Social justice advocate Mark Leno could become the next mayor of San Francisco, but he got his start on the Milwaukee area’s North Shore.
The 1969 Nicolet High School graduate has been awfully busy since he moved out of town. After a stint in rabbinical school, he started a business in California. Then, a mayor appointed him to fill a San Francisco area political vacancy.
“I was somewhat ambivalent about accepting the appointment,” he recalled. But he did, then got deeper into politics and became the first openly gay man to serve in the California Senate. He became a key architect of most state budgets over the last decade and “was one of California’s most seasoned and powerful state lawmakers,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Now, he’s widely considered one of the lead candidates in the June 5 race for mayor of San Francisco.
Leno grew up in Whitefish Bay and Bayside. Today, he doesn’t have a lot of family in the Milwaukee area, but recently came in for a family funeral and he still considers Rabbi Ron Shapiro, who once led Congregation Shalom, “a dear friend.”
“I do remember a very loving, family-oriented, tight-knit Jewish community,” Leno said.
Back in the day, Leno had friends in the Milwaukee area who were headed off to medical school or law school. But he recalled, “I had this idea that maybe I could make a vocation out of an avocation, which was an interest in religious studies and a spiritual seeking.”
So he wound up at Hebrew Union College and a mandatory first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. In his second year, “call it confusion and uncertainties of young adulthood, I did drop out, so I’m a rabbinic drop-out, without really knowing what I wanted to do.” Leno had a sister at Stanford University at the time and she encouraged him to come west. So he did.
He said his political work is “100 percent driven” by “economic and social justice.”
“I can honestly tell you that is reflected in my Jewish background and the philosophy of tikkun olam. One of the things I remember from rabbinical school was the teaching of the Talmud that says, ours is not to complete the task, but neither is it for us not to begin it.”
“As my parents taught me at an early age, as Jews, and as I have learned as a gay man, civil rights has to be won by each generation,” he said. “The challenge is never ending. It’s each of our individual responsibilities to do what we can when we can. And then the work is passed to another generation.”
He advanced legal protections for the California LGBTQ community in his state’s Legislature and authored a bill that added gender identity to the state’s fair employment and housing act, he said.
Now Leno seeks to take on a new challenge – leading an economic and cultural powerhouse of a city.
“Our city is a tale of two cities right now. We have this white-hot economy with an unemployment rate below 3 percent, with median income pushing $100,000, a world renowned tech industry, and at the same time we have a housing affordability crisis, a homeless crisis and an income and wealth disparity crisis,” he said. “So my top priority is to end street homelessness by 2020.”
Asked for advice for Wisconsin social justice activists, Leno said, “Elect a new governor.”
“I don’t say that flippantly,” he added. “I have heartache seeing the changes that happened recently in Wisconsin.”
Leno, a left-leaning Democrat, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a right-leaning Republican, would have much to disagree on. Walker recently touted the addition of 8,900 private sector Wisconsin jobs in March, thanks in part to a “strong alignment” with “economic development partners,” according to a news release. Meanwhile, Leno is proud of his work in support of a $15 minimum wage.
Despite his view of our governor, Leno said that he wants Wisconsin to know, “My memories of childhood in Milwaukee are positive.”
He added, “I’m proud of my roots.”