Noe Valley Voice December-January 1998-99

Supervisor Mark Leno Hangs on to Nice Guy Image

By Richard Dodds

When Mark Leno, the city's newest supervisor, moved to Noe Valley 17 years ago, he didn't know much about the neighborhood. Nor was he engaged in any of the local disputes over parking, condo developments, and commercial growth on 24th Street.

Happily cocooned in a cozy home on Clipper Street, he felt no threat to his immediate surroundings, and therefore no particular call to activism. Still, Leno was by no means a civic slacker. At the time, he was pouring his passions into fundraising for HIV causes and gay rights. He was also busy running his own small business.

Seventeen years later, Leno has altered his focus a bit. While his core interests, like AIDS funding, remain intact, his concerns now encompass such things as the proliferation of chain stores on 24th Street and whether to allow dogs off-leash at Noe Courts.

These neighborhood matters began to snag his attention after Mayor Brown appointed him to a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors in April, a post he won on his own in the Nov. 3 election. And they are among the local issues that will continue to grow in importance as the city returns to district elections in two years, and as Leno positions himself to run for District 5, the district incorporating Noe Valley and the Castro.

"I hadn't seen Mark around the neighborhood, so he was a question mark when he was appointed," said Dave Monks, president of the Noe Valley Democratic Club and a high-profile neighborhood activist. "Would he get involved in neighborhood issues? I wondered. But I've been impressed and surprised at how he's just jumped in."

Monks has seen Leno in action on two Noe Valley fronts -- the debate over the size of the new Rite Aid sign on 24th Street and over a proposed moratorium on coffee shops and specialty grocery stores in the neighborhood -- and he appreciates Leno's skills at crafting a consensus between merchants and neighborhood groups. "He's got the temperament to do it," Monks said.

In fact, the early fear among his friends and supporters was that Leno was too much of a nice guy for the contentious world of San Francisco politics.

"One newspaper called me a boy scout," Leno said, flashing a toothpaste-ad smile. "And people have said, 'Why do you want that lousy job?' On the selfish side, I value the education I will get even from the slaps, which have happened and, I expect, will happen again. But rather than flinch, I'd rather experience it."

Leno, a youthful-looking 48, arrived at his house for an afternoon interview last month toting his dry cleaning on his shoulder. He warmly greeted the reporter waiting outside the building's unassuming blue stucco facade. "It's easy to find the right house," he said, nodding toward a quartet of campaign signs still tacked to his wall a week after the election.

Inside, the mission-style decor tends toward the Spartan, though a pair of upright pianos flank the dining room table. On the music stand of one is a framed photograph of his friend Michael Tilson Thomas, shown in a tender moment with the conductor's elderly father. Another photo that Leno points out is of a handsome young man, Douglas Jackson, who was his partner for 10 years before dying of AIDS in 1990.

Leno met Jackson in 1980, when Jackson walked into Leno's company, Budget Signs, to have some posters made for a fundraiser. Not long after, they began house-hunting together and soon settled into the blue house on Clipper.

"I liked that there would be a little distance from the heart of the Castro so it would be a little quieter, but it would still be in range," Leno said. "I liked the scale of the neighborhood, the feel of it, and I think those who live here have an appreciation and respect for it."

Leno, who says he dates "now and then," shares his house with a stray cat who moved in five years ago. He thought of moving to Mill Valley and selling his business after Jackson died, but "even in just considering it, I got homesick for Clipper Street."

Instead, he threw himself even more fervently into fundraising for gay, Jewish, and Democratic causes. "I enjoy my business, but selling signs has never been my passion in life," Leno said. "I have found that passion in my nonprofit work. There I'm selling an idea, and I very much look at public office as a continuation of that."

Although he had no stomach for campaigning for office, he became intrigued about the possibilities of the supervisor's post when his name was first floated for a vacancy in 1996. When Mayor Brown instead turned to Leslie Katz, a disappointed Leno convinced himself that "it was the best thing that never happened to me."

When another vacancy arose earlier this year, Leno went to bed thinking "my head just wasn't there. But when I woke up the next morning, it was all I could think about." This time, he got the call.

It may seem an unlikely outcome for a rabbinical-school dropout who arrived in San Francisco without a job in 1977. But Leno likens his situation -- as a merchant, fundraiser, and now politician -- to that of the Old World rabbis whose congregations were too poor to support them. "And so they were the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, and being a rabbi was just something they had to do."

After getting a bachelor's degree in psychology at the American College in Jerusalem, the Wisconsin native enrolled at Hebrew Union College in New York to become a rabbi. "It seemed I would need a vocation, and I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to merge vocation and avocation," and keep on his spiritual quest.

But something felt false about the notion, and he also began asking himself whether "a rabbinical student can be sexually active and out in the world."

The answer escaped him. And so he came west at the suggestion of his sister, then a Stanford student, who thought San Francisco could help "revivify" her rudderless brother. He found an apartment in the Tenderloin and a job selling men's clothes before taking out a $15,000 loan to start his sign business.

The business remains a financial necessity for Leno, inasmuch as the Board of Supervisors is still considered a part-time job.

"I think we kid ourselves that it's not a full-time job, and we end up excluding those who cannot afford to serve or who can't take the time from their jobs," said Leno (who, by the way, is not related to Jay Leno, host of the Tonight Show).

Leno is glad the return of district elections will bring some new voices to city government, because fewer dollars will be needed to run a race. "But it's also possible there could be more contentiousness," he said. "We're still talking about running a city and not just a neighborhood."

Demographically, Leno should be in a good position to campaign for a district post. As a Noe Valley homeowner, he will have a natural constituency in this part of the district (as does Leland Yee, Noe Valley's other supervisor-in-residence). As a gay man, he should pick up votes in the Castro neighborhood.

That Leno is gay did not prove particularly newsworthy in the recent elections, nor does he think it will matter much to Noe Valley voters. "I would challenge you that there is anyone in Noe Valley who would be uncomfortable having a gay person represent them," he said.

In fact, one of the reasons Leno moved here 17 years ago was because "I had heard there were gay and lesbian couples here, and that it was a friendly place. I don't think that has changed, and I even think the neighborhood has become more welcoming. I'm not sure I would have been comfortable walking down 24th Street holding another man's hand back then, but today I would be."

Even as a supervisor? Leno laughed. "Sure. Now I just need a hand to hold."