Chinese Americans Emerge as a Political Power in S.F.

Times Staff Writer

The day after Gavin Newsom squeaked to victory in a runoff election here, the mayor-elect scheduled only one stop: the narrow streets of Chinatown.

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 welcomed 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 community leaders.

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 Party member 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 Committee. 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 were small, 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 Democratic Party 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 neighborhood and 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 of Chinese 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 and varied 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 decades.

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.

Progressive Generation

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 more progressive opponent catered to the Chinese American vote in the December election, opening a Chinatown office, campaigning aggressively with literature in Mandarin and Cantonese.

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 opposed the 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 sign.”

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.”