Always blunt, Breed professes to be unconcerned about facing voters.
“I don’t do this job,” Breed said, “in fear of losing it.”
In some important ways, Breed’s entire political orientation has been defined by her relationship with law enforcement.
She grew up in the Plaza East housing project in the city’s Western Addition neighborhood, where gunfire was commonplace and the San Francisco of ornate Victorian homes and rapidly acquired fortunes felt distant. She did not know her father and her mother was barely in the picture, so Breed was raised by her grandmother. Her brother struggled with addiction and was later sentenced to 44 years after a woman was killed by oncoming traffic when her brother pushed her from a getaway car, according to prosecutors. Breed’s sister died of a drug overdose.
Breed’s childhood gave her a nuanced view of law enforcement. She speaks often of the tension between residents both distrusting and needing the police, and she regularly derides white liberals who proclaim to know what Black voters want from the police.
Growing up, people saw “corrupt officers who did things like plant dope on people or would beat people down,” Breed said in an interview earlier this year with POLITICO. But people also suffered from the predation by others in the community, and Breed believes that rejecting a role for law enforcement is tantamount to abandoning those communities. She recounted the death of a friend who was shot “like a dog” in the street. “The worst part about that is not even a peep” came from police critics on the left, she said, “as if he doesn’t even matter.”
“The implication that people don’t want police or law enforcement in their communities,” Breed said, “I think it’s a false narrative.”
Her perspective on what was possible stemmed from interactions with people who helped her glimpse a better life. As a teenager, Breed babysat for the children of Shauna Marshall, the former dean of the University of California’s Hastings School of Law. Breed was friends with another young woman who lived across the street from Marshall, who remembered Breed as shy.
“One of the things I admire about London Breed is how against all odds and her background she has become so successful, and one of the reasons she said she was so shy — she’d never met a Black lawyer before,” Marshall said. “I don’t know if she’d met any lawyers, let alone a Black woman.”
Later, Marshall helped secure Breed a high school job working for Marshall’s relative at a center helping women transition from welfare to work. A supportive middle school teacher gave a Breed an important incentive to succeed by telling her she needed to be on good behavior to remain in the school band. A high school teacher guided Breed through the college application process after a visit from a recruiter from the University of California, Davis. Breed ultimately did get into and attend Davis, where she ended up switching from chemistry to a political science major. A graduate degree in public administration followed.
“I know the possibilities of what can happen when things go great in the city and what it can mean for someone’s life,” Breed said. “It’s the difference between me going to college and becoming mayor and giving back to the community in the way that I have and, sadly, my brother, who is incarcerated.”
Her political career began with a series of positions linked to Mayor Willie Brown. Breed interned in the Brown administration and worked on his 1999 re-election campaign, and in 2002 — at Brown’s urging — Breed, then 28, became executive director of the African American Art & Culture Complex, giving her a prominent role in the city’s civic life.
When an opportunity to run for the board of supervisors arrived in 2012, Breed’s background had gone from a barrier to an asset. The people who rallied early behind Breed’s run — both Black and white — saw in her someone whose life experience instilled in her a genuine desire to make policy work for San Franciscans.
“Her whole backstory is not only compelling, but it really spoke to me that here’s a person who’s been on the wrong side of so much that’s gone wrong in San Francisco for the last 50 years,” said Ted Loewenberg, who had met Breed before she ran for supervisor in his capacity heading the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association.
There is a term San Francisco political insiders like to use: “city family.” It typically refers to the inner circle of power surrounding and flowing from Brown, whose political successors include Gov. Gavin Newsom and Vice President Kamala Harris — and, depending on whom you ask, Breed, as well. Those mayors, from Brown to Newsom to former Mayor Ed Lee, have generally aligned with business interests and gone to battle with left-leaning Boards of Supervisors.
Breed has always pushed back against attempts to locate her within that sphere of influence. “I wouldn’t say I was all that powerful or anything,” Breed said in an interview. During that first board of supervisors run she bridled at the notion she was just another Brown protégé, fuming to a reporter after an event that Brown “didn’t wipe my ass when I was a baby,” adding, “I don’t do what no motherfucking body tells me to do.”
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