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.

The city's political establishment was reminded of this in 1998 when Marlene Tran, an ESL teacher from Visitacion Valley unknown to the city's establishment but with backing from Asian community leaders, shockingly won a seat on the Democratic County Central Committee, the party's official local apparatus. Now one of the dozen hopefuls for the District 10 seat, Tran has no fundraising and not much of a ground game. But the Vietnamese-born Tran is the only Cantonese-speaking candidate, and an estimated 20 percent of the district's electorate speaks Cantonese. That was enough for New America Media to file a dispatch from an Oct. 3 candidates' forum titled "Chinese Hold the Key to SF District 10 Supervisor Race."

One of Jane Kim's staffers is an accomplished doodler and has drawn in Magic Marker on a volunteer sign-up sheet — which takes up an entire wall in the campaign's office suite at its 13th Street headquarters — a cartoon of King Kong scaling a skyscraper. An accompanying word balloon shouts, "KONG? IS THAT AN ASIAN NAME?"

This offhand scribble speaks to the campaign's strategy. As Pearce observed, there are 8,500 ethnic Asian voters in District 6, and you can be damn sure the campaign is doing what it can to get them. "Jane is very clearly looking at the ethnic vote in District 6," Mar observes. "You can tell even with the headings they use on their e-mails."

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.”

It's apparent in e-mails, campaign literature — available in Cantonese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese as well as Spanish and English — and even the color of the T-shirts Kim's campaign hands out to volunteers. The scenes at the campaign's weekend mobilizations, held in SOMA on Oct. 2 and in the Tenderloin on Oct. 9, are telling: Upwards of 100 volunteers, nearly all Asian, were wearing red shirts. In Chinese culture, red is the lucky color and appears to be the campaign's lucky color as well: The signs are red, the dress Kim wore to her June campaign kickoff was red, as is the canvas tote bag always at her side, stuffed with campaign literature.

On both weekends, hordes of volunteers — nearly all seniors and youth — grabbed signs and fanned out to stand in front of Chinese and Filipino senior housing and other selected street corners. "I hope I made enough [signs on] stakes," says Kim campaign worker David Ho, an organizer with the Chinatown Community Development Center. He made 150. They went quickly.

Kim's campaign schedule is kinder to her than it is to her staffers, who were already putting in 18-hour days in late August. "I'm the only one who's allowed to sleep," she says, as she and a volunteer go out door-knocking. She is allotted six hours of rest a night, and her life is plotted to the hour. A look at the schedule reveals about 20 hours a week blocked out in yellow, dedicated to her school board duties, which she continues to fulfill. "Personal time" is shaded blue — one hour a week, when she attends a fitness boot camp. What personal life she might have had has taken a backseat to her political career. "My friends learned to stop calling a long time ago," she says.

Kim's one term on the board of education has been contentious. Her vote to disband JROTC in the city's public schools drew ire from some of the students and families who'd supported her; a 2008 "Save JROTC" rally on the City Hall steps was almost entirely Asian. But whatever damage she sustained, it doesn't show on the campaign trail, where swarms of volunteers take her cause to the people.

The Tenderloin volunteers are Ho's doing; in SOMA the week before, the crowd of Chinese seniors was bolstered by Filipinos, organized via South of Market Community Action Network, whose leaders "unofficially" came out for Kim a few weeks before. (Nonprofits aren't supposed to politick.) When they're not on the streets, they're at the office, calling voters; the campaign's volunteers speak at least four languages — English, Spanish, Cantonese, Tagalog, and was that Vietnamese? — by a reporter's count.

Kim has these organizing networks working in her favor; she also has her friend, Chiu, whose image is a constant talisman for her campaign. There he is on her just-released television commercial, also distributed via Web and YouTube. He's on the cover of her Cantonese-language literature. He's in front of Cantonese-language media at a City Hall press conference called just for Sing Tao Daily's benefit, whose reporter he tells, "All the Asian leaders who support me are supporting Jane."

This is the work a campaign must perform to win an ethnic vote, but none of it would be of any use if Kim hadn't already made a name for herself in San Francisco's Asian-American community. And to do that, she had to overcome a barrier: ethnicity.

Kim is a Stanford-educated Korean-American from New York City, all factors that worked against her in 2000, when she interviewed for a job as a Chinatown Community Development Center youth organizer with the Rev. Norman Fong. He was unsure how her education and ethnicity would play out with the inner-city Chinatown kids she'd be charged with. "I really took a risk on her," Fong says. "A Korean-American trying to get a job in Chinatown? She didn't speak Chinese." But she won him over. It was at CCDC that Kim met Ho, and it was through Ho that she met Rose Pak, who, some Kim opponents say, told Kim to move to District 6 to run for supervisor.

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