The Identity Card

Voting by race has made the city's political representation more Asian. It could be what puts 33-year-old Jane Kim on the board of supervisors.

Jane Kim is nervous. The 33-year-old president of the San Francisco Board of Education has just dragged herself into a function room, where she and the other dozen-odd candidates vying to succeed Chris Daly as District 6 supervisor will engage in yet another forum. After this, she will rush away to another event or three, then endure 40 more days of contentious campaigning before Election Day on Nov. 2.

At these question-and-answer sessions, the whip-smart, Stanford- and UC Berkeley Law–educated Kim thrives. She could nail the salient points while juggling and balancing on a unicycle: I was a community organizer. I'm now an attorney and president of the school board. I'm all about job creation, families and schools, and safe streets. But tonight is different. While others speak, Kim's head is down, focused on the notes she's scribbling. When it's her turn, she stands stiffly, and her words pour out in an overeager rush.

Clutching the microphone tightly, she tells the crowd of 75 what she has done for the city's Asians. She ran for school board because it needed representation that reflected the 50 percent Asian student population. She cofounded a nonprofit performance space to feature Asian-American talent. She worked on voting rights litigation for Filipinos. These are facts Kim didn't share with South Beach condo owners at a forum the previous evening.

Jane Kim is painting the town red.
Joseph Schell
Jane Kim is painting the town red.
Board president David Chiu made sure to tell Cantonese-language reporters, “All the Asian leaders who support me are supporting Jane.”
Joseph Schell
Board president David Chiu made sure to tell Cantonese-language reporters, “All the Asian leaders who support me are supporting Jane.”

Kim has good reason to be tense: The decidedly Asian-heavy crowd attending the forum put on by AsianWeek is her base.

There's plenty to like about Jane Kim, a shopping list of positives to which her supporters and detractors both readily admit. She is young, smart, attractive, and well-spoken. She is a natural on the campaign trail, able to connect with high school dropouts, Tenderloin SRO dwellers, and million-dollar-condo owners. She's a formidable fundraiser. She has earned her political stripes, rebounding from a defeat in the 2004 race for the board of education to be the top vote-getter in the 2006 contest. During her term, she sided with progressive allies in a failed bid to disband JROTC, but she has also proved pragmatic, voting to reform the district's byzantine student assignment system.

And Kim has a not-so-secret weapon that could propel her past better-established competitors, the same factor that could decide next year's mayoral election: She is Asian.

All of the frontrunners in this district election possess distinct advantages. Debra Walker has much of organized labor on her side, as well as the endorsements of the local Democratic Party and the city's progressives; Theresa Sparks has real estate agents and developers, the police and fire unions, and endorsements from Mayor Gavin Newsom's moderate establishment. But neither has an edge in this room tonight, where being white and LGBT puts Sparks and Walker in a distinct minority.

Nov. 2's results will tell the story, but Kim's ethnic appeal could neutralize the institutional edges held by Walker and Sparks. "It's a benefit for her — it's a plus," says David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee and a political science instructor at SF State. "Just like being a woman is a plus with women voters."

It makes sense that Asians should fare well in San Francisco politics. After all, 34 percent of city residents are Asian, according to the 2000 Census, and nearly any demographer will tell you that figure will increase once the 2010 tally is finalized. San Francisco, they say, is on its way to becoming the only major U.S. city with an Asian ethnic majority.

In America, one-third is all you need to start a revolution, and historical voting data and anecdotal stories from politicians, consultants, and activists tell the same story: If an Asian candidate is running against a non-Asian field, Asian voters are likely to support the Asian candidate, even if there's significant political disagreement between voter and candidate.

Research conducted by Lee and other political scientists such as SF State's Richard DeLeon and consultants-analysts like David Binder Research supports the notion of "bullet voting," as politicos call it, or "identity politics," as it's known to academics.

American voters have engaged in identity politics since the founding of the Republic. But San Francisco in 2010 is in a unique position: The steady influx of new arrivals from Asia, mostly mainland China, is making the city more Asian, and these new arrivals are voting. In recent elections these are the voters most likely to bullet-vote for a candidate based on ethnicity, and they have at times been mobilized as a bloc to provide a decisive swing vote — such as for Gavin Newsom in his 2003 mayoral race.

Kim is aware of all this. "I think my race is an asset," she told a reporter on a recent Friday. Nor is her campaign staff afraid to admit the obvious. "Anytime you have a recognizable base for a candidate, you have a definite advantage," campaign strategist Enrique Pearce says.

Pearce can do simple math: Whoever wants to succeed Chris Daly — and therefore likely help to determine the ideological makeup of the Board of Supervisors for the next four years — needs roughly 8,500 votes. In District 6 — the city's most diverse — there are 8,500 voters who have checked "Asian-Pacific Islander" as their ethnicity. "That's a pretty good base to start from," Pearce says.

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