CD: Harry, for over a
decade you defined progressive politics in San Francisco, and
yet some of us younger folks aren’t familiar with this
history. How did you get to the Board of Supervisors and what
you see as some of your bigger accomplishments while you were
HB: Harvey Milk convinced a lot of lesbians
and gay men that we should put our anger and our dreams into
politics. When he was killed he left a will in which he named
me as a possible successor. I held that office for fourteen
years, and during that time I worked with a lot of communities
to create neighborhood zoning, to provide strong rent control,
comparable worth for women, the nation’s first domestic
partner ordinance. I sponsored Proposition M to control
downtown growth and to protect neighborhoods and generally
used the office as a place where people who wanted to change
things could come and work with me.
CD: What drew you to Harvey Milk?
HB: I’ve always been active in politics. I had worked
in the Civil Rights movement. I had worked on urban organizing
in Chicago. But here was a leader who worked for my own people
and to deal with the discrimination that I personally felt as
a gay person.
CD: You mention the Civil Rights movement. When did you
first get involved in politics or social movements?
HB: I can go back further than that. My grandparents
had a life-size portrait of Franklin Roosevelt in the entrance
to their house. And as a little boy, every day I was told that
this man had saved our country from poverty. So I was given a
vision that politics was really there to help people who had
problems. I’m not sure that people feel that way about
politics anymore. But one of my hopes is to be able to go to
Sacramento to restore some of that accountability to the
people that Roosevelt symbolized in my family.
CD: At some point you went from Harry Britt, the kid
walking by that portrait, to Harry Britt, the young man
involved in the Civil Rights movement…
HB: I was a Methodist minister in Chicago at a time
when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was working there. The city
was going through a serious racial division. There seemed to
be a very deep unwillingness to deal with the experience of
African Americans within the broader community. Meeting Dr.
King and experiencing the movement that he was so centrally
involved in changed the lives of a lot of people in my
CD: By 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had moved from
talking more singularly about civil rights to more generally
talking about the social inequities in the United States. And
your legislative legacy at the SF Board of Supervisors seems
to address the social condition of folks who are usually left
HB: Being in Chicago, I got a very strong feeling for
how the neglect of urban realities can produce alienated and
broken families, unhealthy living conditions, and a sense of
hopelessness amongst millions of people. Dr. King addressed
those feelings. He told people who did not have a sense of
possibility in their lives that they could have a dream.
Skipping ahead, Harvey Milk made a similar call to lesbians
and gay men. And in both cases there was an understanding that
the struggle of one group of people for dignity can’t be
separated from the general need for society to deal
responsibly with human problems.
CD: You had these formative experiences in Chicago and
then in San Francisco, characterized by Dr. King in the 60’s
and then by Harvey Milk in the 70’s. Then you were catapulted
to such a prominent role in San Francisco local politics.
HB: I never had any desire to be a politician. When
Harvey’s death led to my becoming a supervisor, I felt some
discomfort in that role.
CD: As another person who has spent some time both at
the Board of Supervisors and teaching at the New College of
California, I know that it can be a serious change of pace.
What has the transition been like for you?
HB: Well, it’s not that different for me, Chris,
because in my supervisor’s life I tended to spend time with
community activists and New College is an activist place. I do
wear a coat and tie a lot more now than I like to. I’m not a
coat and tie kind of guy.
CD: You look good though.
HB: All my life I have disliked superficial
relationships. As a young gay boy, I learned to deal with
people on different levels. So I love being a teacher. In
teaching the relationships reach to people’s values, goals,
and strategies for coping with life. In politics, quite often,
relationships are more about certain rituals that politicians
play. So that’s the big difference to me — the quality of
relationships. Now I’ve been lucky in my political life to be
surrounded by people who are issue-driven and with whom I have
some wonderful relationships. But I will miss the chance to
spend three or four hours with a student discussing ideas.
That’s something that will be one of the great experiences of
my life no matter what happens to me politically.
CD: You do lose the opportunity to spend lots of quality
time with individuals. But one of the things that I’ve found
that may translate a little bit from the university to the
position of Supervisor or State Legislator is the ability to
use your elected office to teach or educate…
HB: Absolutely. Jake McGoldrick, who like me is an ESL
teacher, once told me that he sees his position on the Board
of Supervisors as a teaching gig. I teach history. And when
you are dealing with issues of government, there is often a
lack of understanding of the history behind the issues — of
the reasons why communities have taken the stances that we
have. About why we need affirmative action, why we need
comparable worth — because of histories ignored by people who
are not part of those groups. Yes, I look forward to going to
Sacramento to try to teach a history-oriented way of making
policy that understands why things are the way the are and
what must be done to make them better.
A particular history that I got very involved in was the
HIV epidemic. As the only openly gay elected official around
at the time that it broke out, I obviously had some special
responsibilities there. I worked with the public health
delivery system, the medical community and with community
activists to create the San Francisco model of responding to
HIV. I’m very proud of that model and believe that there’s a
lot of wisdom in that history that can make the State’s system
of health care delivery more accountable to people who need
services and a little less accountable to the health
maintenance organizations and the insurance companies.
CD: San Francisco’s HIV/AIDS model is one of the
leading models in the nation…
HB: Well, it’s not perfect and hopefully it is getting
better. But it did prove that you can take the needs of the
community very seriously in your health planning and come out
with a better system than if you just left it up to the
politicians and the bureaucrats.
CD: In terms of being — what I call myself — a “little
San Francisco Supervisor,” you had major impact on the
HB: There were so many people involved. There were
doctors working seemingly around the clock. What happened in
those days was very special, and it has inspired people around
the world to adopt strategies that we used here in San
CD: The last six years of SF politics have been
dominated by Willie Brown’s administration. There has been a
response in recent years. Certainly Tom Ammiano’s write-in
campaign was historic — getting 25 percent of the vote without
even being on the ballot. Then the subsequent sweep of the
Board of Supervisors of neighborhood candidates over
candidates hand-picked by the mayor. How do you see Harry
Britt, who in some respects is the father of progressive
politics in San Francisco, fitting into this?
HB: The opportunity last year to create a progressive,
district-based Board of Supervisors really motivated me again
to get involved in political activity. People like Chris Daly,
Aaron Peskin, and Jake McGoldrick…
CD: Sophie Maxwell, Matt Gonzalez, Gerardo Sandoval…
HB: They came into City Hall and they brought with them
a different set of accountability. To me accountability is the
“A” word in politics. The difference between politicians is
not their issues; it’s to whom they are accountable. District
elections created the possibility that political leadership
will be accountable to the community. And that is happening in
San Francisco. So I see what I am doing as connected with that
surge of political energy that brought district elections and
the new board into being. We now have such a great possibility
CD: Lots of folks may not know how what goes on in
Sacramento affects their day-to-day lives. What is going to be
your role as a state assemblymember?
HB: The Assembly sets funding priorities for billions
of dollars that shape our schools, our health care delivery
system, and our transportation priorities. I have a lot of
history in all of those issues. I have to mention that being a
leader on this level brings with it a responsibility beyond
legislation. I am concerned about the quality of political
discourse and have not heard, whether it’s the energy crisis,
the crisis in the Middle East, the supply-side economics
that’s informing our current government, I have not heard the
debate framed in ways to make it possible for government to
address social problems. So one rule I hope to play in
Sacramento, along with others, is to reshape the debate, to
articulate the values of San Francisco which seem to be so
different from the values of the political culture in
Sacramento, to talk about homelessness and affordable housing
and medical marijuana, and single payer health care and all
the kinds of issues that, in San Francisco, are easy to talk
about but find so much resistance in Sacramento.
CD: And maybe that’s why I am a Harry Britt supporter.
Mark Leno, one of your main opponents, is a good guy who’s
done some good things. But Mark Leno is not going to
Sacramento to push the debate. He’ll go to Sacramento and cast
some votes. To me, that’s the difference I see between Harry
Britt, someone who will push the issues and speak out for San
Francisco values which are not shared across California, and
Mark Leno, who will go to Sacramento and “fit in.”
HB: When I teach politics at New College, I teach my
students that you want people in positions of power who are
not comfortable with the status quo, people who are there to
change the political culture rather than to adapt to it. I am
taking on issues that require organizing, require fighting,
require taking some unpopular stands. I think that’s needed
very badly in Sacramento right now.
CD: I forwarded you an article written by Maryland
Senator Paul Pinsky [“Life as a Progressive Legislator,” The
Nation (October 1, 2001)]. It talks about Progressive Maryland
and progressive organizing — that a progressive legislator has
trouble in this political climate implementing our agenda:
universal health coverage, quality education for all kids, a
housing agenda, a civil right/social equity agenda.
HB: Yes, I distributed it shamelessly. There are in
this state very strong organizations advocating for the reform
issues that I care about. They tell me that they feel
unconnected to the legislative process in Sacramento. I hope
that I can provide some leadership in making that connection
stronger, in expanding their base, and bringing other
legislators into that network. California is a big state, and
it is not easy to create a statewide network that can win in
Sacramento. But the foundations are there. There are already
people in the legislature who are supportive of that agenda.
There will be more after the election. And I think I will fit
very comfortably into a leadership role in helping people who
care about reform to win battles in Sacramento.
CD: When you get higher up the political ladder, the
less interaction you have with everyday folks out in the
neighborhoods. And it seems as if that’s when big-money
special interests come in and scoop up all of the elected
HB: I go to Sacramento every week, and it is a very
different political environment than in San Francisco.
Sacramento is controlled by special interest groups whose
offices ring the capitol building. To achieve policy changes
in that environment is very difficult. If it doesn’t come from
San Francisco, I don’t know where it is going to come from. So
the representative from this district needs to be someone
who’s willing to make some changes in the way issues are
defined in Sacramento. I always did that here on the board.
There are some extraordinary people in Sacramento who are
fighting for civil liberties, educational reform, and health
care. They need more of a voice in the legislature than they
would get from Mark Leno.
CD: Harry Britt, basically an assemblymember for the
HB: Well, it is easy to say that. What makes me feel
good is that I seem to have the support of people in San
Francisco who really believe that politics can be used to make
life better for people. The fact that Carole Migden and Tom
Ammiano have made my campaign a very high priority is
important to me, and so many others, the teachers and the
nurses, groups that have a social vision, have said to me that
they trust me. On a personal level that means a great deal,
and it is necessary to have that trust to achieve what we need
to achieve in Sacramento.