Politics a family pursuit for D8 Supe Sheehy
by Matthew S. Bajko
Politics has long run in the family of Jeff Sheehy, appointed last week by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to the vacant District 8 seat on the Board of Supervisors.
His paternal grandfather, John Sheehy Sr., was appointed in 1934 to serve out a mayoral term in Waco, Texas, and decades later his father, James Robert Sheehy Sr., was elected mayor in 1992. A year later he was thrust into the national spotlight due to the deadly federal raid on the Branch Davidian sect in a nearby town.
At that time Jeff Sheehy was teaching English in Tokyo and was estranged from his lawyer father and mother, Zoe Ann, who was a housewife. The couple had cut off financial support for him when he came out at the age of 22. The second oldest of six siblings – he has four brothers and one sister – he is the only gay child.
"They told me they didn't want to pay for that lifestyle," recalled Sheehy of his parents, who are now both deceased, in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter Monday night, his first in-depth interview since being named to the board last Friday, January 6.
Sheehy, 59, who was raised Catholic and attended his first public school when he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated with a B.A. in history, did later reconcile with his parents. They had an "accepting relationship," he said, "as long as I wasn't bringing boyfriends home."
Having first moved to San Francisco in 1988, Sheehy joked it was "probably better" for his father that he was in Japan when the elder Sheehy first ran for mayor of Waco. His father didn't have to explain why his son had moved west, and the local media never knew he had a gay son.
Sheehy had first moved to Los Angeles to be with a boyfriend, and when the relationship failed, he relocated to the Bay Area, crashing with a friend from college. Nearly 18 years ago he met his now husband, Bill Berry, and in 2004 they bought a home in Glen Park, where they are raising their daughter, Michelle Berry, who attends San Francisco public schools.
At the news conference last week where Lee introduced the new supervisor for the gay Castro district, as well as Noe Valley, Diamond Heights and Glen Park, Sheehy said the mayor "didn't appoint a person, he appointed a family."
He explained to the B.A.R. that his becoming the supervisor "involves sacrifices for all of us." Berry is not just his husband, he added, but his "most trusted adviser, confidante, and best friend," while his daughter "is a wealth of wisdom that only children can provide."
Berry, a transaction coordinator for Zephyr Real Estate, told reporters last week that his husband "is tough as nails" and that he "cannot be bought and he can't be broken."
Asked during the interview with the B.A.R. about how independent he feels he can be as a mayoral appointee, Sheehy said, "I certainly feel I need to be respectful of the mayor's decision."
But he also intends to be a supervisor focused on the needs of his district – at Tuesday's board meeting he called for a hearing to address the car break-ins and home burglaries that are on the rise in the city and especially in District 8 – and he has said his decisions will not be based on a desire to run for higher office.
"I aim to do the best I can. I am not here to serve because I want to go to Sacramento or D.C. or run for another room in City Hall," said Sheehy, who potentially could serve for 10 years in the seat should he be elected to four-year terms in 2018 and again in 2022. "I really care about our neighborhoods that make up this district."
Another issue Sheehy is already addressing is how the county jails house and treat transgender inmates. On Sunday he spoke to Sheriff Vicki Hennessey about the status of the changes she has vowed to implement and, on Tuesday, he announced he had sent a formal letter of inquiry regarding the matter.
"Some will say this subject is complicated, but our values are simple. San Francisco must treat every individual in custody with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity," said Sheehy during the board's meeting. "It is critical for the public to know where the policy stands."
He also introduced a resolution that calls on Congress not to repeal the Affordable Care Act and called for a hearing on federal health issues and funding, a matter Sheehy has vowed to be a vocal advocate for while on the board.
"I am aware Mayor Lee is already at the forefront on this issue and has reached out to a number of mayors on this issue," said Sheehy, noting the mayor has already held roundtable talks with city department heads about the potential loss of federal health dollars. "This hearing is an opportunity to talk about this work in a public forum."
Sheehy known for independent streak
In selecting Sheehy for the board vacancy, Lee picked an astute political operative with experience running campaigns as well as championing groundbreaking policies. He also chose someone who has moved from being a progressive leader to more moderate in his views.
Sheehy's advocacy in the late 1990s for San Francisco to adopt an equal benefits ordinance, which resulted in a boycott of United Airlines, led to companies with city contracts having to offer the same benefits to their LGBT employees as they did for their heterosexual hires.
As the HIV policy adviser to former mayor Gavin Newsom, Sheehy routinely wrangled with Jeffrey Klausner, the city's former public health official in charge of prevention and care for sexually transmitted diseases. Their public feud over gay men's use of erectile dysfunction drugs led Sheehy to tell the B.A.R. in 2005 that "Jeff Klausner wants the dicks of people with HIV in his back pocket and he wants us to ask him permission to use it. And I am not giving him my dick."
Last summer Sheehy accused District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim of not understanding "what's going on with people who have HIV and AIDS" due to a budget fight over funding the city's Getting to Zero initiative, which Sheehy helped launch and aims to end HIV transmission in San Francisco by 2020.
Friends of Sheehy said they expect he will continue to speak his mind now that he is on the board.
"He has a long history of strong leadership for our community," said Terry Beswick, a gay, HIV-positive Castro resident who was once an assistant editor at the B.A.R. and now serves as executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. "He is courageous and unpredictable. He has his own opinions but collects the facts and makes a decision."
Rather than painting Sheehy as either a moderate or a progressive, Beswick called him a "pragmatist." He is hopeful the new supervisor will be supportive of efforts to preserve the LGBT community's historic sites in the city and assist in efforts to build a new LGBT museum to celebrate that history.
"The bottom line for me is he has balls," said Beswick.
San Francisco Housing Action Coalition Executive Director Todd David, who lives with his wife, Tiffany Loewenberg, and their children in Noe Valley, has known Sheehy for eight years having met through the public school lobbying group San Francisco Parent PAC. He too expects Sheehy to be an independent voice on the board.
"He will tell you exactly what he is thinking. He does not speak to the crowd," said David, who serves as the political action committee's treasurer. "He has a reasoned, thoughtful response. He is not influenced by the last person who spoke to him."
Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), whose election in November led to the board vacancy, said the mayor had found an "unbelievably passionate, driven, and tenacious" person to succeed him.
"I just know he is going to do incredible work on the board," said Wiener.