San Francisco mayor London Breed watched the recall of former district attorney Chesa Boudin from the sidelines. Unlike most local media and the Democratic Socialist members of the city’s Board of Supervisors, Breed didn’t rally behind the embattled DA. Nor did she jump on the recall bandwagon early. Yet the successful recall effort obviously made an impression on her: she has tapped Brooke Jenkins, a seven-year veteran prosecutor who had quit Boudin’s office to join the recall, to serve as the new district attorney.
In a press conference following her appointment, Jenkins vowed to end San Francisco’s open-air drug markets and prosecute property crime and violent offenses, including hate crimes—all of which were on Team Recall’s wish list. Jenkins also name-dropped “criminal justice reform,” in an attempt to reassure the city’s progressive voters. Likewise, Breed explained that she picked Jenkins to “make sure that reforms are not forgotten.” She seems to be staking out a middle-of-the-road position, which is music to the ears of San Francisco voters, who want their “moderate” positions represented in government. One should not conclude from this move, however that Breed is a moderate—or a liberal or conservative, for that matter. Rather, she’s a non-ideological, opportunistic politico running an ultra-left-wing city.
On the subject of law and order in particular, Breed has been all over the map. After the death of George Floyd in 2020, she pledged to cut $120 million from San Francisco’s Sheriff and Police Department. In November 2021, she introduced legislation to allow a “supervised injection site” to facilitate the administration of potentially lethal recreational drugs. Then, in December, with police morale plummeting and criminality spreading through the city, she called a press conference to announce an increased police presence to end “all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.” That stunt garnered global headlines, but the state of emergency she declared in the Tenderloin neighborhood expired 90 days later without much to show.
In Breed’s defense, she can’t do much as the city’s chief executive if voters elect a district attorney averse to prosecuting criminals, or if ideologically minded judges dismiss cases brought before them. Even before Boudin’s election in 2019, Breed had expressed frustration with local judges for establishing a revolving door of drug dealers arrested by law enforcement only to be released days later. The Boudin recall has not changed this dynamic, so San Franciscans should temper expectations.
Breed is a practical woman who grew up in a ghetto—an unusual background for a San Francisco elected official. More commonly, politicians like Supervisor Dean Preston, former School Board member Alison Collins, or, for that matter, Chesa Boudin, who was raised by former Weather Underground radicals and university professors Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, tend to be wealthy socialists. Breed’s sister died of drug poisoning, and her brother is serving a 44-year term for armed robbery and manslaughter. A graduate of UC–Davis and holder of a master’s of public administration degree from the University of San Francisco, Breed is a success story.
But about that brother: during his trial in 2000, Breed provided him with an alibi, testifying that he was at home, asleep on the couch at the time he robbed a restaurant and pushed his girlfriend out of a car. Many have called the truthfulness of her testimony into question. In 2018, she wrote a letter asking then-California governor Jerry Brown to pardon her brother. The city’s Ethics Commission fined her $2,500 for misusing her title in the letter. Breed often says that she understands the need for criminal-justice reform because she has an incarcerated family member, but the ease with which she switches from defund-the-police to tough-on-crime rhetoric suggests that her commitment to both sets of principles is situational.
Like other Bay Area elites, Breed sometimes seems to believe that rules are for little people. She violated the pandemic orders of her own health department, partying maskless (a trait common to California politicians). When caught, she complained about “the fun police [that wants] to come in and micromanage.” While serving in City Hall, she admitted to having an affair with former public works director Mohammed Nuru, currently under FBI investigation, and she was fined more than $22,000 for “significant” ethics violations.
Breed oversees a city of less than 1 million people that runs on a budget of nearly $14 billion. How San Francisco manages to spend that much money is a good question. Significant portions of it go to obscure nonprofits, some of which work with the city’s large homeless population. Some of these charities have existed for decades, with little progress to show on the problem. The city recently fired a nonprofit, the Mission Neighborhood Centers, which had received two contracts, worth $1.9 million each, as part of a city effort to clean up the blighted Tenderloin district. City officials and others reportedly observed employees for the nonprofit smoking and selling marijuana, catcalling women, sleeping on the job, or otherwise failing to perform their duties. Locals suspect the nonprofit represents just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to malfeasance by city contractors.
In the end, London Breed is a creature of San Francisco’s political culture. She comes from modest beginnings and she makes some moderate-seeming gestures, like the appointment of Jenkins as DA, but her loyalties seem too conflicted for her to be effective. The city needs a chief executive who will cast a cold eye on its budgetary excesses and is committed to making the government’s daily operations transparent to voters.
Photo by Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images