Buying Favor (and Votes) in Chinatown

You don't know her, but chances are you saw someone like “Ying” the last time you were in Chinatown.

She is 66 years old, speaks only Cantonese, and has shared a tiny, cramped, and possibly code-violating SRO hotel room in the neighborhood with her goddaughter for 12 years.

Ying — not her real name; speaking through an interpreter, she insisted on a pseudonym and declined to be photographed or recorded — is an American citizen. As a relative newcomer who has not yet voted in any election, she is exactly the kind of person Mayor Ed Lee wants to engage in the Democratic process this fall.

And as a Chinatown senior, Ying is also exactly the kind of person District 3 Supervisor Julie Christensen — who is trying to withstand a challenge from former Supervisor Aaron Peskin – needs to vote in November.

With the balance of power at the Board of Supervisors at stake, friends of Christensen and Lee are so interested in getting Ying to vote — and to vote the right way — that they are willing to give Ying and other Chinatown seniors gifts to make sure that happens.

A few weeks ago, Ying heard from one of her friends about a day-long event on a Saturday. An organization called “Friends of Tenants” would be at Jean Parker Elementary School on Broadway, a block away from the main Chinatown commercial drag on Stockton Street.

Ying is interested in affordable housing — she's been on the city's wait list for years, she said — so she decided to check it out.

Getting in was a bit of a chore. Ying had to meet up with a woman handing out tickets in Hang Ah Alley off of Clay Street. Before the woman would hand Ying a ticket — marked with the name of the event sponsor, and with two stubs for “gifts” — she checked Ying's ID to make sure she lived in Chinatown.

Once inside, Ying and a couple hundred other Chinese seniors were in for a treat: the mayor himself, talking in English and Cantonese about the importance of voting. Christensen was there, too.

After the politicians spoke, the seniors were handed flyers exhorting them to vote for Lee, Lee's preferred ballot initiatives, and Christensen, Lee's preferred candidate, Ying says.

On her way out the door, she received another treat, courtesy of Friends of Tenants: a package of Chinese sausages; the dense, sugary treat known as moon cakes; and a voucher for $3.50 in food at a nearby Chinatown café. Cheap stuff, but will it be enough to buy elderly tenants' goodwill — and their votes?

Election season games are nothing new in San Francisco — and in Chinatown least of all. In 2011, volunteers working on Lee's behalf were accused of giving seniors stencils to “help” them fill out their ballots (with votes for Lee, of course).

Bill Barnes, Lee's campaign spokesman, confirmed the mayor's attendance at the event, but denied any knowledge of the gifts. “That, of course, would be prohibited by local law,” he said. “That would not be appropriate activity.”

Maggie Muir, a spokeswoman for Christensen, told SF Weekly that she would ask the supervisor about what happened, but did not respond by press deadline Tuesday.

Friends of Tenants appears to be deliberately flying below the radar, at least for English speakers. The group is registered as a California nonprofit, not a political committee — which should forbid it from doing political work — and has filed no paperwork with the city's Ethics Commission, which oversees campaigns.

Friends of Tenants are also friends of the mayor. Mayoral backer Walter Wong approached the mayor's education advisor Hydra Mendoza, an elected member of the Board of Education, about renting the room at Jean Parker early in the summer. (Wong is a real estate developer and “permit expediter” — a nice way to describe someone who speeds construction projects along in exchange for cash.)

The facility is not normally rented out, Principal Wesley Tang wrote to Mendoza, who nonetheless made it happen. “Please work this out and let me know if I can offer the site to the group,” Mendoza wrote in an email to school district staffers.

Mendoza told SF Weekly that she handles requests like this all the time, and that she just happened to be “who he [Wong] knew on the school board.” That Wong is a longtime supporter of former mayor Willie Brown and of the current mayor — he gave $25,000 to two of Lee's pet campaign efforts last year and traveled with the mayor on a recent junket to China — is pure coincidence.

“I didn't ask what he used it for,” she said. “I don't get involved in that kind of stuff.”

Nonetheless, with Mendoza's help, Wong associate Betty Chen secured Jean Parker for several events throughout the summer and fall, including the one Ying attended.

“Thank you for providing the meeting place at Jean Parker,” Wong wrote to Mendoza in an email. “It worked out perfectly.”

Neither Wong nor Chen returned emails or a telephone call placed to Wong's offices on 13th Street seeking comment.

It's also not clear who paid for the flyers handed out at the event that state Christensen is Lee's choice for Chinatown, in possible violation of local election law regarding disclosure of donors.

The flyers say “Asian Democratic Association,” according to Chinese readers. No filings by an organization by that name have been made this year.

“I just think it's interesting that the mayor is even going to these events,” said Jim Ross, a veteran political consultant (who, it should be noted, is running a labor-backed independent expenditure committee in support of Peskin).

Giving gifts at events is not quite the same thing as exchanging cash for votes, which is definitely illegal, but it's certainly an ethical grey area.

“It's legal, but it doesn't make you feel great,” Ross says, “kind of like a lot of how the city does business these days.”

Aside from Friends of Tenants, Jean Parker Elementary School was used for a non-school function only once all summer: for Mayor Ed Lee's annual ping-pong tournament.

It will be used again, on Nov. 3 — Jean Parker is the local election polling place, and seniors who attended the Friends of Tenants event will return there to cast their votes.

Ying says she won't be there.

“I don't want to get involved,” she said through her interpreter. “I don't know what's right or what's wrong.”

She isn't the only one.

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