The Interview With London Breed

By Janet Reilly

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF – AUG 9, 2018: San Francisco Mayor London Breed in office.
Photo by John Lee

Walking through City Hall exactly one month after London Breed took the oath of office becoming San Francisco’s 45th mayor, something just feels different. There’s an excitement — an energy — in the building I haven’t felt before. 

As I enter Room 200, fresh-faced and eager staffers are at the ready, fielding calls and greeting guests. I introduce myself to one of them and before long am escorted down the long, quiet, wood-paneled corridor to the mayor’s inner office. Looking refreshed and full of energy, the mayor greets me with genuine enthusiasm and that million-dollar smile. 

As I look around the office, I am struck by its emptiness. No art on the walls (it’s coming, she tells me); no photographs on the desk or personal touches anywhere. Clearly, her focus is governing the city, which likely leaves little time for interior decorating. As we settle in, the conversation flows easily, running the gamut from growing up poor to her tough love approach to homelessness to her newfound prominence, which makes doing what was once mundane (think grocery shopping) nearly impossible.

Meet Mayor London Breed …

Here we are in the mayor’s office — your office. What goes through your mind when you walk through that door in the morning? Oh, my goodness. “Shoot, I’ve got to get to work!” Really. You know, every day I wake up and I feel like, “Wow, I’m the mayor!” I also feel like everything is my responsibility. So when I’m in the car, I’m constantly texting or writing notes about things I need people to take care of, like a pothole or a tent encampment or someone I see on a certain corner all the time or a dirty street … I’m looking at everything all the time.

So this job doesn’t start when you get into this office, it starts the moment you walk out your front door? All day, every day. And it doesn’t stop. But, you know, when something changes for the better, it feels good.

Let me take you back to the election. With ranked-choice voting, the results of a local race are rarely known on election night. In your case, it was eight days of back and forth before you were declared the winner. What were those eight days like for you? Well, I tried to stay away from the television! I went down to Cabo and I left my phone with a friend. I just tried to relax and not think about it and just wait until somebody let me know the results.

That’s serious willpower on your part. It wasn’t in my hands anymore. There was nothing I could do but wait. I was enjoying myself and relaxing, which was weird because I had been working so hard, constantly out there, talking to people. It felt good not to talk.

And, then you got a call from Senator Leno … Yes, I got a call from Senator Leno congratulating me and it just didn’t sink in at first … It’s hard to put into words. It’s been a blur.

I bet. In my mind, I’m thinking, “OK, I got elected, now I can get to work and focus on doing the job.” But there’s another part about me being elected that I didn’t think about.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF – AUG 9, 2018: San Francisco Mayor London Breed in office.
Photo by John Lee

What was that? I didn’t realize how much this would impact people. People come up to me and say, “I have daughters!” Even P. Diddy gave me two hugs and said, “I have two daughters. I’m so proud of you and now I just know there’s hope for them.” I didn’t anticipate this … The excitement from a lot of kids and their parents and what this means to so many people. They’re excited. They’re inspired. They’re getting actively engaged. That really feels good.

You’re going to have to run for re-election in a year. Does that put extra pressure on you to deliver on some of the big issues like homelessness, dirty streets, the housing crisis? I think whether I was on the ballot next year or not, I want to deliver. I want people to notice a difference and feel good about the city. This is such a great city, but when you go outside and you see all that you see, you think, “What is going on with this city that has an $11 billion budget?” I want that money we’re spending to be put to work in a way that’s effective, that delivers. I’m frustrated. I, too, want to see the results sooner than later.

What do you think is the most vexing problem facing San Francisco? I think it’s homelessness. I think people are really saddened to see so many people on our streets. And I think it’s not about not wanting to see it, it’s about wanting to see help for these people.

A number of your predecessors have tried to tackle this issue, some with more success than others, but the problem persists. Why do you think you’ll be successful? I hope I can solve this problem … Some of the things I’m proposing involve a tough-love approach. This is not about taking tent encampments and just moving them somewhere else. It’s about, “We have a place for you. Do you want it or not? We’re not going to let you continue to be on the streets.” We can’t let people be comfortable if we have an alternative place for them. It has to be, “You have to take this. This is where we need you to be so we can help transition you to the right place.” I also think part of solving the homeless problem is looking at it from a different perspective … People want us to address the issue but, sometimes, they’re not willing to see us make the hard decisions to do so. Take mental illness, for example. I know there are folks who don’t believe we should take away someone’s rights in order to help them … but, in some instances, there’s nothing that can be done other than something like a conservatorship program to get the person the help he or she needs.

You have such an incredible personal story of being raised by your grandmother, growing up in public housing, surrounded by a lot of violence. What, as a young woman, kept you focused on getting a good education and making a better life for yourself? You know, there are so many things, it’s kind of hard to say. My grandmother was just really hard on me. She would let my brothers get away with things she would never let me get away with. And she would talk to me and tell me the truth about all kinds of things that were going on. Here I am, this kid, and my grandmother is treating me like an adult, saying you have to learn how to take care of yourself because she’s not going to be here forever.

And, you know, we didn’t have much of anything. I really wanted something more. It wasn’t that I wanted to be rich, I just wanted to be able to take care of myself and not to have to live in the projects. And there were teachers and other folks telling me I was smart, that I could be a lawyer, I could be anything — people encouraging me, who had my back, who supported me, telling me I could do better in life.

You had people who really believed in you … I did. When I finished school [UC Davis] I wanted more for not just me, but for other people as well. Not a lot of folks from my neighborhood went to college. I felt alone. I wanted something different for everyone around me, it couldn’t just be about me. I thought, if I’m going to have a good life, it has to be my community, too, and so that’s when I started getting active.

How can we help more kids follow in your path? I think, number one, we need to make sure we’re paying attention to those kids who are having problems. Number two, we need to make sure that especially kids who come from low-income communities have a source of income in high school — to make sure they have an opportunity to work a job year-round, or have an internship, exposing them to opportunity. It’s really important these kids have money so they can buy basic things [like] school clothes or food for lunch, just some of the basic things so many people take for granted.

You know, when I worked at the African American Art & Culture Complex, kids were breaking into cars like crazy and I brought them in and started paying them to be a part of the program. And I said, “If one of you guys breaks into a car or does something and I hear about it, then I’m not working with you again.” That helped to cut back on some things because, part of it is, we just assume these kids are going to be OK, but no one is taking care of them. They’re still kids. What if your normal [instead] is, “I’m working at Salesforce and I’m meeting all these crazy people and they’re making six figures and I can be an engineer or I can be the H.R. person or I can be head of security? All of these jobs where I can make enough money to take care of myself or I can start my own company.” Being exposed to that at an early age is what I want to see for the future.

You mentioned the African American Art & Culture Complex. Before you got into politics, you were the executive director there for a decade. What is it that you brought from that job to this job? Part of what I have carried with me, and now as mayor, is we all have to take responsibility for taking care of the city and for keeping it clean. It’s not going to be about just spending money and hiring more street cleaners and sending people out to clean. It’s not okay to just throw stuff on the ground! I see people even now and I’m like, “Pick that up!” If you go to other countries, they don’t treat their cities like that.

How would you describe your leadership style? Goodness. I don’t know how I would describe it. I mean, I just feel like, “I trust you, you do what you’re here to do, I don’t want any surprises and I want to see results.” I’m not going to hassle you, but if I notice you’re not doing what you need to do, that’s when I go from “I’m your best friend and I love you to pieces” to dragon lady — real fast!

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF – AUG 9, 2018: San Francisco Mayor London Breed in office.
Photo by John Lee

As a woman mayor, you are going to be scrutinized in ways that a man in your position never would be — what you wear, how you style your hair. Does that bother you or do you take it all in stride? I don’t really think about it. I’ve heard some comments here and there, but I just do the best I can. I like wearing color. I like looking nice. I can’t control what other people say, I can only control what I do and say … In this job, a lot of people take pictures of me, so I remember one of my friends said, “You might want to retire that dress” and, I was like, “Aww … OK.”

One of the things I admire about you is you are always fearlessly, unapologetically YOU. Where does that confidence come from? I like that! I think it has a lot to do with coming from nothing. I feel like I have nothing to lose.

You have been a public figure for a number of years now, but being mayor comes with a whole new level of being recognized. How have you adjusted? It’s been tough because it just takes longer to get places. People stop me and they want to say hi or ask me a question or want a photo. So everything just takes longer — and I’m always in a hurry. When I need to go grocery shopping and I also need to go to a meeting, I have to make decisions based on how much time something may take. Now I’ll just call my sister and tell her to pick up some groceries for me … Things have changed and I just can’t go out the way I used to.

Who do you go to for advice? I have a lot of good friends, good family members, good advisers. There’s not one person, just a lot of different people for different issues I need advice on.

What do you love best about San Francisco? The people. You go anywhere in this city and you could be anywhere in the world, it’s so diverse. It’s so amazing. Yes, it’s really the people.

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