Appointment of former SF supervisor Leal made history 30 years ago

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday July 12, 2023
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Bevan Dufty, left, and then-supervisor Susan Leal talked in her City Hall office in 1995. Photo: Bill Ambrunn
Bevan Dufty, left, and then-supervisor Susan Leal talked in her City Hall office in 1995. Photo: Bill Ambrunn

The historic appointment of San Francisco's first — and so far only — Latina lesbian supervisor was put in motion after then-President Bill Clinton nominated another lesbian supervisor, Roberta Achtenberg, to a top post in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in February 1993.

Though Achtenberg wouldn't be confirmed for several months — and after deeply homophobic comments by some U.S. senators — the impending vacancy had then-mayor Frank Jordan searching for her successor.

The Senate confirmed Achtenberg on June 2, 1993, leading to her resignation from the Board of Supervisors. Two days later, Jordan appointed Susan Leal, a Latina lesbian attorney and health care executive, to the post.

"It was a very difficult choice. I interviewed many, many well-qualified people," Jordan said in announcing the appointment, as the Bay Area Reporter noted at the time. "Susan Leal has tremendous credentials, she's a hardworking, bright and dedicated individual, [and] a professional businesswoman in her own right."

Former San Francisco supervisor Susan Leal. Photo: Courtesy Susan Leal  

Now, 30 years after that groundbreaking pick, Leal reflected on her tenure and significant legislation she helped pass in a recent phone interview with the B.A.R. Her achievements included renaming Army Street in honor of United Farm Workers union co-founder Cesar Chavez; standing up for immigrants after California voters passed Proposition 187, which curtailed services for those not in the country legally; and, most significantly, passing the equal benefits ordinance, which mandated companies doing business with the city provide the same benefits to domestic partners, including same-sex couples, that they provided to heterosexual couples.

Leal, now 73, is a San Francisco native. At the time of her appointment she was the vice president for Health Care COMPARE Corp., a national health care cost-management firm, and a one-time consultant to the state Assembly Ways and Means Committee, where she drafted California's health budget in 1982 and 1983, at a time when the state was forced to reduce its health expenditures by more than 25%.

Leal joined lesbian supervisor Carole Migden on the board. Migden and Achtenberg had been the first out lesbians to serve on the city's legislative body, and Leal was the first LGBTQ person of color.

Lesbian former supervisor Leslie Katz, who served with Leal and gay former supervisor Tom Ammiano in the 1990s and is the last lesbian to have served on the board, said that was important, particularly when it came to passing the equal benefits ordinance. (Appointed supervisor Christine Olague, who served in 2012, is a bisexual woman.)

"It was immensely important to the community to have the first open LGBTQ person of color on the board," she said in a phone interview.

Leal, too, noted the significance and said that Jordan, a more conservative mayor, was on board when they met ahead of his selection of her.

Not only was "the whole lesbian Latina thing" seen as advantageous, recalled Leal, "they liked the fact that I was more moderate."

David Monetta, an attorney who had attended UC Berkeley with Leal and Bevan Dufty, a gay man who would become an aide to Leal before being elected supervisor himself in 2002, had suggested Leal's name to an associate of Jordan's. He said in a phone interview that while Leal and Jordan might not agree about everything, "she was someone he'd be able to work with."

"She's a solid, smart gal and was very frank with Frank," said Monetta, a straight man who's an attorney in San Francisco. He, Leal, and Dufty served as student body officers at Cal.

"Character manifests early in life, is my personal experience," Monetta said of Leal.

Dufty, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, later moved to San Francisco and began working for Leal at City Hall. Back then, he said, there were a lot of "big personalities" on the board, including the late Terence Hallinan, who would go on to become district attorney.

Then-San Francisco city attorney Louise Renne, left, Supervisor Susan Leal, and her campaign consultant Scott Shafer looked at election results at Leal's victory celebration for San Francisco treasurer on November 4, 1997. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Early actions
In fact, Leal said that one of the things she did on the board was to lead an override of a Jordan veto related to anti-immigrant Proposition 187. While the state proposition was later voided, at the time, the supervisors had passed legislation stating the city would not abide by it. She was joined in the effort by then-supervisor Tom Hsieh, who died in March.

"He felt 187 was really wrong," Leal recalled of Hsieh.

Passed in November 1994, Prop 187 sought, among other things, to require police, health care professionals, and teachers to verify and report the immigration status of all individuals, including children, the American Civil Liberties Union noted. Days after the measure passed, a federal district court judge held that it violated the United States Constitution and issued an injunction barring its implementation. A later court-approved mediation in 1999 validated that ruling, the ACLU noted.

As for the San Francisco supervisors' resolution denouncing Prop 187, "Frank vetoed it. He talked to Tom and I, and I think Frank himself knew [Prop 187] was wrong, but he had people around him," Leal recalled, advising him not to support the board's legislation.

She remembered telling Hsieh in response to the mayor's action, "let's override this veto."

Jordan could not be reached for comment.

Leal said she still gets choked up about it when recalling a rally on the steps of City Hall.

"I told my mom I'm going to vote against the guy who appointed me. I get out on the front stairs of City Hall and there's my mother. She had taken Golden Gate Transit down from Santa Rosa. That was really cool," said Leal, whose mom, Louise, died in 2006.

After her appointment, Leal wasted no time in getting to know city voters because she had to run for election in November 1994 citywide. The city had changed from district elections after gay supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone were assassinated by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White.

"Everybody picked me to lose," she recalled, "but I got just about 100,000 votes."

Jordan's goddaughter Annemarie Conroy, whom he had selected for another board vacancy, did not win election that year. In those days, five or six supervisors were on the ballot per election cycle, and the one who got the most votes became board president.

One of the enjoyable aspects of Leal's new post came later in June 1993 when she and Migden rode in the San Francisco Pride parade together, Dufty said.

"Susan, Supervisor Leal, was a quick learner and adapted well to her responsibilities on the board and did her job effectively," Migden wrote in an email. "I asked her to ride with me in the parade to introduce her to the community and we greatly appreciated the enthusiasm of the crowd that day."

Street renaming
The move to rename Army Street in the mid-1990s was controversial. SF Gate reported at the time that Caltrans would charge the city $900,000 for new freeway signs. Nonetheless, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the ordinance renaming all of Army Street, from Noe Valley to the bay, in January 1995.

Leal, who had taken over the effort after former supervisor Bill Maher left the board, said that she was surprised by the pushback, since it wasn't replacing another person's name. "It was Army Street," she said, adding that the old Navy Street was renamed 26th Street before the Army street dustup.

The board's decision led to opponents placing the street renaming on the ballot that fall, but the effort to revert back to Army Street failed.

"Proposition O turned out to be one of the most intense and bitter ballot issues in years," SFGate reported. "It pitted neighborhood leaders against City Hall and neighbors against neighbors. It called up accusations of veiled racism on one side and political correctness at the expense of tradition on the other."

Bill Ambrunn, a gay man who served as an aide for Leal during that time, recalled the ballot fight being "super ugly."

Ambrunn remembered vitriolic voicemails Leal received at City Hall along the lines of "go back where you came from" as well as homophobic comments.

"She was born in the Castro," Ambrunn said. "My father was born in Munich. No one in my entire life said to go back where you came from. She was just reduced to this stereotype so easily.

"I was not naïve after that," he added. "She handled it like a champ."

Leal said she's had homophobic "stuff said to me for years."

"Are you a lesbian?" people would ask, she recalled. "Yeah," she would respond. "I was this Brown girl who had to explain herself."

Equal benefits ordinance
One of the most consequential legislative battles and a highlight of Leal's tenure came in 1996 with the push for the equal benefits ordinance, which required companies doing business with San Francisco to offer the same benefits to domestic partners that they offered to straight married workers. One major sticking point during the process was the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco because the nonprofit Catholic Charities received millions of dollars in city funding for its various programs and would be affected by the law.

By that time, Migden had left the board and two other out supervisors — Ammiano and Katz — had joined the body, the last time it had three gay and lesbian members serving on it. Today, three gay men are on the board: Joel Engardio in District 4, Matt Dorsey (D6), and Rafael Mandelman (D8).

Leal noted that after San Francisco implemented it, "equal benefits spread like wildfire." This was at a time before same-sex marriage was recognized in the U.S., and same-sex couples often could not receive benefits for their partners through their employer.

At one point, Leal, Ammiano, and Katz met with then-Archbishop William Levada. By that time, Katz said, the three had come up with a compromise with a closeted member of the archbishop's staff while Levada was on vacation and allowed Levada to take credit for it. (Levada died in 2019.)

"It was intimidating for them," Katz, who is Jewish, said of Ammiano and Leal, who both grew up Catholic. Leal attended the all-girls Catholic Presentation School.

Katz said that then Board of Supervisors President Barbara Kaufman and then-mayor Willie Brown also went to the meeting and that at first, Ammiano wasn't going to go, but changed his mind. Known for his quick wit — Ammiano had performed as a standup comedian and was a former San Francisco school board president — Katz said he was urged not to be funny.

"Oh, no," Katz recalled of that request, adding that the only humorous thing Ammiano said was, "Katz is right, the devil is in the details."

Ammiano was out of town and not able to comment.

The compromise that was reached, Leal and Katz said, would allow any adult member of the household to be eligible for benefits, meaning it did not have to be a same-sex couple.

"It was a domestic partner or someone else living with you," Leal recalled. "Actually, that expanded health care benefits."

Gay former supervisor Jeff Sheehy agreed. He was one of the three activists who came up with the equal benefits ordinance, along with Geoff Kors, who went on to work as an aide for Katz, and Carol Stuart. (Kors later led Equality California and then served on the Palm Springs City Council until last year.)

"Besides Susan's considerable leadership on the Board of Supervisors in assisting in getting the equal benefits ordinance enacted, in supporting vigorous enforcement of the law by the Human Rights Commission and by backing the city attorney's office in its historic defense of the law, Supervisor Leal played the pivotal role in crafting the skillful compromise with the Catholic Archdiocese that rescued the EBO from a huge fight," Sheehy wrote in an email. "Since Catholic Charities was and is a contractor with the city, it was subject to the EBO. The compromise allowed Catholic Charities to be in compliance by permitting employees to designate a member of their household as the recipient of spousal benefits (health insurance, pension, etc.) if they were not married already. In effect, it allowed same-sex employees to obtain pension and health insurance benefits for their partners and the church did not have to officially recognize those relationships.

"It was a source of pride for many of us that this compromise extended needed benefits to family members in other employees' households such as grandmothers, aunts, and uncles," he added.

United Airlines was another major obstacle to the ordinance, delaying it while company officials fought with the city and argued it violated federal health regulations.

"I said this is not an ERISA thing," Leal recalled, referring to the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act, though she added that she knew it was not easy for large employers to change health care plans for their workers.

The equal benefits ordinance had a lasting impact. As the B.A.R. reported on the occasion of its 20th anniversary in 2017, former city administrator Naomi Kelly said that in 1997 when the law was first passed, 500 companies in the country offered domestic partner benefits. Two decades later Kelly noted more than 8,000 businesses were offering domestic partner benefits, all 50 states had companies compliant with San Francisco's law, and 19 jurisdictions in seven states had followed San Francisco's lead.

Constituent services
Ambrunn said Leal emphasized constituent services while a supervisor.

"She took that seriously," he said.

The door of Leal's office was always kept open, he recalled. It was a different time because the supervisors heard from people all over the city.

"Our instructions were to provide constituent services to everyone who asked," Ambrunn said, adding staff was instructed to pick up the phone by the fourth ring. "I did her scheduling for a year and it was amazing what she said yes to — all over the city."

One of Leal's other projects was the red light camera program, which she said was brought to her by a constituent who had lost his brother when someone ran a red light.

"It was a problem," she said, before adding that she herself was hit by a car long after she left the board in 2008 when she was general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. It was not due to a red light runner but she suffered serious injury.

"Pedestrian safety is still a problem," she said.

Leal also advocated for drug treatment funding while chair of the board's budget committee, she said.

"And we put the first money into child care," she said of the supervisors' efforts. At that time there was the federal welfare-to-work program. "I talked to Barbara Kaufman, if we're going to get women to work they need someone to look after their kids," she said.

Life after the board
In 1997, Leal campaigned for the open city treasurer-tax collector position and won. She served in the position until 2004, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom named her as general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The SFPUC board terminated her contract four years later and voted in closed session to fire her. That was the year she'd been hit by a car and suffered a brain hemorrhage, as the B.A.R. reported. Leal ran unsuccessfully for mayor, as did Ammiano, in 2003 when Newsom won.

These days, Leal said she does some consulting work on water and climate issues. She's also joined Harvard University as a senior fellow in its advanced leadership institute.

She's glad her time on the Board of Supervisors was productive.

"We did great stuff," she said.

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