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The Kid’s Got Guts
Chris Smith | Photo: Matthew Scott | January 30, 2013
At just 24, Theo Ellington has already faced down Ed Lee—and made political insiders take notice.
It’s 7:30 a.m., and Theo Ellington is a little nervous. He’s onstage, facing a sleepy crowd in a University of San Francisco conference hall, about to introduce one of his idols: Van Jones, the civil rights activist and former Obama green-jobs czar. A hundred or so people, most of them African-American, have turned out for this fundraiser for Ellington’s fledgling political club, the Black Young Democrats of San Francisco.
Raising his voice, Ellington breaks out a staple from the Obama campaign canon: “Fired up!” he calls out, borrowing a bit of the president’s clipped delivery as well. Everyone knows the proper response: “Ready to go!”
By the third time through the refrain, the room is crackling with energy. The people here have been waiting for Van Jones, but in a sense, they have also been waiting for someone like Theo Ellington.
This 24-year-old community organizer from the Bayview has, in his brief career, held posts on various city commissions, worked for local political campaigns, and become a leader in the city’s shrinking African-American community. It wasn’t until last summer, however, that the city at large heard his name: That’s when he led the opposition to Mayor Ed Lee’s brief, doomed flirtation with “stop-and-frisk,” an ethically dubious policy that allows police to stop anyone whom they deem “suspicious-looking.”
Now, as Ellington joins the city commission that oversees billions in development projects, he is also emerging as one of the millennial generation’s most potent political voices—and, insiders say, a rising citywide leader. District 10 supervisor Malia Cohen, whose campaign Ellington volunteered for in 2010, says that Ellington’s appeal transcends his roots in the Bayview. “Until now, we’ve had the Amos Browns and the Rose Paks,” she says. “But Ellington is multilingual. He speaks for the entire city.”
Ellington considers it a minor miracle that he has made it this far. His father was out of the picture early, and his mother reared him and his brother in a house just off Third Street (he still lives there). His route to school was dotted with memorials to young people killed in the neighborhood—sad little shrines made from balloons and teddy bears. “There was no guarantee that said, ‘Theo, this won’t happen to you,’” he says.