Attention brought about by London Breed’s involvement may harm her brother’s chances at clemency. And, now, unwanted details have been thrust before the public.


“People tell me I have a great life story,” London Breed once told me. In a sense, they’re right; “great” is a complicated word. She grew up in San Francisco’s most dysfunctional projects and eluded rampant crime, poverty, institutional racism, and extreme family strife to earn multiple degrees, make her way in her expensive hometown, win elected office and, in July, get sworn in as this city’s first African American female mayor.

Breed has the kind of smile that even professional government aparatchiks tell me they strive to induce. But, notably, she wasn’t smiling at this moment. “You know,” she continued, “I did not have fun living it.”

The recent mayoral campaign in which Breed bested Mark Leno by a scant 2,500 votes was not one marked by deeply substantive campaigning or penetrating investigative media coverage. Prior to the race, campaign strategists told me it would be the most “story-driven election we’ve ever seen.” That was true. And Breed’s life story was, if not “great,” a great political asset. It’s real, and it appealed to this city’s voters in a way that transcended actual political achievements or tangible legislative accomplishments.

But, there’s the rub: It is real. It continues to be real. To wit, last night, NBC Bay Area’s Jaxon Van Derbeken released a story revealing that our mayor has inveighed upon outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown to commute the sentence of Napoleon Brown, Breed’s older brother, who is midway through a 44-year term for manslaughter, robbery, and other crimes. Brown’s lengthy prison sentence stems from a concatenation of violent acts committed in the wee hours of June 19, 2000, in which he robbed the Johnny Rockets in the Marina at gunpoint and motored across the Golden Gate Bridge. His car came to a halt in the buffer lane, he pushed or kicked driver Lenties White onto the pavement, and he drove off. White was subsequently struck and killed by a drunk driver; before she died, she identified Brown as the man who ejected her from the vehicle.

Court documents reveal that Breed, then 25, testified in court that Brown was asleep on her grandmother’s couch when she saw him at about midnight — he purportedly knocked over the Johnny Rockets between midnight and 12:30 — though she wasn’t sure if he was still there when she left. The jury convicted anyway — a salient detail considering Breed’s later choice of career.

You could have always found these 18-year-old particulars tucked away in legal papers which are themselves tucked away on the Internet. But now they’re on television and in newspapers, on the front page.

That’s because of Breed’s October letter to the governor.  “I make no excuses for him,” she wrote of her brother. “His decisions, his actions, led him to the place he finds himself now. Still, I ask that you consider mercy, and rehabilitation.”

The commutation process, we are told, was initiated by Napoleon Brown himself. Breed’s letter is just one of several penned by relatives and/or supporters. This is something she ostensibly would have done if she were mayor or not. And yet, Breed’s letter is written on what can only be described as ersatz mayoral letterhead.  While making reference to the strides Brown has made and the success of his four daughters, Breed refers to her own life arc over the past decades: “I myself have gone from being a junior staffer in a city department to being the elected mayor of San Francisco. … We, Napoleon’s family, now have the wherewithal and the resources to see that Napoleon makes a successful transition back into society.”

Is this illegal? Is this unethical? Not apparently. “In a sense, this is the best time to be asking” the governor says Bob Stern, the former longtime president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “She can’t do the state government any favors in the two weeks [remaining in Brown’s term]. It’s a personal matter. I can see why she would do this.”

But is it unseemly? Is it a terrible look for the mayor? Is it a potential political nightmare? And with all of those negatives, could it actually harm Napoleon Brown’s chances of clemency from Gov. Brown? The answer to all of those questions is, arguably, yes.

Jerry Brown, these days, is an in-demand man. Several other former governors wrote a New York Times op-ed requesting he pardon every inmate on death row. He is receiving many last-minute requests for clemency from people who haven’t been elected mayor of San Francisco and whose relatives are guilty of far less serious crimes. When asked if this publicity — and even the appearance of political influence and impropriety — could harm Napoleon Brown’s chances for clemency, a political associate of the governor quickly answered “I do think that. It’s probably not helpful right now to have something like this.”

Mission Local has not yet received a statement from the mayor’s office regarding the alibi she provided her brother in 2000 — an act she did not disclose to Gov. Brown when asking for Napoleon Brown’s early release. (She also did not disclose that her brother was recently nabbed with heroin in prison.) Perhaps those really were her accurate recollections recited under oath. And, charitably, Napoleon Brown still could have left the Fillmore a bit before midnight and robbed the Johnny Rockets at around 12:30. But it’s not good to have to answer questions about 18-year-old testimony when you’re sitting in City Hall Room 200, which prompts the question of how this could have been better handled.

That’s a hard question. In the end, the mayor’s life story isn’t a story for her. It’s her life. In life, you make tough decisions, and trying to help her family, despite political blowback, was the decision the mayor made. At the same time, local media, perhaps chastened that questions like those regarding the testimony are being asked months after the election and not before it, may reassess what other questions we should have asked before — and ask them now. This, too, is a potential byproduct of Breed’s actions.

It’s uncertain this story, something of a modern-day Sophocles number, will end happily. Sophocles didn’t do “happy.” For the mayor to sow her own political misfortune with an act that actually decreases her brother’s chances at freedom would be a bitter and messy lose-lose.