“I ask for your patience, I ask for your support and I ask for your prayers.”
With those words spoken in San Francisco’s City Hall rotunda on Tuesday morning, Board of Supervisors President London Breed embarked on her tenure as the city’s acting mayor in the wake of the sudden death overnight of Mayor Ed Lee. She’s the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco.
Breed, 43, is a San Francisco native who was raised by one of her grandmothers in a public housing development in the Western Addition. She was first elected to represent District 5 on the Board of Supervisors in 2012, defeating Christina Olague, a Lee ally whom the late mayor had appointed to the seat.
Like Lee, who never ran for public office until after he was appointed mayor in 2011, Breed was a relative latecomer to electoral politics.
She graduated from Galileo High School in the city and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and public service at UC Davis and a master’s in public administration from the University of San Francisco. She began her career in government when former Mayor Willie Brown’s administration hired her as an intern in the city’s Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services.
Brown appointed Breed in 2002 to head the Western Addition’s African American Art & Culture Complex. Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, appointed Breed in 2005 to serve on the city’s Redevelopment Agency Commission. She moved from that position in 2010, when Newsom named her to the Fire Commission, which oversees the San Francisco Fire Department.
Breed, who was elected Board of Supervisors president in 2015, has been regarded as a member of the board’s “moderate” majority — meaning she generally supported pro-development, pro-business policies put forward by Mayor Lee.
Unlike the usually mild Lee, Breed is known for occasionally expressing her opinions in forceful and memorable terms.
In a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech in 2015, responding to a wave of fatal shootings in the city, Breed called on families who had members they knew were involved in violent acts to turn them in.
“We don’t want to see another young life lost to senseless violence,” Breed said in a KQED Newsroom interview.
She acknowledged that her call was “tough.” But she added, “When you have a kid who feels they need to walk around in the streets with a gun on them in order to protect themselves, then something is wrong. And rather than have them die on the streets because someone is after them or because they feel need to defend themselves — I don’t want to see another young man die. I think about the friends I have lost and what I wouldn’t give to see their face one day walk down the street.”
Breed said her views on crime were strongly influenced by her grandmother, whom she called “really strict.” She said that a combination of better policing and more meaningful engagement with young people is necessary to stem crime in the long run.
“We need the social service agencies directly in the developments where we have the most challenges,” Breed said. “We need the people who are being paid to work with young people to roll up their sleeves and go to their homes and be in the community and work with young individuals. But we also have to hold our own kids accountable. We just do. We can’t continue to be in denial when our children are involved in activities that we personally feel are the wrong things for them to be involved (in), that could result in them losing their life.”
Breed came to the Board of Supervisors with a reputation for what some might call plain-spokenness — a reputation based largely on a single interview she gave in the 2012 District 5 campaign.
Although the Fog City Journal interview prompted a less than family-friendly rant about insider politics in the city, Breed also offered a ringing declaration about why and for whom she was running:
I’m packaging myself as someone who is honest and can stand by any decision I’ve made. I don’t need to be a progressive, a moderate, a this or a that – I’m a black woman in San Francisco who has lost a tremendous amount of people in District 5 and everyone else who is moving into District 5 claims to be the savior of the black folks there, the families who are there, or the folks who are disenfranchised – where were they when someone got shot and killed at Ella Hill Hutch (community center) in front of a bunch of kids? Where were they when public housing was getting torn down and we were getting pushed out left and right…where were they in protecting my family and my friends from getting booted out of public housing in District 5?
My point is, you want to believe me, well come see me in my district, where I’m the only one who is working on the ground every single day with the people who need it the most,” Breed added.
As a member of the Fire Commission and Board of Supervisors, Breed has been a frequent critic of Chief Joanne-Hayes White. Among her complaints with the chief: the Fire Department’s slow ambulance response times, due partly to its slow pace in procuring new vehicles, and a major backlog in arson investigations. She has said that she would appoint a new leader for the department if she were mayor.
On some of the major challenges facing the city, Breed has:
- Supported an ambitious city plan to reduce chronic homelessness by 50 percent by 2022.
- Backed some affordable housing measures, including finding funding to rehabilitate vacant San Francisco Housing Authority units and supporting zoning that would aid development of affordable housing units in the city’s Fillmore and Divisadero corridors. Progressives and tenant advocates have criticized her for opposing measures that would limit condominium conversions, Ellis Act evictions and Airbnb rentals.
- Supported efforts to revamp the Muni transit system, including replacement of the system’s entire light-rail fleet and hundreds of buses. She has been vocal in trying to get the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to accelerate work on system improvement.