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.

Fiona Ma knew what she needed to do. The outgoing District 4 supervisor was on her way to the state Assembly in Sacramento, but she wanted to make sure her seat stayed Asian.

Ma gathered Asian-American leaders on the City Hall steps for a rally in October 2006. The message: Unless Sunset voters chose an Asian candidate (they would elect Supervisor Ed Jew, who is now in federal prison, convicted of bribery and extortion), "there will be no Asians on the Board of Supervisors representing the Asian community — this will be a tremendous travesty and a bad message here in San Francisco," Ma said, according to a report in The San Francisco Examiner. Ma didn't stop there: She encouraged Asian voters to use ranked-choice voting to "back up their first vote with a second Asian-American candidate," the newspaper reported.

Ma didn't respond to a request for an interview, but Alex Tom hears echoes of her pleas during every election cycle. The executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, a nonprofit that organizes low-income Chinese voters, remembers placing calls in 2008 to Richmond District voters on Mar's behalf. "I'd call them and tell them they need to vote, and they say, 'Oh, don't worry about me. I'm just going to vote for the Chinese guy,'" Tom says. "Then I tell them, 'There are three Chinese people running,' and they're not sure what to do."

There are 8,500 Asian voters 
in District 6. Kim’s campaign knows where they are and is doing all it can to get them.
Joseph Schell
There are 8,500 Asian voters in District 6. Kim’s campaign knows where they are and is doing all it can to get them.
Reverend Norman Fong sees Kim as more than a candidate. He says she’s “part of a movement” toward racial justice that, if stifled, will have lasting effects.
Joseph Schell
Reverend Norman Fong sees Kim as more than a candidate. He says she’s “part of a movement” toward racial justice that, if stifled, will have lasting effects.

What those voters often do is what Ma told them: Put the Asian candidates on the same ranked-choice ballot, even if there are significant differences in their politics.

Every political strategist from the White House on down is familiar with identity politics, President Barack Obama's team especially so. Obama struggled with identity throughout 2008. "At various stages in the campaign, commentators have deemed me either 'too black' or 'not black enough,'" Obama said during his "A More Perfect Union" speech. In the end, he was both: He collected the predictably Democratic black and Latino votes by wider margins than John Kerry did in 2004, and won 43 percent of the white vote, the same proportion Bill Clinton got in 1996.

Just like advertising and marketing executives are careful with the colors of the faces they use to sell jeans or beer, San Francisco political campaigns take pains to present a multicultural front.

This is why Enrique Pearce and a film crew are up past 11 p.m. at the Kim campaign office in mid-September. A camera is set up in front of a wall covered in white paper, the backdrop for a commercial. People have paraded in and out of the room, reading from the same script: A young black woman. An elderly Chinese man. A young Latino man. A thirtysomething white man. Supervisor John Avalos. Board of Supervisors President David Chiu.

Kim will be filmed eventually, but for now, more diversity is in order. An Indian-American is needed, immediately. Any Indian. Staffers flip through their cellphones. "I have an Indian woman I can call," Pearce says finally. "She's middle-aged, 45. She'll be perfect."

Identity is at play in the city's supervisorial districts, though many are reluctant to admit it. "We're not even able to have a conversation about race or gender," says Vincent Pan, an organizer with Chinese for Affirmative Action, a progressive civil rights advocacy group based in Chinatown. "We've fallen into a false belief that we should all be colorblind. And that's ridiculous."

Take the local progressives who suggested Kim run not in District 6 but in the Sunset in District 4. There, Kim would challenge incumbent Carmen Chu, a Chinese-American entrenched in a heavily Chinese district — but this suggestion had nothing to do with race, the same progressives insisted. (No viable challenger emerged, and Chu, a staunch Newsom ally, is running unopposed.)

Maps of the city shaded by ethnicity and by voting patterns are strikingly similar. Four supervisorial districts have at least a 40 percent Asian population — 1 (Richmond), 3 (Chinatown/North Beach), 4 (Sunset/Parkside), and 11 (OMI-Excelsior). In 2008, they came out most strongly in favor of same-sex marriage ban Proposition 8 and local ballot Measure V, which pledged support for JROTC in San Francisco's public schools, according to maps compiled by CAVEC's Lee. These results, at least, are predictable. "I'd never go on record saying this, but with social issues, especially LGBT issues, Asians tend to vote conservatively," said one local politician who did not want to be identified.

Maps produced by David Binder Research before the 2000 election paint the starkest picture. They rated each neighborhood's support for candidates, based on their race, using a host of candidates throughout the 1990s for data. Not surprisingly, the neighborhoods most supportive of Asian candidates were Chinatown, the Sunset, the Richmond, and Visitacion Valley, the same ones where LGBT, black, and Latino candidates fare the worst in citywide elections. By contrast, Asian candidates did poorly in the Mission District but not so poorly to offset successes across the city, in West of Twin Peaks, Polk Gulch, and Laurel Heights. In other words, Asians have enough of a broad appeal across all ethnic groups that in 2010 San Francisco, race — and specifically, Asian race — is a net advantage.

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