San Francisco’s mayoral election was supposed to be a showcase of Asian American
political empowerment never before seen in the continental U.S.
A bevy of Asian American politicians to choose from may be old hat in a place
like Honolulu, where the Asian Pacific Islander population is at more than 53
percent. But in San Francisco, where the API population is nearly 34 percent
(with Chinese and Filipinos leading the way), this upcoming election has some
real historical significance.
For the first time ever, the city could elect an Asian American from a roster
that includes the interim mayor, former city administrator and current
front-runner (Ed Lee), the president of the city and county Board of Supervisors
(David Chiu), the city’s Public Defender (Jeff Adachi), the city’s assessor
(Phil Ting), and a former supervisor and current state senator (Leland Yee).
Five of the top eight candidates vying for the city’s top job are Asian American
officials? In San Francisco, it was an embarrassment of riches.
Now it’s looking just like an embarrassment.
With less than two weeks until election day on Nov. 8, the race has suddenly
been marred by charges of voter fraud, with possible violations of the state
elections code, not to mention the federal Voting Rights Act.
Seems like Asian American politicians are quite possibly no less venal and
corrupt than any other type of politician.
And all of it casts a cloud on the candidacy of interim Mayor Lee.
This week. Lee spent most of his time denying he had anything to do with a
neighborhood community group’s zealous effort to help Cantonese-speaking voters
fill out and cast their ballots.
Mind you, helping bilingual voters is quite acceptable. It’s hard enough to vote
even when you know English. Add to that the complicated Ranked Choice Voting
system San Francisco is using, and there’s nothing wrong with a little voter
But marking an absentee ballot, or telling people for whom to vote by using a
plastic stencil that prevents voting for anyone but Lee, and then collecting
those ballots in a plastic bag for later delivery to City Hall–that crosses the
line and is outright illegal.
That’s what witnesses are alleging members of the San Francisco Neighbors
Alliance for Ed Lee for Mayor 2011–self-identified as “Ed Heads”–did the last
few weeks in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The lead complainant was State Senator Leland Yee, whose campaign staffer saw
the alleged improprieties. “This is an orchestrated, coordinated effort to
basically steal an election,” said Yee at a news conference. “I am perturbed,
disturbed and outraged by that.”
He’s taking it personally–like an Asian on Asian crime. It may even be a bit
more satisfying after some Lee supporters, notably Chinatown activist Rose Pak,
tried to interest the media on vicious rumors about Yee earlier in the campaign.
Now Yee and six other candidates (including Adachi and Chiu) have for called for
the state and federal governments to monitor the election, as well as hold
individual investigations. The candidates sent a letter to the Department of
Justice on Sunday, and reportedly the DOJ has agreed to review the matter.
Public Defender Adachi gave me a copy of letter and said the possible violations
of the Voting Rights Act were very serious. But that wasn’t all. “My concern is
that the people who are doing this are the same people who have multi-million
dollar contracts with the city and the same people who funded the ‘Run, Ed, Run’
campaign,” Adachi told me in an interview. “This activity has no place here.
It’s the kind of thing you hear of happening in a third world country and
shouldn’t be happening in San Francisco.”
This was just the latest in a string of questionable activity surrounding Lee,
according to Adachi. He cited an election biography of Lee distributed to San
Francisco households that’s also put out by the same neighborhood group involved
in the ballot scandal.
Lee has denied any connection to the project, Adachi said.
There’s also thousands of dollars in contributions to Lee from one airport
shuttle service that successfully won the administration’s support to limit
competition on its airport runs.
“The appearance of a conflict is enough,” said Adachi.
It should be. But in his public statements Lee maintains there’s been no
Still, as likeable as Lee has been in his career as a community advocate and
civil servant, in his latest incarnation as political appointee he’s developed a
In exchange for Board of Supervisors President Chiu’s support to be interim
mayor, Lee originally told Chiu he wouldn’t run in November. Chiu believed him
and helped to engineer the deal that placed Lee in the interim role.
Imagine the sense of betrayal when Chiu couldn’t get his payback of the interim
mayor’s endorsement—because Lee’s running himself!
Chiu has said Lee told him he couldn’t resist the urging of Chinatown activist
Rose Pak and former Mayor Willie Brown.
One wonders: What else can’t Lee resist?
The Brown connection is troublesome. As progressive and Democratic as San
Francisco can be, for years its ruling M.O. has been more like a Chicago-type of
Daley machine, West Coast style. Since 1997, the political godfather has been
Brown, whose reign has coincided with the city becoming more expensive and
corporate- friendly, and much less family-friendly.
Brown made San Francisco more a city of the one percent rather than the 99. His
administration’s hallmark was unabashed patronage to downtown business interests
and to an elite group that participate in the city’s hundreds of millions in
public contracts. It continued with Gavin Newsom, and now it seems he’s found
the perfect replacement in the soft-spoken, amenable, accidental interim mayor,
Perhaps Asian Americans should be flattered that after the glamorous Newsom (now
California’s Lieutenant Governor), it’s Lee who gets the nod to keep the city
establishment’s legacy of power alive.
It’s just that somehow, merely putting a yellow face on the old machine hardly
feels like power, let alone progress.
More: San Francisco TV news story on the voter fraud allegations.