“If London Breed is right, she’s intimidated by no mortal creature,” crowd is told. This city’s problems, however, are not mortal creatures.
Twenty-four hours ago, Civic Center Plaza was a desolate swath of land ceded to men and women sleeping during the day or, perhaps, shooting up. Twenty-four hours hence, it’ll be so again. But today was different — and not just because a bank of porta-potties was on site.
The weather was perfect for Mayor London Breed’s swearing-in; the perfect accompaniment to what was, for many of the emphatic supporters gathered here, a perfect day. The only overheated element, in fact, emanated from the podium when opening invocation speaker Rabbi Beth Singer stated that Breed’s ascent to City Hall Room 200 was a “sign from God” and “the answer to our prayers.”
Well, that’s a novel way to describe the election of a mayor in a mid-sized American city — in a contest featuring tremendous amounts of outside spending and decided by a scant couple of thousand votes over a former rabbinical student.
But that’s neither here nor there. Today’s inauguration — and, really, most any inauguration — is about looking to the future, not the past. And yet we’ve never had a mayor like London Nicole Breed. When Breed talks, people listen. And that’s due, in large part, because of her past. Breed’s past is going to account for a lot of San Francisco’s future.
Breed, we are told, writes much of her own speeches. She has to: So much about them is deeply personal. Former Mayor Ed Lee, for what it’s worth, also grew up in a large, impoverished family in public housing. But he did not make it the foundation of his public persona. It was one biographical detail among many.
But if Lee, who died at age 65 on December 12, chose to talk about these things at his inauguration, no one would have been the wiser. In January 2016, perhaps for the first time in recorded human history, Lee was booed to the point of incoherence during his third swearing-in. The handful of unruly protesters were the only element, however, that distinguished a tired and pro-forma affair. That wasn’t the case today. Make no mistake: A great deal of the powers-that-be and check-writers-that-be who underwrote Lee underwrote Breed. A great deal of the City Family power structure that orbited around Lee is orbiting around Breed. But, today, a new mayor talked about “changing what’s normal” in San Francisco. And people listened.
And, wisely, today’s event was held out of doors, meaning a handful of loudmouths couldn’t take advantage of City Hall’s serene acoustics, and commandeer the proceedings.
By the time Breed — the city’s first African American female mayor — reminded the crowd that she grew up a world away and just down the block, she was the third speaker to do so. She then went on to say that she would do the things she’s said she would do all along: Take on this city’s intractable housing, affordability, and homeless quagmires.
These are not just city problems, but national problems being experienced in this city. The Rev. Amos Brown today praised Breed during his introduction by saying that “If she’s right, she’s not intimidated by no mortal creature.”
The crises of housing, affordability and homelessness are not mortal creatures.
Building more housing, as Breed has pledged, is not something a mayor can pick up a hammer and go and do. Reforming sclerotic city processes is a start, but that’s harder than a few changes at the top: Development professionals tell me the major holdups aren’t activist neighborhood groups or demanding commissioners but the institutional dysfunction of waiting six months to get a planner assigned to your project and two years to get a hearing. Then, after you’ve fixed the Planning Department, you can begin working on the Department of Building Inspection. And, for good measure, the Fire Department.
These are neither easy problems to remediate, nor easy accomplishments to run on — and Breed is up for re-election soon, in November 2019.
Breed today, pushing her signature — but legally challenging — proposal of safe-injection sites, said that it’s not enough to merely sweep drug-users off the streets. She wants treatment on demand. And everyone applauded. How could anyone do otherwise?
And yet, per conversations with several City Hall players, “progress” on homeless issues turns out to be a malleable term. “The Coalition on Homelessness would have you believe that San Franciscans are very concerned with what happens to homeless people,” said one longtime city politico. “But I think the average San Franciscan just wants to see an improvement in street conditions.”
“Homelessness” and “Quality of Life,” it seems, are seen as somewhat interchangeable terms among political professionals.
With San Francisco’s inhospitality now an international story — needle-and-feces filth porn has been featured on even Russian propaganda sites of late, supplementing the local paper of record — the pressure is to act quickly and, most important, demonstrably. Breed is, again, running for office. And providing the homeless with housing — providing anyone with housing — is a lot harder than shunting tents off the street.
Our new mayor will, this Saturday, be hosting a day-long policy summit. As a means to put all of her supporters in one place, impart upon them the mayoral imprimatur, and keep them active ahead of an imminent re-election campaign, this is a smart move. As a means to burnish the mayor’s thin policy credentials, it’s patronizing both to her and to the general public. You don’t become a policy maven in an afternoon. And, to be frank, that’s not the only way to be a good mayor.
Breed is viewed as an intelligent, serious and policy-curious person — which is more than can be said for some denizens of City Hall. Not every mayor needs to thrive on whitepapers as did Gavin Newsom (whose effectiveness in this job is a matter of extreme debate).
Our new mayor doesn’t have any tools at her disposal to combat this city’s problems that Lee did not — and is, additionally, burdened by the need to begin running for office in just a few short months.
But London Breed’s lived experience — that life story we have heard so many times — gives her gravitas and authenticity. She can make asks others can’t and take stands others would not.
Breed can, in short, push the manner of solutions she chooses to push and be the type of mayor she chooses to be. If she chooses to combat “homelessness” rather than just “quality of life” — she can do that.
If Breed truly purports to change what’s normal around here, the clock is now ticking.