From rabbinical student to legislator to next adventure

Mark Leno sat in his 14th-floor office near San Francisco’s City Hall, finishing up a phone call with a real estate agent. The California state senator needed to sell his Sacramento residence and the clock was ticking.

With his term up at the end of November, Leno is coming home to San Francisco to stay. But not before having accomplished much as a legislator.

The former city supervisor served in the state Assembly from 2002 to 2008 before winning his Senate seat. As a legislator, he has authored hundreds of bills dealing with everything from prison reform and consumer safety to protecting bees. The unabashed liberal became chair of the Senate Budget Committee and found a way to win the respect of legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Leno, 65, leaves government with plaudits from colleagues and constituents, but he isn’t entirely satisfied.

“The work is never done,” Leno told J., “whether we’re talking about criminal justice reform, promoting renewable energy, investing in affordable housing or pursuing universal health care.”

The former rabbinical student, small business owner and LGBT activist says he isn’t bitter about the term limits law that mandated his departure.

“We’re all beneficiaries of term limits,” he said on the Senate floor during an Aug. 31 tribute. “Without them, Willie Brown would still be in my old Assembly seat. Those are the rules coming in, those are the rules coming out. There are talented, young, energetic capable people who will follow us.”

Retiring state Sen. Mark Leno in his S.F. office photo/dan pine

That tribute to Leno turned into the closest thing to a love-fest one might ever see on the Senate floor.

Conservative Southern California Republican Joel Anderson said, “Mark completes me. When it comes to legislation and working together, we employ the bookend strategy. If Mark and I are both for it, most of you are between us and you’re going to join us.”

Added San Joaquin Valley Republican Jim Neilson, “You’re right up there with the best. You are a senator’s senator. You brought great distinction to the entire Legislature. So thorough, so studied, so prepared for everything. You stewarded us thorough some of the most difficult times we ever had.”

Leno returned the compliments, saying that serving as a California senator was “the best job in the world. This has been the experience and opportunity of a lifetime.”

As for the collegiality in the Senate, Leno chalks it up to lessons he learned long ago.

“I’m reminded of the quote, ‘Everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten,’ ” he said. “Please, thank you, look both ways before crossing. So much of the work in the Legislature is based on relationships, and it’s critically important to keep positive feelings with colleagues. You never know when you’ll need someone for that last vote and there’s no one you can spare.”

The Wisconsin native attended the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in New York and Israel, intending to become a rabbi, but ultimately felt the rabbinate was not a good fit for an openly gay man, at least back in the early 1970s.

He moved to San Francisco’s Castro District, opening a successful sign-making business in 1978 and becoming a founding member of the predominantly LGBT synagogue Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. His interest in Democratic politics and liberal issues led to a long stint on the S.F. Board of Supervisors beginning in 1998. In 2002, he ran for the state Assembly and won.

Leno says when he first arrived in Sacramento, he decided to submit as many bills as the rules allowed, around 20 in the Assembly and 40 in the Senate per year. “I didn’t want to look back years later and ask myself why I hadn’t spoken up more,” he said, “or use every opportunity I had to use the legislative process.”

Among the bills of which he is most proud are a 2015 law that requires a warrant before allowing law enforcement agencies access to emails, digital documents and text messages; tougher regulations on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, and a 2015 law requiring manufacturers’ disclosure of flame-retardant chemicals in children’s products.

All along he had the respect and support of colleagues, the LGBT community and his constituents. One other group had his back: the Jews of the Bay Area.

“So many of the Jewish advocacy groups, which mostly deal with social welfare and the social safety net are aligned with the kind of legislative work we did,” he says. “Those groups and the Jewish community as a whole have been a foundation of support for our efforts.”

Leno leaves the California Legislature confident the state is in good hands and good shape. In terms of fiscal health, he applauds Gov. Jerry Brown, as well as the Democratic-led Assembly and Senate, for turning a budget deficit into a sturdy surplus.

“The current governor knows exactly what he’s doing compared to his predecessor,” he said, referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor-turned-Republican politician.  “We paid down significant debt, we have restored tens of billions for public education and the economy is growing faster than any other state in the country.”

What’s next? Leno has a simple answer. “I haven’t got a clue,” he said. “But I’m ready for the next adventure.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.