San Francisco Mayor Promotes Women to Lead Both the Fire, Police Departments

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- As San Francisco's youngest mayor in over a century, Gavin Newsom is doing more than making good on a pledge to usher in a new generation of leadership. He is also single-handedly raising the X-chromosome count in the city's power circles.

The 36-year-old Democrat has promoted women to lead both the police and fire departments, a national first for a city anywhere near San Francisco's size. He also chose a woman to replace him on the city's Board of Supervisors.

Aside from the mayor, the sheriff and the male-dominated Board of Supervisors, women now occupy most of the leadership positions in San Francisco, which is also the home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Barbara Boxer lives nearby.

``If someone thinks, `Well, why not so-and-so?' San Francisco has a way of saying, `OK, yeah, why not? Let's do it,''' observed Susan Leal, a Hispanic lesbian who serves as the city's elected treasurer. ``We are a little bit more pioneer.''

Even those who criticized Newsom during his mayoral campaign, such as the National Organization for Women chapter, have been pleased by his appointments.

And in conversations among rank-and-file police officers and firefighters, the fact that both new chiefs are experienced, well-liked insiders seems to outweigh their gender.

``Some of those with the most seniority may be like, `A woman is running the department? What has firefighting come to?' But the crews on now are like, `Let's see what she can do.' That's what it boils down to,'' said Dwayne Newton, a firefighter in the city's Haight-Ashbury district.

Both San Francisco natives, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, 39, and Police Chief Heather Fong, 47, will be working closely with newly elected District Attorney Kamala Harris, 39, and Newsom's newly appointed criminal justice director, Murlene Johnson Randle, 51.

Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who has a lesbian as his second-in-command, said that even in a liberal city like San Francisco, having women leading public safety departments is groundbreaking, and that they will face challenges from the rank-and-file.

At the same time, the appointments may help restore public confidence in the police and fire departments and the DA's office, all of which experienced strife under the previous officeholders, the sheriff said.

``Oftentimes, women managers are better than men managers. They just aren't always given the chance,'' Hennessey said. ``They bring a different, less macho perspective to management, and that's good.''

Fong, a 26-year department veteran, is the first Asian woman and only the eighth woman ever to take the helm of a big city police department, according to Penny Harrington, founder of the National Center for Women and Policing. The biracial Harris is California's first district attorney, male or female, of Indian or black descent.

Hayes-White, an Irish-American mother of three who become a firefighter 14 years ago, is one of 21 women nationwide heading up a professional fire department, according to the organization Women in the Fire Service. Only one other woman, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, commands more uniformed firefighting personnel, the group said.

The one hitch is that Newsom has designated Fong as acting chief while the city conducts a nationwide search for a permanent leader, which Newsom considers necessary, given last year's scandal involving alleged cover-ups of officer misconduct, and the department's relatively low crime-solving rate.

But Newsom said that he also expects Fong to be a top contender for the job and that she is fully empowered to make reforms in the meantime.

People close to Newsom say women have always played a strong role in his professional and personal life.

A wealthy businessman and son of a politically connected former judge, Newsom tried to counter his image as a privileged white man by stressing during his campaign that he was raised by a mother who worked three jobs after his parents divorced.

His mentors include Feinstein and Pelosi. Newsom's wife, TV legal commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, is one of his most trusted advisers.

Newsom said he places a high value on the ``skill sets'' he associates with his mother, who died last year. Her ability to juggle multiple tasks left an indelible mark, he said.

``At the end of the day I was looking for the best, but part of what I mean by the best is extending the definition of what a chief of police and a fire chief should be,'' Newsom said. ``I'm not sure it's even kinder and softer, but a capacity to balance an extraordinary amount and at the same time recognize the importance of developing relationships.''

At a news conference with Fong, Harris said: ``Absolutely, there is significance in it, and the significance is showing we can change the perception of what or who can make a community feel safe.''

And then, San Francisco's top cop and prosecutor parted ways with a hug.