In December, then State Senator Mark Leno, who represented California’s 11th district, termed out of office. Leno, a Democrat, served 14 years in Sacramento, including two terms in the State Legislature’s upper house and three in the lower. Between 1998 and 2002, he occupied the District 8 seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
A Noe Valley resident, Leno considered declaring his candidacy against incumbent Ed Lee in the City’s 2015 mayor’s race, but decided against it. When his senate tenure ended last year, mayoral speculation arose once more for Leno. In January, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Leno had engaged public relations firm SCN Strategies, which coordinated both of Ed Lee’s campaigns, signaling Leno’s intentions for 2019, when term limits will prohibit Lee from running.
In a January View interview, Leno acknowledged that he was “giving a serious look at the 2019 mayor’s race,” but stated that there was “no breaking news to be shared at this time.” Last month, however, he publicly announced his candidacy.
A hero of San Francisco’s LGBT community, Leno, a Wisconsinite who dropped out of rabbinical school as a young man, moved to California from New York in 1977 at the urging of his sister, a Stanford University student. Living in the Tenderloin, he started Budget Signs Inc., a small business that he still owns today. Inspired by Harvey Milk, he became a civil rights activist and volunteer for nonprofits such as Mobilization Against AIDS, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Jewish Congress. He chaired the capital campaign for the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, and discovered that he “had a facility for fundraising, which is a dangerous thing, because then everyone wants you on their board of directors.”
In 1998, Willie Brown appointed him to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he took over the seat vacated by Susan Leal, who had become San Francisco Treasurer. At age 46, Leno had never held elected office; the Chronicle described him at the time as “a behind-the-scenes player,” known for “championing and raising money for other candidates and causes, from AIDS services and the new gay community center to the Holocaust Museum and the Democratic Party,” and as a “protégé of State Assemblywoman Carole Migden,” whom, in 2008, he’d defeat in an acrimonious State Senate race.
His appointment to the Board of Supervisors was controversial. Mayor Brown had pledged to name an individual of the same gender, sexual orientation, and race as Leal, a Latina lesbian, to preserve the board’s diversity. But supervisors, in those days, were paid only $24,000 per year – compared to about $111,000 today – and the mayor struggled to find a suitable replacement who wanted the job. Leno checked only one of the three boxes on Brown’s list, but his record in community service convinced Leal to support him. According to Leno, he’d “had no plans ever to run for office” before assuming his Board of Supervisors position. “I came in completely inexperienced; I had no background in any sort of public policy.” But he quickly found that he was a “closet policy wonk and that I loved the job.”
The experience resigned him to a career in politics. “What pushed me over the edge,” he said, “was that I didn’t want to wake up ten years [later] and wonder what it would have been like.”
In 2002, he earned a State Assembly seat, where three years later he authored Assembly Bill 849, a law that, after passing the Assembly and the Senate, would’ve made California the first state to legalize gay marriage by legislative means if not for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto.
With the 2008 election, Leno became the first openly gay man in the California State Legislature’s upper house. As state senator, he helped initiate an unsuccessful effort to create single-payer healthcare in California. By 2016, he’d authored 161 laws, including legislation to establish Harvey Milk Day, prevent transgender discrimination, promote pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and reduce greenhouse emissions. His diligence and civility earned friendship and respect from members of both major political parties. In Leno’s final legislative session at the Statehouse Democrat Kevin de León and Republican Joel Anderson together paid tribute to the “true statesman” for his “elegance” and “eloquence.”
According to Tony Kelly, Potrero Hill Democratic Club president, “Leno has been a reliable advocate for important issues affecting our neighborhood, including tenant protections, raising the state minimum wage, probation services for felons, and single-payer healthcare. The Hill’s voters have regularly supported his campaigns, and a number of neighborhood activists urged him to run for mayor in 2015. ”
In 2016, Leno endorsed State Senate candidate Scott Wiener, who defeated fellow Democrat Jane Kim to succeed Leno in the 11th District. “Mark Leno’s legacy in the State Legislature is hard to overstate,” Wiener said. “On so many critically important issues – civil rights, criminal justice reform, housing, consumer protection, clean energy, economic justice, and many others – Mark has been a progressive champion for our state. I’m so honored to succeed him and will work hard to continue his legacy.”
Leno described his work in the Statehouse as “a 24/7-type of job. I was in Sacramento Monday through Thursday and in the district Friday, Saturday, Sunday.” Whatever sabbatical he may recently have enjoyed – he described himself in January as being “still in transition” – looks now to be over. “The results of the November [national] election have certainly reminded me that there is a lot of work to be done,” he remarked.