Does it really matter if San Francisco gets its first elected Asian American mayor?


If you are one of the 17.3 million Asian Americans living in the U.S. with even a slight interest in any kind of politics, besides the Herman Cain sexual harassment allegations, it’s hard to imagine you don’t have at least one eye on the San Francisco Mayoral election this week.

The Tuesday vote features five qualified Asian American candidates who could make history. San Francisco, with one of the oldest Asian communities in America dating back to the mid-19th century, has never elected an Asian American as mayor.

If it does so this week, it would be in spite of a campaign season that’s turned into a negative mud bath all targeting mostly the front runner, interim Mayor Ed Lee.

I made a big deal when Ed Lee was placed on top of Gold Mountain as the interim guy last year. It was like a form of affirmative action everyone can love. Lee’s a likeable guy, a former community lawyer turned competent city technocrat (Think Dukakis sans army tank and with a mustache).

But really, how does he survive at least four open investigations connected with his campaign activities? None go directly after Lee personally, but are connected to Lee enough to cause some voter concern. The latest are charges that he’s reimbursing donors on the spot, a kind of money laundering and a violation of state law. And then there are allegations of voter fraud about non-profit supporters filling out and taking ballots from voters. Another investigation involves campaign support from an airport shuttle service that got preferential treatment from the city. Yet another candidate (Public Defender Jeff Adachi) has lodged police brutality charges on behalf of an Asian merchant against the police and the city.

Lee calls them all “desperate” attempts by the also-rans, notably Adachi, State Senator Leland Yee, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

Frankly, if Lee triumphs in the face of all the investigations, he deserves a new moniker: Teflon Ed.

Last minute polls do suggest a tightening in the race, with Lee falling significantly, and a surge by candidate and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu.

In a mud fight, sometimes you can tell the truly feared candidate if you can tell the mudslingers from the mud targets. In that case, Chiu’s surge is being taken seriously by his fellow candidates. Since last Friday, Chiu’s been the target of negative remarks by the Lee campaign and by a mailed hit-piece paid for by the Yee and Herrera campaigns.

Chiu, who has run a positive campaign throughout, is staying positive and won’t comment.

His style does seem to be picking up support from people like Ling Chi-Wang, the former chair of UC Berkeley’s ethnic studies department and a San Francisco resident, who sees Chiu as a “new generation” of leadership, independent of the traditional city power brokers.

Besides the mud, Ranked-Choice Voting could be the other big factor in this race. Voters pick their top 3 choices. And then come the tallies. After each tally, if no one gets a majority, the last place candidate is eliminated and the voter’s No.2 choices are distributed accordingly. It keeps going like that until someone gets a majority, or all ballot votes are exhausted.

In other words, we won’t know until maybe Friday this week for sure.

(Check out San Francisco’s explanation of ranked choice voting in this short video.)

That actually could help Lee, who may fall as a number one choice because of the investigations, but may earn people’s No. 2 or No. 3 vote.

But if people leave Lee off all three ballot spots, he’s a likely loser.

It may also imperil the history-making proposition of seeing “first elected.”

The only real way to assure an elected Asian American mayor is if voters put an Asian American candidate in all three spots.

If not, then Supervisor John Avalos, a progressive who has the support of the San Francisco Democratic party and the home district vote of the large Filipino American population here, could eke out a majority. Same with popular City Attorney Dennis Herrera. San Francisco is just 1/3 Asian American. Herrera was out front for same-sex marriage and has strong LGBT support.

If that happens, we’ll have the nightmare scenario the five qualified Asian American candidates should have thought about beforehand: a self-cancelling vote.

Someone had to figure that was a possibility.

On Election Week, I hope we don’t have in San Francisco what we’ve always had: a divided group of Asian Americans lacking a sense of political unity. As it stands, the ethnic Chinese, one quarter of the City, seem divided generationally. And the City’s No. 2 Asian American group, the Filipinos, are mostly backers of Avalos, the Latino progressive.

Given the lack of a definitive community leader to emerge, there’s a great chance we’ll see the same old story–someone else in power.

To get at history, we’ll need a candidate whose appeal goes beyond Asian Americans and who has reached out successfully to everyone in the City. That’s the real test in Tuesday’s vote.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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