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.

Whatever Pak's influence now, she didn't sway Kim's decision to run for school board in 2004. It was the racial makeup of the Gonzalez mayoral campaign that, along with his encouragement, led her to run, Kim says. "I looked around the campaign staff, and I was struck by how white male it was," she recalls. "Dave Ho and I were the only Asian-Americans there. I was flabbergasted that a city as Asian as it is didn't have more representation in the political world."

Kim found out fast that a strong field and ethnic identity will take a candidate only so far. With no endorsements from the Democratic Party — she was a Green at the time — she came in seventh in a field of 12. Two years later, she was first in a field of 15 candidates. Consistent with Binder's maps from the previous decade, Kim was the top vote-getter in every district except the Marina/Cow Hollow, West of Twin Peaks, and the Castro/Noe Valley. She won District 3 — which includes Chinatown — by almost 50 percentage points.

Though there are thousands of Asian-Pacific Islander voters in District 6, turnout is dependably low. Asian voter turnout statewide is 40 percent of the registered total, equal to Latinos but 12 points below blacks and 19 points below whites, according to a 2006 UCLA study. On Lee's voting maps, the city's most heavily Asian districts also had the worst turnout, averaging almost 20 points less than the citywide 78.4 percent turnout in November 2008.

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.”

For Kim to rely entirely on ethnicity would be to prepare for failure. If she is going to stand a chance, she needs to protect her base while cutting into the bases of Sparks and Walker, who are conducting their own identity politicking: A recent Walker mailer featured pictures of transgender community leaders endorsing her, a hardly veiled jab at Sparks, who is herself transgender. Even Kim's allies are leery of the bullet-voting/identity politics theory. In a city whose Asian population is 80 percent Chinese, "there's no pan-Asian bloc," Chinese for Affirmative Action's Pan says.

Jane Kim and Barack Obama are both nonwhite politicians, but they have another thing in common. Just as John McCain's campaign gleefully watched Obama and Hillary Clinton beat each other up for months, so, too, are Sparks' people happily watching progressives squabble over the relative merits of Walker and Kim. Speaking on background, strategists for Sparks readily say they were thrilled when Kim jumped into the race. If progressives and Asians don't come out in droves for Kim and Walker, or if they put the wrong candidates second and third on their ranked-choice ballots, Sparks could coast to City Hall with 40 percent of the vote.

Thus far Sparks has steered clear of the mudslinging; most attacks lobbed during forums are between progressives only. Kim "parachuted" into the district, the San Francisco Bay Guardian says in its endorsement of Walker. When Walker says, "I've been in District 6 for almost 30 years and have the experience needed to succeed at City Hall," it's easy to see whom she's talking about. And Walker and Sparks won't let Kim walk away with the Asian vote: On Oct. 22, Walker hosted an Asian Pacific Islander Benefit night at a Mission District pho spot. "Any time an Asian is running, [white candidates] pour more resources into the Asian community," Pan says.

There is no shortage of people who say Kim's racial advantage is no advantage at all. "The fact that Kim is Asian is irrelevant," says political consultant David Latterman, who has made a career identifying voters and determining why it is they do what they do. (He is also working for Sparks.) Some Chinese people will vote for Chinese people because they're Chinese, sure. But this doesn't apply to Kim. "Her race is a red herring," he says. "Kim isn't a viable politician because she's Asian. It's because she has something to offer. It's because she'll be willing to cut deals."

Every immigrant ethnic group throughout American history has gathered against a perceived oppressor to consolidate power. Latinos in Los Angeles followed this pattern, and in San Francisco, so have LGBT voters. Harvey Milk was swept into office by an LGBT empowerment movement that transcended political differences; in 2010, gays in San Francisco are not voting purely for gays — they vote for candidates who align with them on issues, Latterman says. There are competing moderate and progressive LGBT political clubs; eventually, Chinese voters will similarly splinter. "It's a timing issue," he says. "In 10 or 15 years, Eric Mar doesn't get elected. Chinese will splinter into left, right, and center, just as gays did, just as Jews did, just as Irish and Italians did."

But not if there's something to galvanize them. In the 1990s, there was a strong pan-Asian voting bloc: Asians voted in unison in 1994 to defeat Proposition 187 — the "Save Our State Initiative" that would have barred undocumented immigrants from social services — and voted overwhelmingly against 1996's Proposition 209, which eliminated affirmative action.

Could Kim be such a unifier? Right now, Alex Tom says, there's a movement for "Asian-American empowerment," the likes of which has never before been seen. Certainly there's political power to be tapped into; if not, organizers like Ho wouldn't be called on by labor and others in the political establishment to be used as "worker bees" to get inroads into "constituencies that they're totally out of touch with," as Ho wrote in an angry letter to BeyondChron.

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