San Francisco

Raised in the Projects: SF Elects London Breed as Mayor

"No matter where you come from, no matter what you decide to do in life, you can do anything you want to do," Breed said

San Francisco's incoming mayor knows the yawning gap between rich and poor firsthand, having been raised by her grandmother in the city's drug- and violence-riddled projects.

It is now the job of London Breed — the first black woman elected mayor of the city — to unite a wealthy but frustrated San Francisco, where the high-tech economy has sent the median price of a home soaring to $1.3 million and where homeless tents and human waste fester on sidewalks.

People who know her say the 43-year-old Breed has the grit, drive and deep love for her hometown to tackle its problems.

"I know where she comes from. I know where she is currently," said high school classmate Adonne Loggins. "It's not an easy way to come up. A lot of people fall by the wayside, and she didn't. That's a tribute to her character and her willingness to fight."

Lobbyist P.J. Johnston first met Breed in 1997, when they were working for then-Mayor Willie Brown.

"One of the things that always struck me about London is her drive is very much rooted in this life she's chosen for herself, which is public service," Johnston said.

Breed, currently president of the 11-member Board of Supervisors, was declared the winner Wednesday of last week's eight-way mayoral election. The Democrat takes office next month.

She is only the second woman to become mayor of San Francisco. The other was Dianne Feinstein, now senator.

Breed wants the technology sector to work with youngsters so that they have a real shot at sharing in the city's immense wealth. She wants to build more housing more quickly and supports the use of legal conservatorships to get mentally ill people and drug users off the street and into treatment.

She has also promised to end long-term homeless tent camps within a year of taking office.

Breed has a broad smile, a blunt way of speaking and a down-to-earth demeanor. She is a big foodie who lives in a rent-controlled apartment in the city's fashionably dilapidated Lower Haight neighborhood, blocks from the traditionally black Western Addition and Fillmore neighborhoods where she grew up.

She unwinds at night by washing dishes by hand — no dishwasher in her unit — and re-hashing her day with friends by phone. Like many other residents of the city, she has been unable to afford a house. That may change; as mayor, she will be paid $326,527 a year.

Breed was raised by her grandmother Comelia Brown, a house cleaner who told a young London to make her bed, clean the kitchen and not even think about skipping school if she wanted to continue living in her house.

She drank powdered milk, and Christmas toys came from the firefighters' annual giveaway. Her grandmother died in 2016 after a long struggle with dementia.

"She took care of the community. She took care of me even on days when I didn't deserve it," Breed said Wednesday.

A brother ended up in prison, and a younger sister died of a drug overdose in 2006, but Breed earned a bachelor's degree from the University of California at Davis and then a master's in public administration from the University of San Francisco.

Loggins, a classmate at Galileo High, recalls an outspoken, stubborn girl active in school politics and the black student union who was itching to improve the system. She was voted the girl in her senior class most likely to succeed.

Breed got her start in politics as an intern for Brown, writing proclamations and answering mail.

"I was living in public housing," she recalled in a recent interview at one of her favorite Mexican restaurants. "The ability to get stuff done by saying you're calling from the mayor's office was amazing."

For more than a decade, she headed the African American Art & Culture Complex, beefing up programs for at-risk youth and the elderly. She encouraged a police presence there, not just because of the potential for violence but also because she wanted the youngsters to develop good relationships with police, she said.

In 2012, she decided to challenge the supervisor for her district, appalled that then-Mayor Ed Lee had appointed someone Breed felt was out of touch with the community. Most of the city's power brokers, including Lee and Brown, told her to stay out, she recalled.

"A lot of people told her it would be an uphill battle, it would be a difficult race to win," said Debbie Mesloh, president of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. "She said she was going to go to every house and walk every neighborhood, and she did."

She won, but not before taking heat for an expletive-laden rant about how she wasn't controlled by anyone, including her mentor, Brown. The rant cost her Feinstein's endorsement.

Friends and colleagues say Breed has since smoothed the rough edges, but the idea that she is beholden to others, including the business sector that supported her mayoral run, rankles.

"I'm not the old guard," she said. "I make my own decisions and I do what I feel is the right thing to do, and I stand by the decisions that I make."

Amelia Ashley-Ward, publisher of the San Francisco Sun-Reporter, called Breed an example to "every young girl everywhere who wants to be something."

"They just need to stand up and fight for what they want to be, and, yes, be stubborn and hard-headed sometimes," Ashley-Ward said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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