Chinese Americans Emerge as a Political Power in S.F.
By Lee Romney
Times Staff Writer
SAN FRANCISCO — The day after Gavin Newsom squeaked to victory in a
runoff election here, the mayor-elect scheduled only one stop: the narrow
Shortly before his swearing in last month, Newsom went to thank the community that had helped hoist him into the city's power seat.
"There is one reason I won a very close election," Newsom told 600 supporters
in one of Chinatown's oldest banquet halls, after lion dancers and cymbals
him. "And that is the support of the Asian community, and the Chinese community in particular. I could not have done it without you."
Then Newsom was off, running to yet another celebration five blocks
away with another lion dance and 500 other supporters allied with a more
nascent crop of Chinese
San Francisco's Chinese population has long been large in number. But now, as voter participation increases, it is also gaining political clout.
Long labeled a sleeping giant, the country's oldest Chinese enclave is stirring, and there isn't a politician in town who can afford to ignore it.
"It's not only awake," said San Francisco State political science professor
Richard DeLeon. "It's out of bed and standing up. Politicians are paying
attention because they
want to and because they have to."
Newsom's campaign concedes that he probably lost the white vote — which
tends to be liberal here — to Board of Supervisors President and Green
Matt Gonzalez and says he prevailed largely because of support from Asian and African Americans. He also lost to Gonzalez among voters who went to the polls Dec.
9, pulling off his narrow victory with a solid lead from early absentee voters.
About 22% of those who voted by mail were Chinese American, according
to an analysis of surnames by the nonprofit Chinese American Voters Education
That is striking, considering that only 18% of the city's registered voters are Asian American — up from 13% a decade ago, said David Lee, the group's executive
director. Overall, Newsom carried precincts with large Chinese American populations with a consistently higher margin of victory than in the city as a whole.
"It can't be understated," Newsom said of the community's importance. "I think what we're seeing is the future of San Francisco."
The first political candidate to pay attention to San Francisco's Chinese
community was the late Phillip Burton, in 1956. Although their voting numbers
Burton — brother of state Sen. President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) — needed them to beat Republican Assemblyman Tom Maloney, said Lee, who
recently completed a master's thesis on the Chinese American electorate.
Burton spoke out against mass subpoenas that had been served on the
city's Chinese family associations in a heavy-handed crackdown on immigration
fraud, and he
earned the community's backing. But by the 1960s, a new movement was afoot as younger Chinese American liberals, empowered by the civil rights movement and
financed by government grant money, formed nonprofits.
Finding a Voice
The birth of the advocacy movement in Chinatown gave voice to poor tenants
and the elderly who lacked decent housing, and they allied closely with
leaders affiliated with the Burtons.
At the helm was Rose Pak, who has worked tirelessly from the offices
of Chinatown organizations for 35 years, securing a master plan for the
working to preserve low-income housing. Pak had the ear of many politicians, including Willie Brown. When he swept into office eight years ago, she was at his side.
Brown appointed more Chinese Americans to commissions and city staff
positions than any other mayor, bringing them ahead of parity with their
population for the first
time in city history.
Brown also campaigned heavily in Chinatown and visited often for events
and ribbon-cuttings. Newsom's election, however, saw a larger percentage
American voters turn out. Further, his narrow margin of victory gives his Chinese American supporters even greater significance.
As with many minority groups flexing new political muscle, San Francisco's
Chinese are emerging not as one community, but many — rife with infighting
political agendas. Still, even archenemies here agree that the surge in voter participation can only be healthy for a community relegated to the political sidelines for
The implications are striking. In a city where Asians comprise 32% of
the population — most of them Chinese — a surge in participation could
tilt the political scales
away from San Francisco's notorious liberalism.
A younger generation of Chinese Americans is eager to promote a progressive
agenda, but, overall, a more moderate ethos prevails. Chinese here are
more likely to
own homes and small businesses and have children in city schools than residents as a whole.
While 60% of San Franciscans approved a November ballot initiative that
outlaws aggressive panhandling — and was decried by liberals as anti-poor
— fully 72% of
Chinese Americans supported it, according to exit polls conducted for the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.
"Who's having more kids? Asians," Lee said. "Who's got kids in public
schools? Asians. Who owns their own homes? Asians. These are the things
that define middle
class and they make for more moderate voters."
Newsom's moderate politics aligned well with the values of many of San
Francisco's Chinese Americans. But in a first for this city, even Newsom's
opponent catered to the Chinese American vote in the December election, opening a Chinatown office, campaigning aggressively with literature in Mandarin and
Between 1970 and 2000, San Francisco's Chinese population more than
doubled from 8% to nearly 20%, U.S. census figures show. Many of those
arrivals settled in a
relatively conservative geographical area that curls around the city's more liberal core of the Mission, Tenderloin, Haight and Noe Valley neighborhoods. Chinese
students now account for 31% of the San Francisco Unified School District's enrollment.
A demographic shift in the community opened the door to new participation,
forcing Pak to share the stage with Julie Lee. She arrived from Hong Kong
35 years ago
with her husband, raised four children and established a Sunset District real estate business before co-founding the San Francisco Neighbors Assn. In the late 1980s, she
recalled, her group rallied 3,000 mostly Chinese homeowners to a Planning Commission hearing to fight zoning restrictions. But politicians didn't listen.
A friend bluntly explained why: "Because you don't vote."
The breakthrough came in 1997, when Julie Lee's group fought for reconstruction
of a freeway destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. City leaders
rebuilding. To their surprise, the Neighbors' Assn. gathered 30,000 signatures within three weeks to place the issue on the ballot. Then they mobilized the votes and won.
That startling victory was later overturned by a different ballot initiative, but the Chinese community had been seen and heard.
Lee said her group turned dry-cleaning proprietors across the city into
block captains who gathered signatures from a stream of customers. And
Lee took to the
airwaves on her Cantonese-language radio program to urge participation.
"Every night I start the show by telling people, 'If you don't come out to vote, the politicians are not going to care about your community,' " Lee said.
Lee had lashed out at Brown for years, offended in part by his close
relationship with Pak. (Lee called Pak "evil," while Pak dismissed Lee
and her allies as "morons.")
But Lee supported Brown in 1999. In exchange, Brown appointed her to the city's Housing Authority Commission, where she is now president.
Lee's affiliation with Brown caused her own group to fracture, but the
organization remains important. Today, it claims 4,000 members, mostly
Chinese homeowners on
the city's wealthier Westside.
As San Francisco's Chinese population has blossomed, so has parent activism:
Last fall, a group of Westside parents kept their children out of school
for six weeks to
protest a school district integration policy that compels many Chinese children near high-performing schools to travel great distances by public bus to inferior schools
with fewer Asians. The protest ended when the superintendent offered charter school slots to the kids.
Meanwhile, the city's three Chinese language newspapers have boosted
their coverage of local politics. And in recent years the city's big businesses,
eager for a
moderate swing vote, began financing voter registration efforts, said David Lee, whose organization has benefited from the investment.
His group registered 10,000 new Asian absentee voters last fall, he
said, and it paid off: December voter participation in predominantly Chinese
precincts was about
double that of the 1999 runoff, he said.
When Newsom entered the mayor's race, Julie Lee was quick to back him,
organizing phone banks and precinct walks and advocating for him nightly
on her radio show.
She hosted the second of the dual Chinatown celebrations Newsom attended shortly before his inauguration.
On a recent morning, her cellphone rang in her Sunset District office
— the sixth call she had received from a Chinese American interested in
running for election to the
Board of Supervisors this November. The candidates were seeking her organization's backing, she said.
Whether she can deliver votes remains to be seen. She was unable to
do so for her son, who lost a 2002 bid for a seat on the Board of Supervisors.
But in four of the
seven districts where seats on the 11-member board are up for grabs in November, Asians make up more than 45% of the population.
With strong voter turnout, political analysts say, Chinese candidates stand a good chance in those districts, as will any candidate who shares Newsom's centrist views.
Rose Pak, meanwhile, opted not to endorse anyone in the recent election.
She scoffs at the notion that the Chinese community should somehow unite
as one. "We have
redneck Republicans just like the community at large," she said, "We have very liberal people. We have pro-business and anti-business. I look at it as a very healthy
But regardless of ideology, most observers agree that a new chapter of Chinese political history is unfolding in the city.
"Here you have a new mayor who's 36 years old. You look at his constituency and the Chinese are front and center as a key part of his partnership," said David Lee.
"The Chinese basically built this city. All the sewer tunnels were dug
by the Chinese. Now you're seeing a new political house being built, and
the Chinese are at the
ground floor. The question now is whether they get to live in the house. But they're in the door."