Mark Leno — from rabbinical student to supe

San Francisco supervisor appointee Mark Leno has come a long way from his early days as a rabbinical student.

Dropping out of Hebrew Union College, one might say, was the first step on his journey to the world of San Francisco insider politics.

Having just returned from a year of study in Israel, the Wisconsin native decided that rabbinical school in the early 1970s was no place for a young, gay man with an entrepreneurial spirit.

"There was a huge [gay] immigration to San Francisco at that time," which included other gay movers and shakers such as Harvey Milk, recalled Leno.

Within a year of moving to the city, Leno established his own sign-making business, Budget Signs Inc., which today is a thriving eight-person company south of Market. Coincidentally, his business is within walking distance of City Hall.

It didn't take him long to jump into the slippery, fast-paced hubbub of civic affairs in San Francisco, which culminated with his appointment to the board of supervisors last week. He has been a long-time member of the Raoul Wallenberg Democratic Club, which is primarily Jewish, and served on the board of the American Jewish Congress during the 1980s.

More recently, Leno, 46, has worked on Willie Brown's election campaign as well as his transition team, and has lobbied for a variety of civic projects together with Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-S.F.) for about 11 years.

He currently co-chairs a committee to establish San Francisco's first gay and lesbian community center, and has helped commandeer a campaign to raise money in the gay community for the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

One of his proudest accomplishments, he said, occurred during a fund-raising dinner at Stars Restaurant last year. The event, sponsored by his national Gay and Lesbian Campaign for the Holocaust Museum, brought together some of San Francisco's biggest philanthropists as well as local celebrity guests.

Symphony Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas, a long-time friend of Leno's, strolled across the street from his production of the musical "On the Town," accompanied by singers Tyne Daly, Frederica Von Stade and the original "On the Town" lyricists Adolph Greene and Betty Comden.

Even after a full performance, Tilson Thomas had a little left for the Stars crowd. He and his musical colleagues improvised a little piano-playing and singing that would have impressed his grandparents, who were Yiddish theater performers.

The event raised $200,000 of the $1.5 million collected nationally by the group.

While the financial success of the evening was cause enough for celebration, Leno explained that it also reaffirmed his identity both as a gay man and a Jew.

"We brought together these two communities to raise money and brought them together to attest to the Holocaust," he said.

Though rabbinical school is nearly ancient history, Leno says spirituality still fuels his activism and sense of social justice. He does not regularly attend synagogue, but has been active with both congregations Emanu-El and Sha'ar Zahav, of which he was a founding member. Leno also maintains ties with Ahavat Shalom, a lay-led group that broke away from Sha'ar Zahav.

Leno, who has yet to be sworn in, says he is still spinning from the appointment and learning the requirements of his new duties. Therefore, he's not yet ready to announce a political agenda. He said the future gay and lesbian community center continues to be a personal mission, as do all the causes that he has fought for over the years.

Mayor Brown, as is his style, had not yet informed the activist of the appointment when a reporter called Leno for the first interview.

The mayor's hiring habits, Leno speculated, "put a smile on [Brown's] face."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.