On August 1 at noon, the “Run Ed Run” campaign climaxed with a large rally in front of San Francisco City Hall. Ed Lee is expected to announce his decision to run for mayor within days, having been swayed by overwhelming encouragement across the political spectrum. To some, former Mayor Willie Brown and Chinatown activist Rose Pak, the latter of whom helped fund the Run Ed Run effort, effectively made Lee’s decision for him. But Ed Lee is nobody’s “puppet.” Lee comes out of a Chinatown political culture of which Pak is only one part, and his approach to public service must be understood in the context of how progressives have achieved success in that politically complex community.
While some believe that Ed Lee’s run for mayor was always inevitable, they are wrong. Lee did not want to run for mayor. Without the combined outpouring from rank and file San Franciscans, political insiders and elected officials, his mayoral campaign would not have occurred.
And those who think that Lee is a very different person from his days working for the Asian Law Caucus in Chinatown are also wrong. In contrast to Leland Yee, long backed by the city’s more conservative Asian-American interests, Lee has remained part of the progressive Chinatown-oriented forces along with Rose Pak, Run Ed Run Co-chair Gordon Chin, future Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) leader Reverend Norman Fong, former Asian Law Caucus staff and many others.
Unfortunately, much of the San Francisco media remains remarkably uninformed about Asian-American politics, and surprisingly misinformed about Ed Lee. Stories depicting Mayor Ed Lee and longtime Chinatown leader Gordon Chin as “puppets” of Rose Pak display acute ignorance about Chinatown politics, ignoring the collaborative roles they and others played in boosting the grassroots activism that preserved Chinatown’s low-income, residential character.
Ed Lee and Chinatown
When I began working with Lee and Chin in the early 1980’s, Chinatown was under siege. Highrise office development was heading for Chinatown, residential hotels faced risks of conversion or demolition, banks were displacing longtime Chinatown businesses, and speculators were desperate to get hold of neighborhood real estate for upscale development.
Faced with this massive challenge, Chin, Lee and their allies realized that they needed to forge alliances beyond the nonprofit sector and usual suspects. Rose Pak and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce backed the activist’s progressive agenda for Chinatown, and have continued to do so to this day.
What did Mayor Ed Lee take from this experience? That reaching out to get support from those outside your core base is how to get important things done in San Francisco. Chinatown’s nonprofit activists could not succeed by disdaining relationships with local businesses – they needed to build these strategic alliances to save Chinatown as a low-income residential neighborhood.
Lee also took from Chinatown a recognition that always saying “no” to new ideas and projects, and relentlessly defending the status quo, does not do much for those needing a job, better housing, or a safer neighborhood. That’s why he is seen as a “can do” type of guy, which has helped his popularity as interim mayor.
Despite the overwhelming odds against them, the vision of Chinatown promoted by Chin, Lee, Pak and their allies prevailed. While often depicted as some sort of nefarious “power broker,” nobody has done more than Rose Pak to preserve Chinatown as a working-class and low-income neighborhood.
Lee backer and longtime CCDC leader Gordon Chin has been a leader in the development of affordable housing in Chinatown and throughout San Francisco for four decades. Most of his organization’s resources go toward helping tenants. CCDC works with the Community Tenants Association of Chinatown, assists on code enforcement, engages in public housing advocacy, runs programs for local youth, enhances Chinatown’s alleys, and plays an undisputedly progressive role in the community.
Reverend Norman Fong, who will become CCDC Director after Chin’s October retirement, is also a longtime ally of Ed Lee. Fong has combined his Chinatown advocacy with a leadership role in Religious Witness with Homeless People, and through his church helps the disenfranchised across the world. Fong has also long played a critical but typically unpublicized role as a religious community supporter for UNITE HERE Local 2, and has been at the forefront of campaigns to prevent senior evictions citywide.
Few can match Reverend Fong’s record of progressive advocacy. Yet some want people to believe that he, along with Gordon Chin and Mayor Ed Lee are not just allies of Rose Pak, but her “puppets.”
Lee and Willie Brown
Lee is also said to be a “puppet” of Willie Brown, who strongly and publicly encouraged him to enter the mayor’s race.
Former Assembly Speaker and Mayor Willie Brown has had inside access to every San Francisco Mayor since George Moscone, and probably since Joseph Alioto. Some may forget that the Art Agnos for Mayor campaign chose Brown to give the final pep speech to supporters on the Saturday before the November general election in 1987; the Agnos team saw Brown’s public support as a positive despite concerns by many supporters over his less progressive views.
Nobody understood the politics of Chinatown better than Brown. He did not simply attend virtually every banquet Rose Pak held for her various causes, but unlike most politicians he stayed for dinner. This could take hours, but Brown understood that it was a sign of respect for attendees.
As a result of his Chinatown experience, Mayor Lee learned the value of maintaining relationships with a broad spectrum of people of often sharply divergent interests. Some progressives find this disconcerting, and even threatening, arguing that Lee’s support from moderates like Senator Dianne Feinstein shows that he would back Feinstein-type policies if elected mayor.
But Lee’s tenure as interim mayor refutes such a conclusion. It instead reflects his belief in winning the trust of the broadest possible range of interests, including those who may ultimately disagree with his decisions. Appeals from these diverse constituencies finally convinced Lee to enter the mayor’s race, and it is this breadth of support that makes him the immediate frontrunner for November.