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Will San Francisco Finally Elect Its First Gay Mayor?

We’ll find out in 2019.

Then-assemblyman Mark Leno at the San Francisco Pride Parade in 2004.

In early May, former supervisor, assemblyman, and state senator Mark Leno ambled into the city’s Department of Elections to file the necessary papers to run for mayor in 2019 (you read that right: 2019). Leno wasn’t wearing the leather pants he’s famously sported at many a public event. He was instead outfitted in his workaday uniform of a perfectly tailored navy-blue suit. That the 65-year-old political veteran took the conservative sartorial route isn’t surprising, but over the next two years of constant campaigning, Leno may do well to trot out the leather from time to time. 

Strange though it may seem, Leno has the opportunity to become San Francisco’s first openly gay mayor. This still seems shocking. How can Seattle and Houston—Houston!—have beaten the City of Saint Harvey Milk to the punch in electing an openly LGBTQ mayor? San Franciscans may be quick to pat themselves on the back for their inclusiveness and sophistication, but it’s worth remembering that as recently as 1999, when Tom Ammiano ran to unseat Mayor Willie Brown, Brown supporters openly stumped for votes by stating that the city “needs a king, not a queen.” Ammiano recalls watching audience members at mayoral debates elbow one another and stifle laughter at his high-pitched voice. “Will Mark get that?” Ammiano says of Leno. “I doubt it.” 

It’s helpful that, unlike Ammiano, Leno will not be running against a powerful, charismatic incumbent but what figures to be a crowded field. And this time, his queerness will not be seen as a detriment and source of mirth but as a potential asset. Leno’s protégé Scott Wiener, who followed him as both District 8 supervisor and state senator, points out that, when he ran in the Castro, his phallic name was—for the first time in his life—an advantage. Leno should enjoy the double bump of being both gay and (unlike Wiener) on good terms with the city’s left. He also has historical support from labor and tenants’ groups. And great arms. 

Plus, in an era when being the anti-Trump is something San Franciscans would consider both good and good politics, Leno can parlay his out-and-proud status into portraying himself as the natural leader of the self-styled capital of the resistance. “For kids in those states with no legal protections, for LGBTQ leaders to be in visible roles is enormous,” Leno says. “I’m reminded of Harvey’s famous comment: ‘Ya gotta give ’em hope.’” 

It’s going to be an interesting next few years. With or without the leather pants.   

Originally published in the June issue of
San Francisco 

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