Susan Leal at Crissy Field.
In the driver's seat with Susan Leal
by Hank Donat
Almost everything I had heard about Susan Leal was true. Therefore, I wasn't surprised when the independent-minded city treasurer and mayoral candidate agreed to give me a driving lesson even though I had never been behind the wheel of a car in all my 36 years.
"You want her to do what? In her car?" a senior campaign staffer said on hearing my suggestion. But Leal was up for adventure.
"I can tell there have been times when [the campaign staff] would like to take me out to that pier and push me into the water," says Leal, the 53 year-old San Francisco native who was re-elected treasurer in November 2001 with 87% of the vote.
It's fitting that our meeting is at the Warming Hut at Crissy Field. Leal projects warmth and gives easily to relaxed conversation. She borders on folksy when she raises the issue of the everyday civility crisis that diminishes our city.
"I'd love to have two signs inside City Hall," Leal says, "One that says, 'No Favoritism,' and another that says, 'No Fighting.' When I was a little kid and I fought with my brothers and sisters, my mother would make us kneel and pray out loud. In two and a half minutes we were ready to kiss and make up."
Leal says the way to bring jobs back to San Francisco is to end the arrogance that makes us think everyone wants to be here.
"We don't ask businesses to come here," she says, "We have the Convention and Visitors Bureau that's out there hustling for tourism, taking the mayor to Washington and all the trade mission kinds of things. We need the same thing for business. A trade mission to Beijing is fine but we need a trade mission to Brisbane (CA). Right now we don't do that."
No one ever called Leal slick. She doesn't hedge, especially when it comes to some major topics for progressives. On the last hour of the last day with Leal as mayor, will there be rent control in San Francisco? "Absolutely." she says and repeats, "Absolutely."
Leal says under her leadership the city would defend medical marijuana clubs in court in the event that federal authorities attempt to shut them down.
She says the biggest problem with the status quo is, "that the bar has been set so low."
"We just assume that people are not going to do a job well if they're working for the city and that there's going to be corruption and that's the way it is," says Leal, whose own department has a customer satisfaction rating of 90%. She adds, "It's also that the integrity bar has been set so low."
Leal is no pushover in the race for mayor. A first-generation San Franciscan, she is also the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Leal is a UC Berkeley grad, lawyer, businesswoman, mom, and former supervisor.
Her television commercial depicts a Willie Brown legacy that makes the city look like Beirut by the Bay. She has been critical of Care not Cash over aspects of the plan she perceives as inadequate despite the popularity of Gavin Newsom's voter-approved, court-rebuffed legislation for dealing with homelessness.
Before our departure for the aforementioned driving lesson, we stop for a photo. Leal art directs a little, lending some truth to what Leal herself had told me. She can be a control freak.
Leal drives us the mile or so to the Presidio parade grounds. Without a military presence it looks like a big empty parking lot and usually is.
Leal presents me with a surprise. During the lesson I'm to wear a red feather boa that was given to Leal by "Vagina Monologues" author Eve Ensler.
I figure the ersatz drag will bring good luck since a mutual pal, local writer/performer Marga Gomez, who is also among adults I know who can't drive, appeared in a local run of "Vagina Monologues."
On the parade grounds, I hold my own at the helm of Leal's Toyota Prius, a gasoline/electric hybrid car. Starting, stopping, and turning all come with relative ease.
I always felt that I had watched enough people drive to make my getaway if I were being chased by a psycho killer and the only means of escape was a car with a key in the ignition.
Leal explains that passing the driver's test is all about looking. "You have to look at all times, everywhere before you turn and even when you don't," she says.
At the end of the lesson I got a "B+," with demerits for not looking a few times. Leal got an "A." She was unflappable, even as I pulled the car between a parked SUV and a pickup after only a few minutes of instruction while chatting about memories of the Presidio the entire time.
In spite of the boa, Leal doesn't want our lesson to be a lark. "I wanted to teach you how to drive" Leal says, before explaining in good detail how to complete the process by using the web to make an appointment with the DMV and so on.
I was impressed by what I perceived as a sense of purposefulness and follow-through. When I pass the driver's test, she will be the first to know.
I did say almost everything I had heard about Leal was true. In case you thought otherwise, Susan Leal is fun. In fact, she might just be enough of a character for the role of mayor of San Francisco.
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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat