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A Republican by Any Other Name 

GOP candidate sniffs out chances in district elections

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
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n a muggy Saturday afternoon in February, Rose Chung kicked off her candidacy for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In November's general election, the 41-year-old former beauty queen will be running from District 3, an electoral melting pot that includes Chinatown, North Beach, Russian Hill, Nob Hill, Polk Gulch, and the Financial District. The candidate drew several hundred people to the Four Seasons restaurant in Chinatown for her campaign launch, which was replete with dim sum, dancing lions, and fund-raising envelopes.

Onstage at the festivities, Supervisor Leland Yee -- a Democrat -- extolled Chung's qualities. Chung has hired Douglas Comstock -- another Democrat -- as her campaign manager. But while she appears to be pushing the right party buttons, Chung herself is a Republican of long standing. She has held a seat on the city's Republican Central Committee for a decade, and is backing Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the presidential race.

Until this year, it would have been unthinkable for a GOP stalwart to mount a credible campaign for local office. There hasn't been a Republican supervisor in 20 years, and Mayor Willie L. Brown's re-election last year left the city firmly under the thumb of his Democratic machine.

But with the dawn of district elections, Chung is only one of two Republicans launching bids in District 3. As yet, no other Republicans have announced as candidates in any of the other 10 district races.

In a city with a heavy majority of registered Democrats, it still behooves Republicans like Chung to act like Democrats if they want to be included in the power structure. This survival tactic is more than simple opportunism; it reveals a fundamental lack of strategic differences between the parties locally.

And Chung has two hurdles she must clear in her bid for office: Not only must she convince Democrats that she is fit to govern San Francisco, she also has to convince voters that she actually lives here.

Chung and her husband, retired businessman Edwin C. Hom, have lived in San Jose since 1994, and Chung takes her homeowner tax exemption on the San Jose residence that she owns. She also runs a part-time beauty pageant business from the San Jose house.

But Chung says she has been employed by the city of San Francisco as an X-ray technologist at San Francisco General Hospital for 20 years, and stays at her mother's North Beach home during the work week, thereby making her a resident of the city. It will apparently be up to voters to decide whether Chung's reasoning is valid. Deputy City Attorney Marc Slavin says that, while the law requires that a person "reside" in San Francisco in order to vote or run for city office, the city charter does not say exactly what "reside" means.

Chung's murky living arrangements and GOP affiliation are symptomatic of the curious races shaping up as San Francisco holds its first district elections for supervisor in two decades.

The theory behind reinstituting district elections goes that electing 11 supervisors from neighborhoods instead of citywide will weaken the hold of political machines, and offer less-well-connected candidates a chance at winning public office.

Republicans are coveting their first real chance of winning a board seat since Lee Dolson was elected in 1980, because in district races with multiple candidates, it's difficult for anyone to put together the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win in the first round. Republicans hope that Democratic incumbents can be tied down and defeated -- Gulliver-style -- by hosts of lesser-known candidates who fracture the vote, bump out the incumbent, and propel a Republican to a runoff victory.

But how much difference it makes if a Republican wins a district seat may be largely symbolic. In San Francisco, Republican and Democratic party leaders are so tweedledum and tweedledee that local Republicans were actually censured by their state party for backing Brown in the last mayoral election.

And despite her years of loyalty, even Chung may not be able to count on the support of her party. Donald Casper, chair of the Republican Central Committee, says the committee might endorse a Democrat for supervisor in Chung's district, if no "qualified" Republican makes the runoff in the field of a half-dozen candidates. He says that Chung is qualified. But she may not make a runoff, especially since there is another Republican Central Committee member seeking the same seat.

Michael Denunzio, vice chair of finance for the GOP Central Committee, which oversaw the donation of $110,000 of soft money to Brown's runoff campaign, announced his District 3 supervisorial candidacy a year ago. Denunzio, a professional fund-raiser for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, has amassed $20,000 for his own campaign to date. Several leading members of the Republican Central Committee expressed their preference for Denunzio over Chung. Chung cheerfully states that she and Denunzio agree on most issues.

So are Denunzio and Chung playing tag-team politics, or does the sometime city resident truly hope to win the race herself?

According to political consultant Robert Barnes, of Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners, the Chinese vote in District 3 is about 20 percent of the total. Barnes opines that Chung could be a spoiler, taking Chinese votes away from incumbent Alicia Becerill, who was appointed to the Board of Supervisors by Mayor Brown last year, and community college board member Lawrence Wong, a gay Chinese-American. According to Barnes, splitting the Chinese vote could help Meagan Levitan, wife of Dale Carlson, head of the Pacific Stock Exchange, or possibly North Beach activist Aaron Peskin, should either enter the race. It could also help Denunzio.

Chung insists, though, that she is running independently of Denunzio. She plans to spend up to the $75,000 limit allowed for the general election, plus soft money if needed. She might even quit her day job if elected supervisor. In fact, she hopes one day to represent San Francisco in the California state Assembly.

In order to win, Chung must appeal to an electorate that is majority liberal Democrat. Chung's campaign literature is blandly noncontroversial and nonpartisan. Her core political views -- which are not reflected in her campaign literature -- echo a Reagan-era conservatism that normally would not fly in San Francisco. But she is blending in a dose of San Francisco liberalism to make herself more palatable.

Chung supports Bush; says she is pro-choice regarding the right to abortion; and says she opposed the statewide Knight Initiative's gender restriction on marriage as divisive. In the last mayoral election she volunteered for Clint Reilly's campaign, and then voted for Brown in the runoff election. She does not like liberals, and Chung has heard, she says, that Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano and District Attorney Terence Hallinan are Marxists. But being a communist does not disqualify someone from holding public office in America, Chung is quick to add.

Whether or not her primary place of residence is San Francisco, Chung did grow up in the city. She is the youngest of five sisters. Her father died when she was a child. Her mother supported the close-knit family as a seamstress; and all the girls helped out with household chores and the sewing. "We were child laborers," says Chung. "When I was about 20," she continues, "I had a natural urge to break out of the household. I plunged into beauty pageantry; and when I was 22, I won the national crown for Miss Chinatown USA."

Chung graduated from San Francisco State University. But it is beauty pageantry that has inspired Chung's life, she says. For 15 years she has produced a prominent pageant called Miss Asian America. Chung says that "competing in beauty contests and running for political office require similar speaking skills, thinking about current issues, thinking about image, spin, and public relations." She remarks that candidates, like beauty queens, must "project an image of trust and sincerity." For instance, she says, "We know we can't trust him, but Mayor Brown is an expert on spin and deal-making and, so, for the people he works with he is trustworthy."

Despite having voted for Brown, Chung is not completely happy with his administration. She claims that Brown rules the city by appointing people who are not independent of him to powerful positions. In a new twist to an old problem, Chung promises to "fix Muni by making sure that the newly appointed transit agency is not a rubber stamp for Willie Brown." In her campaign literature, she promises to fight cuts in the public health system, particularly at General Hospital. She will protect the tourist industry by creating more parking in Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf.

Some of her unpublished positions, however, are less likely to appeal to mainstream San Francisco voters. In a recent interview, Chung said over and over that she is "tough on crime." Chung firmly supports the death penalty and the Three Strikes law. She believes youths should be tried as adults because "they are more criminally sophisticated than they used to be, like the hackers." She insists, "If we are tough, people will pull themselves up by their bootstraps."

Chung supported Proposition E, the recently defeated local ballot initiative to replace General Assistance cash payments with housing vouchers. Chung asserts that 70 percent of San Francisco's homeless people are drug abusers. Chung says that she herself has never used drugs, except one: alcohol.

Chung considers herself to be a "fiscal conservative." She repeatedly stresses that "government should not subsidize poor people who need a hand up, not a handout."

Despite her avowed fiscal conservatism, however, Chung could not say if the budget of the City and County of San Francisco is measured in millions or billions of dollars. Nor did she know the approximate size of the city's debt. Chung had no concrete suggestions as to how to make City Hall more fiscally conservative; but she did say that "the budget should not be cut because San Francisco might need the money in an economic downturn." She also promised to do some "homework" on the budget.

Chung, who pays her property taxes in San Jose, does not fit the conventional mold from which San Francisco's supervisors are normally pressed. She says she is a Christian. She does not read the Bible, but she does study Norman Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking for spiritual guidance. And she is certainly not a feminist, she says, because "feminism carries a connotation of being anti-man." She opines that being a housewife in today's world is both a luxury and a privilege.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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