A few months ago I found myself locked in a texting war with the president of the Board of Supervisors. It was after midnight and we were feverishly arguing over something that just happened at the board.
“You should have written better notes.”
“You should’ve known what to say.”
“No one likes your new tie.”
“Hostile work environment!”
On it went until, I assume, we both tired out. The next day my phone rang, the caller ID showing “London Breed.” Still angry about whatever had occurred the day before, I answered with a labored, “yeesssss?”
London didn’t wait for me to finish. In a completely over-the-top grandmother drawl, she began: “Oh, is my baby upset? Did he get all worked up? It’s gonna be OK now.”
Do you know how hard it is to stay angry when someone does this to you? It’s impossible. I laughed for a couple minutes, and we went on to the next item of business.
London Breed doesn’t dwell. She doesn’t distract. All her talents, her passion and humor are directed to one goal: helping others. After five amazing years fighting alongside her, I left my job as her chief of staff two weeks ago. But I won’t be far.
London grew up in public housing in the Western Addition, eating government food, facing the ravages of drugs and violence, with five people living on $900 per month. She went to public schools, then UC Davis and USF, her entire career spent in service to the community that raised her.
There is no self-pity, no conceit about what she’s overcome. London says: “I’m here because people believed in me, because they invested in me. Now I will believe; now I will invest.”
London has turned down lucrative job offers to remain in public service. My colleague Samantha Roxas and I huddled with her on the stairs inside Saint Mary’s Cathedral before the first debate of her re-election campaign. London asked us to pray — but not that she would win. “Help me to serve my community,” she said. “Help me be a voice for others.” That is the only job she’s ever wanted.
When my good friend’s brother, an SFPD officer, was shot in the line of duty, London came with me to visit the family at the hospital. She was a few weeks from her re-election, working around the clock. She didn’t have to do that, but it meant a lot. When Chinatown leaders felt slighted by the mayor’s District 3 supervisor appointment, London said: “We have to work together — all of us. And if you need me, if you need anything, I will be your supervisor, too.”
I am still overwhelmed by what we accomplished in four years: graffiti reform, cutting ambulance response times by 25 percent, first-in-the-country legislation to protect nightlife venues, a new fleet of Muni trains, increasing affordable housing production and passing a law to prioritize residents for the affordable homes in their community, drug take-back legislation that’s kept 40 tons of chemicals from the Bay and landfill, the strongest Styrofoam ban in the country, legalizing arcades, winning five elections in a row and launching CleanPowerSF, the most important thing this city can do to fight climate change.
After college I started a small biodiesel production coop, collecting dirty grease to make clean fuel. In three years we probably prevented 200 tons of CO2 emissions. CleanPowerSF is projected to cut 941,000 tons every single year.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that public service is the opportunity to do good on a much larger scale.
If you read my columns you know I like to explain systems: the water system, The City’s budget, etc. But I can’t explain why this little city on the tip of a peninsula is so important, why it leads the nation culturally, on policy, and in business. I can’t point to a system. It is the people. It’s the activists, the artists, the entrepreneurs, and public servants. It’s our belief that “impossible” only means San Francisco hasn’t done it yet.
Four years in City Hall has made me even more proud of our city. This is a place of doers and believers. This is where a young African American girl can go from public housing to the president of the Board of Supervisors.
London Breed is an inspiration befitting her hometown. She’s my friend. She is our real president right now. And if she runs for mayor, I will be right by her side, as I always have been.
Conor Johnston is former chief of staff to Board of Supervisors President London Breed, the co-founder of the East of Twin Peaks Neighborhood Association and is now working in small business consulting. The views here are his own.