to mull it over and plans to make a decision by the end of 2017.

"The question I am asking myself is what is meaningful to me, and what can I do to address that," said Leno.

To keep himself in the public eye over the next three years, friends have suggested Leno run in 2018 for Fiona Ma's seat on the Board of Equalization, since she is running for state treasurer, or to become the state's insurance commissioner. Neither is of interest, he said.

"I have never run for an office I didn't passionately want to do," said Leno, adding that he doesn't "need to run for office just to stay in office."


Long list of achievements

Leno is leaving the state Legislature with an impressive list of accomplishments. His legislative record on LGBT issues alone runs the gamut from sponsoring the first marriage equality bill to be approved by a state legislative body to adopting transgender non-discrimination laws, requiring the state's public schools teach about LGBT subjects, and creating Harvey Milk Day each May 22 in honor of the gay former San Francisco supervisor, the first out LGBT person to win elective office in the city and state.

"Looking back at Mark's time in both the Assembly and Senate, it is hard to imagine a legislator in the country who has done more to advance LGBT rights. So many first-of-their-kind bills were carried by Mark," said gay Palm Springs City Councilman Geoff Kors, formerly the executive director of statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality California. "It is an amazing legacy."

Now working as the National Center for Lesbian Rights' government policy director, Kors credited Leno's success to his willingness to listen to and address his fellow lawmakers' concerns about his pro-LGBT legislation.

"Mark would spend hours and hours with colleagues talking to them about why this mattered and helped them work through their issues. He would do it in such a powerful and emphatic way," recalled Kors. "Those one-on-one conversations, which Mark never talks about, is how we got the votes and was critical in passing these bills."

Leno chalked up the numerous LGBT legislative wins he helped shepherd to his "personal good fortune and historic luck" in entering the state Legislature at a time when EQCA was resurgent and a record number of out lawmakers were serving in the Capitol.

"I arrived in 2003 just as Equality California was re-inventing itself. We in California had some of the fewest legal protections for our community than other states," recalled Leno. "Over the 14 years I have been able to be there, we are now number one. It was going to happen those 14 years whether I was there or not. I got to be there."

Other legislative successes Leno is proud of include raising the state's minimum wage to $15 by 2022; restricting access to cellphone records without a warrant; and advancing the use of renewable energy, particularly solar, in the state.

He said it wasn't until serving in elected office that he discovered his inner policy wonk. And it is what he will miss most about being a lawmaker, "the ability to impact public policy decision-making. It is a rare opportunity," he said.

He won't miss having to fight the same vested interests, such as the real estate lobby, the pharmaceutical industry or insurance companies.

"There is the sad phenomenon of banging one's head against the wall, but that is part of the job," said Leno. "You just suck it up and keep on going."

In those instances, Leno said he turned to President Abraham Lincoln's comment, "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed," for inspiration.

"Yes, there are very powerful forces out there. But by rallying public support, anything is possible," said Leno. "And that is the beauty of our democracy."

As for his biggest disappointment while in Sacramento, Leno told the B.A.R. it was failing to pass what he considered "very modest" reforms to the Ellis Act in order to stop property speculators from evicting tenants, particularly those in rent-controlled units, in order to flip the buildings. The defeat was due to the real estate lobby, which doesn't "give an inch," said Leno. "They are a powerful force."

His championing of the issue helped Leno win over progressives in San Francisco, as he was labeled a moderate during his time on the Board of Supervisors. Queer housing rights activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who often clashed with Leno at City Hall, told the B.A.R. that he is "very sad" to see him now leaving office.

"Mark has been a great friend to the tenant community," he said. "We appreciated all of his efforts to get rid of the Ellis Act. Even though we weren't successful, we appreciated he stuck his neck out. He blossomed much more in Sacramento than he did in San Francisco."

Leno acknowledged that his priorities have shifted leftward on the political spectrum during his time in office. He went from being pegged a moderate in City Hall to "tapping off the left edge" as soon as he arrived in the Legislature.

"I have come to embrace the opportunity to fight for the underdog," said Leno. "The corporate interests do not need my help; enough of my colleagues are helping them."


A neighborhood champion

One issue Avicolli Mecca praised Leno for supporting during his time as a supervisor – he was first appointed to an at-large seat and then ran for the District 8 seat when the supervisors reverted to being elected by district in 2000 – was providing services to homeless youth in the Castro. It was an issue that inflamed the city's gay neighborhood, with many residents and business owners opposed to such programs being based in the Castro.

Leno and Tom Ammiano, a gay man who formerly held the District 9 seat on the board "were the two supervisors who really helped us in the late 1990s when we set up those three winter shelters for homeless queer/trans youth, as well as the free meals program and the shower project at Mission High," Avicolli Mecca noted in an email. "I had issue with him because he often voted with the mayor and supported more moderate candidates like the Alice B. Toklas club did, but he was good on homeless issues while supervisor of my district ..."

That past policy fight was a distant memory at the November meeting of the Castro Merchants, as the business association's president Daniel Bergerac presented Leno and his longtime district aide Anna Damiani certificates of honor for their assistance over the years with myriad neighborhood concerns.

"Our local hero," said Bergerac. "He has been a tireless advocate for our neighborhood and LGBT issues."

Known for handing out state proclamations, and city proclamations as a supervisor, with some joking he had a press in the trunk of his car in order to crank them out, Leno stayed true to form and honored the Castro Merchants with a framed proclamation designating it as his Senate district's small business advocates of the year.

Leno noted he has been a small business owner himself for close to four decades as the proprietor of Budget Signs, which he started in 1978 with his late life partner, Douglas Jackson, who died in 1990 due to AIDS-related complications.

He recalled how his life had changed overnight from being a community leader, co-chairing the campaign to raise the millions needed to build the city's LGBT Community Center, to being named to the vacant supervisor seat roughly two decades ago by former Mayor Willie Brown.

"Yes it has been 18 years since Willie Brown dropped me into political office," said Leno, a longtime resident of Noe Valley. "It has been a remarkable, unexpected ride, and I have enjoyed every minute of it."

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