Mayoral candidate Mark Leno, seen here in the Castro district of San Francisco
Mayoral candidate Mark Leno, seen here in the Castro district of San Francisco

Mark Leno: mayoral candidate and one-time rabbinical student

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Come June 5, Mark Leno will be either the next mayor of San Francisco or a political retiree. That’s a pretty stark contrast, but Leno, 66, a former city supervisor, state assemblyman and state senator, does not evince nervousness, even if he is. He is even-keeled and soft-spoken, traits that, he says, have served him well for pretty much his whole life. How well they serve him against younger and more spirited competitors like Supervisors London Breed and Jane Kim remains to be seen.

If elected, Leno would not be the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco (Adolph Sutro was elected 124 years ago, and Dianne Feinstein held the post from 1978 to 1988), but he would be the city’s first openly gay mayor. It remains to be seen if voters in 2018 — many of whom have no recollection of the AIDS crisis that took Leno’s life partner, let alone the Stonewall riots that put him on his social and political path — gravitate toward this distinction.

Make of it what you will, Leno remains unflappable. On a recent Monday, he sat down with J. and, over the course of an hour and change, took us places perhaps both of us did not expect to go. Taking a break from his legislative history and campaign pledges, he discussed his peripatetic life, his successes, his failures, his heartbreaks and his path as a rabbinical school washout and nice Jewish boy from Milwaukee who ended up in San Francisco and tried to make something of himself.

J.: For many of us, all we know about Milwaukee in the 1950s is “Happy Days.” Tell us more about where you grew up.

Mark Leno: My grandparents all came from Russia. The geo-religious settlings of this immigrant population tended toward the west side of Milwaukee, for whatever reason. This was an Orthodox Jewish community; I don’t know if I’d call them ghettoized, but we were certainly all in proximity to one another.

After World War II, the children of immigrants started business and professional careers. My father, Manny, was on the professional side. I think the house they built in 1951 was two bedrooms and 2½ baths for their soon-to-be three children [Mark was born in 1951]. It was in Whitefish Bay — which wasn’t a Jewish reference; it was probably just what was being caught in Lake Michigan. But how convenient!

Did you have lots of family around?

Curiously, my parents’ siblings — three brothers on my mother’s side and one of two sisters on my father’s side — all moved to Los Angeles … So we were kind of left behind in Milwaukee.

What was in L.A.?

The California dream. My mother took my sisters and me out there in 1956 or ’57 for a two-week summer holiday. We took the train across the country, which was an adventure in itself. I fell in love with the palm trees and mountains and ocean. I remember asking if adults get to choose where they live when they grow up, why were they in L.A. and we were in Milwaukee? I got the California fever early.

Mark Leno with his mother in 1952

What are your earliest memories of the community you grew up in?

Holidays. Mother in the kitchen. Passover seders. We were all spoiled at Hanukkah; we had a gift every one of the eight nights. I started in a religious school class Sundays at the temple from the first grade on. I, not my two sisters, went after school for two hours a day two days a week from fourth grade to seventh grade to prepare for my bar mitzvah

Was this a meaningful experience? After all, you did go on to become a rabbinical student.

I hated it. I got headaches. But I’m so glad I did it. From my perspective, though, it was an idyllic childhood. I was a happy-go-lucky kid. But I had a secret, of course.

When did that secret become apparent?

I knew my attraction very early. Age 4 or 5. I know what grabbed my eye on TV: Buster Crabbe [aka Flash Gordon]. That caught my eye.

I came out in 1969 after I finished high school. I called myself a Stonewall baby. My parents’ response — their initial response I would not categorize as any different than if it had been any other family. They had no familiarity with the subject matter. As far as I know, my parents had no gay friends or associates or any way to process it. It was completely foreign.

So it was an idyllic childhood, but I just kept things to myself. And by the time I was graduating high school, I knew I not only wanted to leave but I had to leave.

So where did you go?

I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I was not a serious academic. It has a party-skiing rep. But it was also a hotbed of revolution. … I had an eye-opening college career. I came out as gay. I had to deal with informing my parents. There was the opposition to the war and the Stonewall riots [in New York City] and a whole new civil rights movement. And then I got busted for pot.

You what?

There is some irony that the state of Colorado busted me. I guess I was just 50 years ahead of my time. It was not a lot of pot. But it was a serious crime in Colorado at the time. So my father had to come out, and it was not anything he had any familiarity with. Future savings went toward paying a lawyer. My time in Boulder was exactly one year; I went back to Milwaukee on probation. I lived with my parents in my childhood bedroom and took full college courses and did 40 hours a week at a job.

On paper, I was the model probationer. When I went back to court a year later, the judge said, “Should anyone doubt the value of probationary periods, I will cite your case.” Well, that was eye-opening. There were other young men in the courtroom who were not my color and didn’t have my background and privilege. They were experiencing different perspectives on justice than I was. And when I decided to go back to school, I didn’t want to do it at an American university. So I went to the American College in Jerusalem. In June of ’73, I got my degree, came back to the States, and not long thereafter was the Yom Kippur War. By that time, [I had] moved to New York specifically to apply to Hebrew Union College to go to rabbinical school.

Can you explain the thought process behind this?

Well, I recognized I was not going to go to medical school, I was not going to law school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. But I’d figured out this much: That if I had to have an avocation, wouldn’t it be terrific if I married it with my Jewish spiritual curiosity? At [HUC], they had a mandatory first-year program in Jerusalem. So I went back again. But it was very different going back after the Yom Kippur War. For some obvious reasons. The Old City had been almost a playground for me and my classmates at American College. We had Arab friends, we knew the shopkeepers, it was a welcoming place. But after the war, my friends said you can’t come and ask for us by name anymore. Security has changed. People are watching.

This was the 1970s. How did your sexuality come into play … at a rabbinical school?

When I entered into school, I wasn’t hiding anything. I thought I was an out gay man. I presumed it was common knowledge. When I ascended that staircase, the administrators looking down were either thinking “Aren’t we progressive?” or “Oy, here comes another one.” So I don’t know if, as I approached ordination, that would have become an issue.

Had I stayed on course and done my five years at HUC, I’d have finished my studies and been ordained in about 1979. That was about eight to 10 years before the seminary did ordain an openly gay person. I was ahead of that curve. So there was no role model. Could a single, gay, sexually active man be a rabbi? I did not know the answer to that question.

So I finished my first year. I did well. And I went back to the New York campus. I was in a relationship with someone at that time.

Was he Jewish?

(Laughter) Oh yes. It’s a name you might know: Michael Tilson Thomas. We met in 1974. We were together for a number of years, including my year in Jerusalem.

So when I landed in New York for my studies, that second year, I realized this was not working. I blame nothing on the school. It was just a lack of self-knowledge and what I wanted to do in the world. So I dropped out. And in 1977, Michael and I separated. I was young. I didn’t have a clue. These were the toughest years of my life.

I got [to San Francisco] in ’77. He got his job with the symphony in ’94. Though I left New York to start off on my own and get away from his significant shadow, over the years our friendship has only become deeper. We are best friends today. Having him in my life these 45 years has been one of the great blessings for me.

I married him and his husband, Josh Robison. When they came to San Francisco, upon Michael accepting the job as music director, we toasted with some champagne. And Josh asked if this town was big enough for the both of us. I said, “I think so.”

But I [had moved] to San Francisco to get away from [Michael]. My heart was broken. He was seven years older than me and already had an international career, and I didn’t even have the blocks put together. I had to separate myself from him.

My younger sister wrote me a letter saying “Get out of that cold, dirty city. Come out to San Francisco. Revivify.” So I did. A year later, in September of ’78, I started my business. I credit my father for sending me some information about a business venture of purchasing a large letter press and the necessary type to be able to open a business making signs.

Mark Leno as a college student with his sister Jamie in 1969
Mark Leno as a college student with his sister Jamie in 1969

He told you that you should do this?

He told me I should do something. The equipment was being sold out of Milwaukee. He said there’s opportunity here. I borrowed a little money and started a business and realized, hey, I’m an entrepreneur.

I had some good fortune. I made signs for savings and loans. Remember S&Ls? That was my niche. And then Doug Jackson, the love of my life, walked into my shop one day to order some signs for a job he was working on. He was just out of college, an intern for a local PR guy. They were doing a party [and] needed some signs. Doug walked in my door and that was the beginning of that. Business must have been good. In the spring of ’81, I was able to buy my home in Noe Valley and Doug and I moved in. [Jackson died of AIDS in 1990].

Four years later, I bought a small commercial building near Market and Van Ness. And, yes, I am very sensitive to the fact that a 25- or 26-year-old moving to San Francisco today will not have that kind of opportunity.

What was your level of Jewish involvement during all of this?

Well, I did join and was a founding member of Sha’ar Zahav. [At that time, in 1977, an LGBTQ congregation] was a novel concept. Fast-forward to today: Though I’m not all that observant of a Jew, I continue my relationship with Sha’ar Zahav.

And what are you doing Jewishly these days?

Well, my father died recently, in his bed, at 97, surrounded by family. We should all be so lucky. So I am saying Kaddish twice a day. And there are a handful of prayers I recite to myself daily.

Which ones?

There are four. You want to know them all? The first is a prayer of gratitude. A shehechiyanu. It’s written in the first-person plural as opposed to the first-person singular: God who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time and place. It’s a prayer for the moment. The second is “Blessed are you, Creator of the Universe, according to whose word all things will be.”

The third one is to God, “who has provided me [with] all of my needs.” So often we are sent the message that we are not good enough — your teeth aren’t white enough, your skin isn’t smooth enough; every product you buy needs to correct something. But here’s a prayer about providing me with all my needs. I interpret that in the most physical and emotional way possible; I am full and I am complete.

And the fourth one is, to my knowledge, a prayer said traditionally by Jewish men who were required to follow the 613 mitzvot. “Thank you for making me have to do these things.” I picked up on it in early adulthood and it has always had special meaning for me. Because being gay was not a mistake. You made me, Lord, according to your will and desire. So this prayer tells me that, and I will repeat this prayer on a regular basis.

It gives me reassurance that I am who I am supposed to be.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.