With no LGBTQ SF mayoral candidate expected in 2024, past contenders recall steep hill they faced

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday July 19, 2023
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San Francisco mayoral candidate Mark Leno, flanked by former supervisor and 2003 mayoral candidate Susan Leal, left, and former supervisor Sophie Maxwell, gathered with supporters at his campaign office on May 26, 2018. Photo: Rick Gerharter
San Francisco mayoral candidate Mark Leno, flanked by former supervisor and 2003 mayoral candidate Susan Leal, left, and former supervisor Sophie Maxwell, gathered with supporters at his campaign office on May 26, 2018. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Gay former state senator and city supervisor Mark Leno perhaps came closest when he was in first place for several hours in San Francisco's June 2018 special mayoral election. But after ranked choice votes were tabulated, he saw his Election Night lead disappear as former interim mayor and then-supervisor London Breed won the race to serve out the term of deceased mayor Ed Lee. And while there have been other lesbian and gay candidates for San Francisco mayor over the years, none has been successful in winning election to occupy Room 200 at City Hall.

In 1995, Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian and former San Francisco supervisor who went on to a top post as an assistant secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, left the federal government to run for mayor against incumbent Frank Jordan and Willie Brown, the powerful former state Assembly speaker. Believed to be the first serious out candidate, Achtenberg lost in the general election, and Brown defeated Jordan in the runoff.

"The idea was to come in at least second to be in the runoff," Achtenberg said in a recent phone interview.

In 1999, gay then-supervisor Tom Ammiano, a progressive champion, shocked the political establishment when he received enough votes as a write-in candidate to challenge then-mayor Brown, who was seeking a second term. But big money from the mayor's backers and a December runoff saw Ammiano lose that election. An inspired "Run, Tom, Run" movement had sprung up earlier that year, led by queer progressives, as he recounted in his 2020 book, "Kiss My Gay Ass: My Trip Down the Yellow Brick Road Through Activism, Stand-up, and Politics."

Ammiano then lost in the 2003 election that fellow supervisor Gavin Newsom, now California's governor, went on to win. There was another out candidate in that 2003 race, lesbian former supervisor Susan Leal, who by that time was serving as the city's elected treasurer. Both Ammiano and Leal had won citywide races before, including for supervisor, yet the top political job was not within their grasp.

"I wouldn't say difficult, but it has been a challenge," Ammiano, 81, told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview of why no out candidate has been elected mayor. "There's no one reason or one candidate. The blame game doesn't work. There are systemic obstacles."

Leal, 73, told the B.A.R. that in her case, it was the lack of money.

"I raised $800,000 when I ran, which is a lot, to me," she noted.

But Newsom had garnered broad name recognition the year before, in 2002, with his Care Not Cash ballot measure that reduced general assistance payments to eligible city residents with the promise of providing vouchers for food and shelter. It passed with nearly 60% of the vote. Political action committees aligned with Newsom raised millions in his 2003 mayoral race.

In 2011, Bevan Dufty, a gay man and former supervisor of District 8, which includes the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood, lost to Lee, who in January of that year had been appointed mayor after Newsom was elected lieutenant governor. Lee had promised the Board of Supervisors, which voted on the appointment, that he would be a caretaker mayor and not seek election. But as the filing deadline drew close that August, Lee reneged on his pledge and entered the race after a "Run, Ed, Run" movement took hold.

"In my race, it was so unusual that we had an interim mayor who had proclaimed not to run," Dufty, 68, told the B.A.R. "He decided pretty late in the process and most of us were running and accepted public funds. If we dropped out we had to repay those funds we raised."

Leno's effort in 2018 was the last one by a serious out candidate running for San Francisco mayor. He, too, attributed his loss to money, specifically the so-called dark money that PACs raise on behalf of a candidate without having to disclose donors.

"It's much harder for a change candidate to compete with that," Leno, 71, told the B.A.R. in a phone interview. Campaigns can raise a maximum of $500 per donor, and those contributions are disclosed, but the unlimited PACs often materialize and donors' names are not reported.

"Our campaign tagline was 'Shake up City Hall,'" he said.

Former supervisor Tom Ammiano encouraged supporters to vote for him during the 1999 mayoral race. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Lots of challenges
The out former mayoral candidates offered up various reasons about why it's so hard to wage a successful campaign.

Achtenberg and Ammiano, in separate interviews, both brought up the fact that the LGBTQ community "is not a monolith." Ammiano ran from the progressive end of the political scale. Achtenberg ran in part to show that a woman could be mayor of San Francisco.

"In my case, many women had been elected supervisor but only Dianne Feinstein had been elected mayor and the only way she got there was because [then-mayor George] Moscone was killed," Achtenberg, 72, said.

Feinstein was president of the Board of Supervisors at the time of the November 1978 assassinations of Moscone and gay supervisor Harvey Milk. As board president, she was named interim mayor and went on to win election in her own right. (Feinstein is now the state's senior U.S. senator and announced earlier this year that she would not seek reelection in 2024.)

"We're not a monolith. There was a faction of the community that thought it was racist of me to run against Willie Brown," she said. Brown is Black.

"Our Bay Area community politically is not as identified [as just LGBTQ] any longer, either by ourselves or by others," Achtenberg said.

Like Achtenberg, Leno also ran against a Black candidate; Breed is the first Black woman to be mayor of San Francisco.

Ammiano pointed out that Milk, who had run twice for supervisor unsuccessfully before winning in November 1977, built a coalition with Asians, women, and seniors, among others.

"That intersectionality is not easy to attain," he said. "It's a tightrope."

"We're not a monolith with 'the gay vote,'" Ammiano added.

Dufty said that in his race, he made a decision not to attack Lee, the first Asian American to hold the office of mayor, as some of the other candidates were doing. "We ran as hard a campaign as we could," he said.

After Lee won the race, Dufty worked for his administration for a time as director of the Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement program. He eventually retired from that position and went on to become an elected member of the board that oversees the BART regional transportation system. The B.A.R. reported last week that Dufty won't seek reelection to that position next year, nor will he run for mayor.

Leno, too, said he would not run for mayor in 2024. "I can tell you that quite certainly," he said.

Leno also pointed to Milk's campaign, and noted he wasn't the only gay person seeking what was then the District 5 supervisor seat that included the Castro. Rick Stokes, a more conservative gay man, also ran in that race. Stokes co-founded the Steamworks Baths, which is now involved in a tangled ownership lawsuit, as the B.A.R. recently reported. Stokes died in 2022.

"It was so novel and revolutionary," Leno said of Milk's campaign. "There was such a fervor around Harvey, and I don't sense that today."

Former supervisor Bevan Dufty joined supporters to await election returns on November 8, 2011. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Thoughts on current mayor
The out former mayoral candidates had some thoughts on Breed, the current mayor, who's up for reelection in 2024. At this point, it doesn't appear there will be a serious challenger from the LGBTQ community in that race. So far, District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, a straight ally, has announced he's running. This week the San Francisco Standard reported that Daniel Lurie, a straight man who's the founder of the anti-poverty nonprofit Tipping Point and an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, intends to challenge Breed in next year's race.

Achtenberg, who supported Breed in 2018, said she thinks the mayor is doing a good job.

"I admire her leadership," she said. "She's bold when she needs to be bold."

Keeping the streets clean and people safe are top priorities, "and she and Peskin are trying to compromise on housing," Achtenberg said, referring to Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who represents District 3 and has been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate next year since he will be termed off the board in early January 2025.

"These are tough times," Achtenberg said, adding that Breed did a "particularly good job when she led us through COVID."

Achtenberg went on to serve on the California State University Board of Trustees for 16 years, including a stint as chair. These days she is serving as a consultant to the board, which recently hired its first Latina chancellor, Mildred Garcia, who has a doctorate in higher education.

Leal, who supported Leno in the 2018 race, gave Breed credit.

"I really wanted him to win," Leal said of Leno. "But I think she works real hard with the cards she's been dealt."

Leal suggested Breed meet with chief deputies of city departments in addition to her meetings with department heads.

"City departments are going to spin you around like a top," Leal said, referring to department heads. "I think she's starting to figure it out."

In addition to overseeing the treasurer's office, Leal was also general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission from 2004-2008. She now works as a consultant on water and climate issues and joined Harvard University as a senior fellow in its advanced leadership institute.

"By the time I left they were well run," Leal said of the two departments she managed. The mayor, she said, needs to reach into departments "and figure out who's moving things, or not. Or do they do what they've been doing for the last 20 years?"

Dufty noted that Breed once served as his intern when he ran the mayor's neighborhood services office under Brown. But he, too, supported Leno in 2018. Since then, Dufty said he has sought to work with Breed. He recently became a member of the city's new homelessness oversight commission, which voters approved last November and which Breed opposed.

"I have empathy for the unprecedented times she's walked into," Dufty said.

He said the perception that Breed is in a weak position going into her reelection might be overstated. "I won't believe that until some polling comes out," he said.

Homelessness continues to be the city's top concern, he noted.

"The public does not believe San Francisco can impact homelessness," he said.

Leno was more circumspect. "The status quo of the past generation of city leadership has led us to where we are today," he noted.

Ammiano, unsurprisingly, is not a fan of Breed's.

"I'm dissatisfied," he said. "I wish there was less pay to play and more progressive issues coming from the mayor's office. I hope there is a strong candidate to challenge her."

Breed did not respond to a request for comment through her office. She will be having a birthday party campaign fundraiser Saturday, August 5, from noon to 2 p.m. at the Sixth Avenue Skatin' Place in Golden Gate Park. Tickets start at $50.

Roberta Achtenberg, left, who ran for mayor in 1995, joined Mayor London Breed at her policy summit on July 14, 2018, days after she was sworn in as mayor. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Impact of out candidates
The out gay men and lesbians who've run for San Francisco mayor have had an impact on the city. Ammiano, for one, said that he has no misgivings.

"I've never regretted running for mayor because we did push the needle and district elections came out of it," he said.

San Francisco had district elections for supervisor for many years but after the assassinations of Milk and Moscone, the supervisors were elected citywide. Five or six seats on the 11-member board were up each cycle and the top vote-getter was named board president. In 1996, voters passed Proposition G, which re-established district elections beginning in 2000.

Achtenberg, Ammiano, Leal, and Leno all ran for supervisor in the citywide elections. Leno also ran in 2000, the first year district elections came back. Dufty ran after district elections were reestablished.

Achtenberg said she does not like district elections. "I am not a fan," she said.

"In a parochial city district elections make representation even more parochial," Achtenberg said.

That was something Leal alluded to in an interview. When she served on the Board of Supervisors, she would get inquiries from constituents all over San Francisco, as did her colleagues. Now, people mostly contact their district supervisors.

Dufty said that there could be an example of an out candidate unifying the city, though not for mayor. Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) earlier this year opened an exploratory committee for the city's congressional seat. If Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) decides not to seek reelection next year, Wiener has said he would run.

"It would be a great building block for breaking the glass ceiling," Dufty said of Wiener's potential run. There hasn't been an out member of Congress from San Francisco either. (The gay late supervisor Harry Britt did run for Congress in 1987, but narrowly lost to Pelosi, who has held the seat ever since.)

Dufty pointed out that when Wiener served as District 8 supervisor, he was viewed as a moderate. But since moving on to the state Legislature, Wiener has increasingly — and successfully — taken on controversial progressive issues such as reforming the state's sex offender registry, Dufty said. The law, which Newsom signed in 2020, did not change any criminal statutes. Rather, it ensures LGBTQ adolescents are treated the same as their heterosexual peers when faced with the possibility of being listed on the state's sex offender registry.

Wiener was targeted with online harassment by QAnon conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites over that Senate Bill 45, as the B.A.R. previously reported. He has received death threats in recent years.

"I believe he will unify our community and like to believe down the road there will be a gay mayor in San Francisco," Dufty said.

Wiener told the B.A.R. that the city's LGBTQ political strength has ebbed and flowed over the years.

"Our community has had a lot of ups and downs politically in San Francisco," he said in a brief phone interview. For example, from the time Rafael Mandelman joined the Board of Supervisors in July 2018 until last May, he was the only out member of it. He was then joined by gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, whom Breed appointed to fill the seat of former supervisor Matt Haney, a straight ally who won election to the state Assembly. Dorsey went on to win a full four-year term last November, as did gay District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio, who defeated former supervisor Gordon Mar, a straight ally.

Wiener said the LGBTQ community, like others in the city, has been divided at times over the years.

"When we are united, or at least less divided, we are very, very strong," Wiener added.

Ammiano thinks the city will one day have an LGBTQ mayor.

"I kind of think, in the end, we will have a queer mayor," he said.

Updated, 7/20/23: This article has been corrected to state that Mark Leno ran citywide for supervisor and then ran after districts were brought back.

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