San Francisco Mayor-elect London Breed was still basking in the glow of her election victory when she arrived at Rosa Parks Elementary school on Thursday.
Having been raised by her grandmother just blocks away in the city’s Western Addition neighborhood — once the heart of San Francisco’s black community — Breed, 43, said the visit to her alma mater filled her with memories and purpose.
“In San Francisco, I think about this school, I think about the people I went to school with and I think about the fact that many of them don’t live in this city anymore,” she said to cheers. “We have to build more housing. We have to build more housing. We have to build more housing, and I will be relentless in my pursuit to get the job done.”
Breed, the city’s first female African-American mayor, succeeded in a bruising race that featured personal attacks and a drawn-out vote count — a quirk of the city’s ranked-choice voting system. On Wednesday, her main opponent, former state Sen. Mark Leno, conceded the race. Leno had initially been in the lead after the June 5 primary, but Breed eventually pulled ahead. When she’s sworn in July 11, she will be the only female mayor of any of the 15 largest U.S. cities.
The problems she now plans to tackle are among the most difficult a city can face. Housing, finding solutions to the homelessness crisis and creating safe injection areas for drug users will dominate her portfolio as mayor of a city that’s been flooded with technology wealth but has left many behind.
The connection between Breed’s life and the problems vexing San Francisco were often center stage as she campaigned for office.
“I know it means so, so much to so many people. I grew up in some of the most challenging of circumstances,” Breed said Wednesday from the steps of City Hall after Leno called her to concede.
Her personal story animated the race as she salted her campaign stops and ads with tales of being raised by her grandmother in a decrepit public housing project. Both of Breed’s siblings were addicted to drugs, and her younger sister died of an overdose, while her brother is in prison for robbery and other crimes, according to media reports.
Breed persevered, graduated from UC Davis and began working for then-Mayor Willie Brown’s administration. Eventually, she became the executive director of the African American Art & Culture Complex in 2002.
That role was close to her heart, because the arts center was a stone’s throw from where she grew up and catered to a population that is becoming more and more marginalized as San Francisco becomes richer and whiter. African Americans now just make up roughly 6% of the city’s population, and the number continues to shrink.
“The message that this sends to the next generation of young people growing up in this city is that no matter where you come from, no matter what you decide to do in life, you can do anything you want to do,” Breed said Wednesday.
“Never let your circumstances determine your outcome in life.”
In her decade at the helm of the arts center, she raised millions for renovations. Then in 2012, she surprised the political establishment by beating out incumbent Christina Olague for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Then-California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, Breed’s political mentor, swore her into office.
By 2017, Breed had risen to become the Board of Supervisors president and appeared to be laying the groundwork for a mayoral run in 2019. That’s when Mayor Ed Lee — a longtime city administrator who had been elevated to mayor when Gavin Newsom resigned in 2011 to run for lieutenant governor — collapsed in a Safeway store and later died from a heart attack.
Breed became interim mayor — as a result of her position as president of the Board of Supervisors — and soon after announced she would be seeking the post permanently.
Things got interesting very quickly. In January, the Board of Supervisors — her colleagues — ousted her and named a wealthy white man, Supervisor Mark Farrell, as her replacement. Opponents said she represented the status quo, which enraged supporters who saw this as yet another slight to the city’s African American community.
“They have pushed out African Americans,” Sheryl Davis, a friend of Breed, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “And everybody talks about how diverse and progressive we are. But if it happened anywhere else, we’d be saying what a tragedy.”
Breed was interim mayor for 42 days and made it clear that she would still be a candidate for the job. Her friend of 15 years and informal advisor, Debbie Mesloh, was in the room that night when the vote came down and said it struck many as “another backroom deal,” she said.
“I think it galvanized and harnessed a lot of energy,” she said.
The race among a contest between Breed, Leno and Supervisor Jane Kim — all Democrats.
Leno and Kim portrayed themselves as progressive change agents and labeled Breed as a moderate who had the backing of the city’s business and tech establishment. Leno would have been the city’s first openly gay mayor, while Kim would also have been the city’s first female mayor of color.
The city’s unusual electoral system — where voters rank their top three choices — led to some gamesmanship by the candidates. Kim and Leno each urged voters to rank the other second in order to lock Breed out of a victory.
By Wednesday however, Breed’s challengers acknowledged the outcome.
“I’m proud to live in the largest city in America with a woman as mayor,” Kim tweeted Wednesday.
The housing crisis in San Francisco was one of the few areas where profound policy disagreements arose among the candidates. Breed picked up the backing of pro-development forces and publicly voiced support for state Sen. Scott Wiener’s controversial legislation SB 827, which would’ve loosened or eliminated restrictions on height, density, parking and design for residential properties near major rail and bus stops. Her opponents did not.
The bill failed, but it squared with one of Breed’s biggest priorities and what will be her biggest challenge as she enters office, Mesloh said. Housing, along with a host of other issues, will consume her time. But, Mesloh added, Breed is best positioned to tackle these problems because she’s experienced many of them.
“Income inequality in San Francisco is something she will really need to address,” she said. “For the past five or six years, it’s felt like there are two different cities. How is she really going to bridge that divide will be a big question.”