Block Party

Rose Tsai, Julie Lee, and the Neighbors' Association are set to tuck into a heaping helping of Willie Brown's majority

The committee's financial disclosures also list several large contributors whose common bond seems to be a discontentment with the traditional power structure in San Francisco. Supervisor Leland Yee, who is known to have mayoral aspirations, loaned the campaign $7,500. San Francisco Honda, which is owned by former San Francisco Supervisor and City Administrator Roger Boas, gave the campaign nearly $7,000.

Chinatown merchant May Louie, who owns the Canton Bazaar and several other shops in Chinatown, gave the Campaign on H a total of $6,500 in donations and loans the day before last November's election. (Louie would quite naturally support a group that opposes Rose Pak, because she has never forgiven Pak for dropping her opposition to the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway.)

And after the victory on H -- and just weeks before announcing he would run for mayor -- political consultant Clint Reilly gave the group $2,500.

Even players inside the establishment are starting to pay attention to the SFNA. Last fall, Rep. Kevin Shelley gave the group $3,500. The former San Francisco supervisor is closely connected to the Democratic Party and to Mayor Brown. But his state Assembly district lies squarely within SFNA territory.

Supervisor Yee has high hopes for the organization. Over the past year, he's become one of the SFNA's strongest supporters, and the group has returned the favor. The SFNA held a fund-raiser for Yee last summer, and Julie Lee has said on numerous occasions that the SFNA will support Yee if he chooses to run for mayor. Yee took a leading role in the group's Central Freeway campaign and, most recently, joined its drive for signatures to put the sewage and water rate measure on the June ballot.

Yee clearly believes the association has staying power.
"They're an organized group for neighborhoods. They represent empowering neighborhoods and communities, helping with the self-sufficiency of individuals," he says. "They're winners."

Bolstered by endorsements like Yee's, Rose Tsai is running for the San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee, and is considering a bid for supervisor.

The Neighbors' Association's style of political organizing has also earned the group many enemies.

Of course, on the positive side, the group has filled a void in the Chinese-American community in San Francisco. New immigrants have traditionally not participated in politics in this city -- largely because they don't speak English, and also because many traditional Chinese people do not care to air their grievances publicly. Protests and demonstrations are considered shameful.

History taught many Chinese-Americans that politics were for white people. For decades, discriminatory laws barred Asians from becoming citizens and from voting. Even after the laws changed, many Chinese-Americans still felt powerless.

The Neighbors' Association has amplified efforts to involve immigrants in the political process. Last fall the group registered 500 voters. But beyond registration, the SFNA believes informing voters about specific issues is even more important. Through its radio show, the group has provided extensive commentary on and discussion of political issues in Cantonese.

"We try to educate people from lower levels," says Julie Lee. "We try to tell people, 'If you don't work on this issue, you're going to pay more on your water bill and property taxes and this is your chance to speak up.' To get people to speak up and get people to come out emotionally, you have to have some good issues."

But the Neighbors' Association's message often relies on selective information.

And whether the issue is live animal sales, the Central Freeway, or sewage rates, the SFNA operates the same way. For instance, the Neighbors' Association was irate over Supervisor Mabel Teng's Owner Move-In (OMI) legislation, which passed last December. The law set an 18-month freeze on OMI evictions for longtime tenants who are disabled or elderly in an effort to slow the city's rapidly rising rate of tenant evictions.

The Neighbors' Association saw things differently. A lot differently. According to the group, the law was an attack on homeowners, namely Chinese-American homeowners. In the Chinese-American press and on Voice of the Neighborhood, the SFNA screamed that Chinese-Americans would be hardest hit by the OMI law, since -- they claimed -- Chinese-Americans own 50 percent of all homes in San Francisco.

Night after night on their radio show, Tsai, Lee, and co-host Ed Liu incited program listeners by telling them that the law meant that homeowners would never be able to evict tenants who were disabled because of alcohol or drug addictions. They labeled Teng a communist, a race traitor, and a "running dog."

On a program that aired early in December, Liu told his Cantonese-speaking audience, "In this bill, alcoholic, mentally disturbed, drug abusers are considered disabled too. Because taking drugs can be interpreted as having mental problems, drug abusers can be classified as disabled. If you buy a house and you want to move in, but if the tenant says that he is an alcoholic, a drug abuser, or he has a mental problem -- all these mental disorders, for example, he would say, 'I like to start a fire' -- he can use this as an excuse and stays permanently in the house."

The facts of the matter are rather different from the SFNA's interpretation. A study by the Chinese American Voter Education Committee that took information from the city Assessor's rolls and census data revealed that Chinese-Americans own roughly one-fifth of all homes in San Francisco -- not one-half. Chinese-American renters also greatly outnumber Chinese-American homeowners -- another fact that the Neighbors' Association neglected to mention.

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