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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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Kim not winning endorsements from the city's Democratic establishment — which, indeed, is backing Walker and Sparks — "stifles that movement" and adds to burgeoning Asian resentment, according to Fong. "It's not about Jane Kim; that's what people don't understand," he adds. If the Democratic establishment "stifles Jane, they don't know what they're stifling."
As long as there is any advantage among Asians to be had, savvy politicians will take it. "Growing up, I never thought that being Chinese-American could be an advantage," Ting says, but if either he or Yee runs for mayor unopposed by the other, they will campaign hard to win Chinese voters. If they run against one another, they'll work hard to split the base and then take the LGBT base from Bevan Dufty and the Latino base from Dennis Herrera. Ethnic voting would not be their sole strategy, but it's a part of a winning playbook they'd be silly to omit. So, too, with Kim.
"A lot of Asian-Americans may not come out to vote in District 6," Kim says, "but if they're excited about the work I've done, they may take that extra time to come out and vote for me. I would not have that if I wasn't Asian. I just wouldn't."