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In Kim's case, not only is her base ready-made, but she has already served it on the board of education. While it's hard to see how the likes of Walker, Sparks, distant fourth-runner Jim Meko, or fringier candidates James Keys and Glendon "Anna Conda" Hyde would steal the Asian base from her, she is nonetheless loath to lose her support by turning in a poor performance in a candidates' forum.
And despite getting up to leave midway through — she's late for an event at AT&T Park — she seems to have done just fine. Before she can get to the door, an elderly Chinese man stops her. "This is for you," he says, slipping her a check for $100, made out to Jane Kim for Supervisor.
It's no secret that Asians play a critical role in San Francisco politics. Gavin Newsom knows. "There is one reason I won a very close election," the mayor-elect told a roomful of supporters packed into a Chinatown banquet hall in 2003, the day after Asian voters had turned out strongly for Newsom against his progressive opponent, Matt Gonzalez. "And that is the support of the Asian community, and the Chinese community in particular. ... I could not have done it without you."
This led the Los Angeles Times to publish a lengthy article under the excited headline "Chinese-Americans emerge as a political power in San Francisco." But that's only part of the story. "I don't think it was the community 'emerging' [as a political force in 2003], but what happened was more people starting paying attention to what the Chinese-American community thought," says Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, who, along with former supervisor and state Senator Leland Yee, is rumored to be eyeing a run for mayor next year. Once city voters' demographics shifted, would-be officials realized they needed to make inroads into Chinatown, buying airtime on Cantonese-language TV, and getting featured in Chinese newspapers like Sing Tao Daily. If they didn't, they would lose to the candidates who did. "If you're running citywide, you better have a [Chinese-language] plan, whether you're Chinese or not," Ting says.
The same 1978 election that saw Harvey Milk become the nation's first openly gay elected politician saw Gordon Lau become the city's first Chinese-American supervisor. Lau served one term, and Tom Hsieh Sr. served two terms in the 1980s. That was as big a role as the Chinese community played in San Francisco politics until the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton signed into law a series of bills that overhauled the naturalization process, making it much easier for recently arrived immigrants to become citizens — and voters. That meant that between 1990 and 2000, the amount of registered Asian voters in San Francisco — Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking Chinese as well as Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, who had arrived in increasing numbers since the mid-1970s — nearly doubled from 40,000 to about 75,000, according to the Chinese American Voter Education Committee's Lee.
"That's why David Chiu is in office. That's why Eric Mar is in office," Lee says. "That's why we have [Supervisor] Carmen Chu. And if we have a Chinese mayor, it's because of the work we did registering these people to vote."
The list hardly stops there. Since the mid-1990s, San Franciscans have elected their first Chinese-American state senator (Leland Yee), their first Asian-American public defender (Jeff Adachi), first assessor-recorder (Phil Ting), and Assembly speaker pro tempore (Fiona Ma). In January 2009, Chiu became the first Chinese-American to be elected president of the board of supervisors.
Willie Brown made Chinatown a priority while mayor. On his first day in City Hall's Room 200 in 1996, he appointed Fred Lau as chief of police, the first Chinese-American to head the department. Brown appeared frequently at events and galas in the neighborhood, and cultivated relationships with power brokers like Rose Pak. This paid off big when 65 percent of Chinese voters turned out for Brown in his 1999 re-election bid against Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who received only 3 percent of the Chinese vote, according to a poll conducted by David Binder Research. More recently, strategists such as Eric Jaye have used the Asian vote to defeat public power measures like Proposition H in 2008.
But race does not explain Brown's success. It does explain — at least partially — the success enjoyed by Mar and Kim in their school board races. In a 2003 study, SF State professor Richard DeLeon classified each of San Francisco's 684 voting precincts by racial makeup and voting ideology, using descriptors like "white conservative," "Asian moderate," and "diverse progressive." In precincts in the Richmond and Sunset districts he labeled "Asian conservative" — which would never dream of supporting a Green Party candidate, as Kim was in 2006 — both Kim and Mar fared better than non-Asian candidates with similar politics.
It also explains the odd pairing, sighted on numerous Chinatown storefronts: signs for the only elected Republican in town, BART board president James Fang, proudly displayed next to Cantonese-language Jane Kim for Supervisor signs.
It may be embarrassing to a San Francisco progressive pretending to be colorblind, but these voting patterns aren't lost on the city's politicians. Quite the opposite: They're an integral part of any political hopeful's strategy.