Norman Yee Elected Board President After Contentious Vote

Supervisor Ronen's supporters spent hours pleading with the Board to elect her into the position, but in the end, it was Yee who secured the six votes needed to win.

New Board President Norman Yee (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

The Bay Area has churned out no shortage of slang words, many of which have rolled across the country infiltrating rap lyrics, high schools, and the notorious online Urban Dictionary. One such word, which allegedly emerged from south Richmond, Calif., is “yee.” Simply put, it’s another word for “hey,” often used to get someone’s attention from across the street.

Of all of San Francisco’s city supervisors, it’s hard to imagine someone less likely to yell across a street than Supervisor Norman Yee. He’s quiet, level-headed, and thoughtful. His colleagues (of all genders) at times raise their voices, storm out of the chamber, and cry with frustration or passion, and it’s hard to miss any of their large personalities as they walk into a room. But Yee can easily be overlooked.

That is, until Tuesday, when the quiet leader of District 7 took center stage and won the six votes needed — from Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Sandra Lee Fewer, Ahsha Safai, Vallie Brown, Rafael Mandelman and Catherine Stefani — to become president of the Board of Supervisors until his term ends in 2021.

To the untrained eye Tuesday’s vote may have seemed fairly straightforward; Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer nominated Yee, and newly-sworn-in Supervisor Matt Haney nominated Hillary Ronen. With no other nominations the race was officially underway, and after a lengthy public comment period, Yee won.

But unlike the election of former-Supervisor Malia Cohen last June, which occurred with little drama (all things considered), the battle for president this go-round created unexpected alliances and fissures in a Board that — for the first time in years — has a progressive supermajority.  This is evidenced not least by Fewer, who, long considered to be a legislative ally of Ronen’s, cast the initial nomination for Yee. For weeks gossip leaked out from under closed doors and reporters dedicated themselves in a quest to find out which candidate would reach the required six votes first.

While alliances were being forged and broken, Ronen launched an unusually public campaign for president. Even though votes are only cast by members of the Board of Supervisors, she rallied her innumerable dedicated followers, who flooded supervisors’ voicemails and email inboxes with statements of support. Their impassioned pleas proved that Ronen has the community’s back and, in her two years on the Board, has managed to win the love and approval of a wide range of San Franciscans. They showed up in droves to speak at public comment on Tuesday.

“One of my concerns with government in general is transparency,” said Community College Board Trustee Thea Selby. ”Surely Hillary going out to the public to openly and honestly state her interest in being at the head of the table is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

“We need a president that will no longer be satisfied with the status quo… who will benefit our most marginalized communities,” said Kevin Ortiz of the Latino Democratic Club. “With two-thirds of the Board being men, it’s good to have a leader who will keep all the testosterone in check.”

“I’ve seen firsthand how she’s willing to fight,” said Maya Chupkov, who works for an affordable housing organization. “I strongly urge all of you to please please please listen because it’s pretty loud and clear who the community wants for Board president.”

But even as dozens of Ronen’s fans lined up to enter the chamber Tuesday morning, gossip was already circulating that Yee had the votes to win. And Yee, solely through being Ronen’s opponent, was at times an unfair recipient of many of her supporters’ antipathy. While Ronen has undoubtedly been a radically active legislator, Yee hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs. The progressive supervisor leads the district with the most Trump supporters in San Francisco, and has six years of experience on the Board to Ronen’s two. He successfully got a universal child care measure on the ballot, battled delivery robots released without permits onto city streets, and is an active chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Vision Zero Committee, fighting to make streets safer for pedestrians.

Phil Chin, chair of the Board of the Chinatown Community Development Center, says he’s known Yee for “at least 50 years,” and believes that legislative history should not be the main consideration in what best makes Board president.

“Knowing the history of this Board, I think you really need to think about the kind of person who isn’t necessarily a policy leader, because every single member of the Board can be policy leaders,” he said. “You need someone who can bring about consensus so this Board can continue functioning.

“Hillary’s a great person,” he added. “I love the policy issues that she’s a leader on, and I hope she keeps doing it. But for someone to be a Board president, which is more of a moderator position where you have to balance all the different interests, you need a guy that is more a consensus builder and a dealmaker.”

In the end, the many hours of testimony from Ronen’s supporters failed to sway her colleagues — though it probably scared away any challengers for her 2020 reelection campaign.

Safai spoke to Yee’s guidance as a long term Board member, before giving him his vote. “I want to pay homage to the fact that we are just a little over year from losing two titans in the Chinese-American community in San Francisco,” he said, referring to both Mayor Ed Lee and Rose Pak. “It’s a void that hasn’t been filled yet…  For this city to have a Chinese-American Board president at this time at this moment is what weighs most heavily on me.”

Yee kept his bid for president short and sweet before the vote.

“Regardless of who’s going to be president today, what we’re hearing from the public and my colleagues is we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “Whatever happens today we’re going to move on.”

The supervisors preemptively battled any narrative that may emerge from today’s vote implying the progressive movement is heavily divided. Peskin reminded the room of a particularly contentious 2003 Board president vote that went through seven rounds of voting, compared with today’s two.

“When it was over we were all friends again moments after and to this day,” he said, before casting his vote for Yee. “Ten minutes from now and for the next many years we all need to be friends and work together.”

Ronen confirmed this. “Prior to walking in today Norman Yee and I hugged each other and told each other that we loved each other, and that’s the truest thing in the world,” she said. “We’ll be fine no matter what happens today.”

In other words, our government might actually be okay, recent drama aside. And even though Ronen lost this bid for Board president, as her fans proved, she’s very, very far from being a loser.

“Very few people get to hear such things about them while still living,” she told the crowd of people who stood up and spoke for her. “That was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

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