BY KAREN OCAMB | Most LGBT Californians got to know Mark Leno after he was elected to the State Assembly in 2002 and became an outspoken proponent for marriage rights for same sex couples. But it was not a new fight for him: in 2000, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors representing the Castro and surrounding districts, Leno was a statewide leader against the anti-gay Prop 22 initiative and introduced legislation that would allow a tenant protection to get another roommate if the previous roommate (or lover) died from AIDS. He also secured equal access to the city’s health care plan for the city’s transgender employees.
That’s just some of the heart and experience Leno, a small business owner, brought with him to the Assembly, where he joined John Laird from Santa Cruz in becoming the first gay men in that august body. They joined with Sheila Kuehl, Chris Kehoe and Carole Migden to form the California LGBT Legislative Caucus.
But none of that—nor any of his hard work fighting against Prop 8 and for LGBT rights—was mention by his State Senate colleagues on Wednesdaynight, Aug. 31, the last day of the legislative session for the body he had served since 2008. Instead he was praised for his leadership as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, leadership his Republican counterparts said was brilliant, fair, and resulted in a state budget surplus. Their effusive respect and obviously sincere declarations of friendship and goodwill were a very far cry from the ultra-conservatives who unflinchingly harangued and slurred Leno in the early years as he successfully passed two marriage equality bills, vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Leno’s 17-year political legacy from Supervisor to State Legislature, where he authored 161 laws, will be remembered as one of grace, brilliance and always fighting for the underdog, as a terrific Los Angeles Times portrait pointed out.
Last June, The Times notes, after Leno presented “his final state spending plan as budget chairman, the entire Senate rose for a long and loud ovation. As many Republicans as Democrats praised him.” For a gay man who took over Harvey Milk’s seat in San Francisco, that image encapsulates LGBT progress in California.
State Sen. Pro Tem Kevin De Leon opened the tribute to Leno, describing him as “elegance, eloquence with the intellectual super fire power to deal with the complexities and the arcane-ness of today’s budget matters,” which are now multi-dimensional and worldwide. Noting that Leno is a Democrat who “leans to the very far left” but “gets the incredible respect from within the political spectrum,” De Leon called the San Franciscan “the best budget chair that I worked with” a leader with “so much knowledge, so much wisdom and so much grace.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning said Leno leads “with such a steady sense of purpose,” adding that he “makes the impossible possible. And he does it with aplomb and grace and always with great respect. We’re going to miss you tremendously.”
Republican Sen. Anthony Canella of Ceres noted that there were times when the two clashed politically but said he will forever be grateful to Leno for helping a school district that had gone into receivership for which he had been unsuccessful in getting funding.
“I’ve served with some of the best of them here,” said Republican Sen. Jim Nielson of Tehama. “You’re right up there with the best, Sen. Leno. I’ve so enjoyed serving with you as vice chair of that committee….You are a legislator’s legislator, a senator’s senator. You’ve brought great distinction on this entire legislature and particularly on the Senate.”
But it was Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of San Diego who got the biggest laugh. “Senators, this is a sad day for me. You see, Mark completes me,” Anderson said, alluding to the famous Tom Cruise romantic line from the film “Jerry Maguire.” Anderson noted that he has “a little bit of a reputation of being from a very conservative area” and considers Leno his “bookend.” That dynamic lead to a “great friendship” and great teamwork. “You’re a unique individual, a true statesman” and, said the conservative to the gay liberal, “you complete me.”
Raising the microphone when it was his turn to speak, Leno seemed mindful of the chamber full of colleagues as a rarified club of public servants. But instead of closing his final moments with soaring rhetoric, Leno used the occasion to thank those who had worked with and for him.
“I think we all understand the great privilege it is to be one of 40 representing almost 40 million people,” Leno said, looking around. “There’s no job like it. There is certainly no legislative job like it anywhere in the country, if the world.”
And then he called out for special recognition Chief of Staff Bob Hartnagel, who has been with Leno for all 17 years and his district staff who have been with him for his 14 years in the Legislature. Though the longevity of service might seem normal to Leno, surely there were some colleagues wondering who among them also warranted such loyalty. Then displaying the humble grace for which he had been so roundly praised, Leno named a number of the Senate chamber staff and others who work behind the scenes and too often go unnoticed in the course of the legislative session.
“This has been the opportunity and experience of a lifetime and it’s been a great ride. Everyone is asking what’s next, what’s next? My honest answer is—I haven’t a clue. But as unsettling as that can be, it’s also with great exhilaration. It’s time for the next chapter,” said Mark Leno, concluding his remarks and his legislative career. “We’re all beneficiaries of term limits. Without them, Willie Brown would still be in my old Assembly seat. And we all soon become victims. Those are the rules coming in and those are the rules going out and there are talented young energetic capable people who will follow us. So – from the bottom of my heart—I thank you.”
And with that, Leno brought down his Senate microphone for the last time.
He received a standing ovation, a big hug from De Leon.
And a kiss from Sen. Bob Hertzberg from the San Fernando Valley, a scene never imagined in the California State Legislature that Mark Leno joined in 2003. But on Wednesday, the gay legislative heir to Harvey Milk received a grateful standing ovation.