“Pop, pop, pop!” echoes through Chinatown as a man stands in a pink arched doorway lighting firecrackers at Stockton and Clay streets.
It’s Friday — Chinese New Year. Crashing cymbals and pounding drums ring through the neighborhood, families gather to feast, and mayoral candidates flock to opportunistic photo-ops.
In Portsmouth Square (the “living room” for many Chinatown seniors who live in SRO’s) on Friday morning, Supervisor Jane Kim and former state Senator Mark Leno march in lockstep with a new, bright yellow dragon for the upcoming New Year parade. Just a stone’s throw away, deep in the Chinatown Salvation Army’s basement at 1450 Powell St., Board of Supervisors President London Breed walks in sporting a deep red dress, a smartly chosen color, as it symbolizes good fortune. She dons her Salvation Army-branded apron and serves pork chow mein to seniors, smiling for a scrum of cameras.
The mayoral election is in June, a blink of the eye in politics, and the ever-sizable San Francisco Chinese community vote could tip the scales.
But so far, that once seemingly unified bloc seems splintered.
While in past years Chinatown leaders have largely backed one candidate, this year they have not coalesced — though some surprising players have swung to favor Breed.
In some ways, The City’s various Chinese and Asian constituencies have long been divided into distinct “camps,” said Cally Wong, head of the Asian Pacific Islander Council, a coalition of some 40 nonprofits. With 42 percent of Asian Pacific Islanders in San Francisco living in poverty, she said, it’s easy to see how those groups focus on different needs.
Wong said, “You have west side anti-cannabis people who care about car break-ins, then you have those” whose chief concern is “how do you provide for your family?”
If some of the split is economic, it’s also largely political.
Some told me the neighborhood may be split on candidates due to the absence of the late community organizer, Rose Pak, who often marshalled groups — because of course, if Chinatown speaks with one voice and wins, they’ll hold better bargaining power later on.
Most famously, Pak is known for running the “Run, Ed Run” campaign, which brought together Chinatown behind the election of Ed Lee as the city’s first Chinese mayor.
But “the unification of the Chinese vote did not start with the election of Ed Lee,” Da Mayor, Willie Brown, told me. “You probably ought to roll backwards to the time of Art Agnos’ election.”
And remember, he said, “In all of those … Rose was a participant in one manner or another.”
But maybe the split stems from a strange mix of loyalties, too: Kim was a one-time organizer in Chinatown, while one of Leno’s key backers is the ever-popular Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who in Cantonese is widely known as the “bearded man.” Breed, on the other hand, is viewed as the candidate with the strongest ties to the neighborhood favorite, Lee.
This strangely potent mix of loyalties has seemingly stratified Chinatown’s political backers, a loose mix of community organizers, neighborhood organizations and name associations.
The politically powerful Community Tenants Association, whose members provide many boots on the ground, has made a split endorsement for Kim and Leno, I’m told by multiple sources (including Kim), though the CTA said it was not yet ready to comment.
Anni Chung, the locally-prominent executive director of Self-Help for the Elderly, has endorsed Kim, as has Gordon Chin, co-founder of the Chinatown Community Development Center.
And though CCDC cannot make endorsements, as it’s a nonprofit, some of its key organizers have been known to volunteer as individuals for campaigns, and are known to be widely influential. Those organizers will coalesce behind the tenants association.
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Yet prominent Chinese endorsements have also racked up for Breed, including from Chinese Chamber of Commerce Chair Pius Lee. Lobbyist (and Rose Pak protege) David Ho also told me he’s “leaning toward” backing Breed.
Ho’s support may come as a surprise to longtime political watchers, as he has long been an ally of Kim and his mentor, Pak, mentored Kim as well.
Yet Ho took issue with Kim running childcare legislation that would potentially draw from the same funding as affordable housing legislation proposed by Supervisor Ahsha Safai (even though, as I pointed out to Ho, Kim introduced her measure first).
“For me Chinatown’s priority is the housing measure,” Ho said, calling the fight with Safai the “final straw” that broke his support for Kim.
Still, it’s surprising to some insiders that Breed has been able to overcome the negative attention she garnered in 2013, when she told neighborhood news site Haighteration that some organizations “monopolize a lot of the affordable housing developments” and there’s “one small group of people who control it” helping people who are “not even U.S. citizens.”
It was largely seen as a not-so veiled swipe at Chinese nonprofits who are known to advocate heavily for affordable housing for immigrant communities — and Chinatown has a long memory.
Breed also has a late start compared to the other candidates. I’ve spotted Leno at galas hosted by the Community Tenants Association and CCDC throughout last year, and Kim as well, glad-handing all the key folks they needed to glad-hand. Breed started popping up in the neighborhood in January, shortly after announcing her candidacy.
But our once-acting mayor has quickly made up that time deficit.
Pius Lee, who has solely endorsed Breed, said many members of the influential Chinese Six Companies favor her. The group counts much of Chinatown among its members, though it is a nonprofit and cannot make endorsements.
Members of The Six Companies “were really pleased to hear what she said” in Breed’s meetings with them in January, Pius Lee said. She told the community she would “follow Ed Lee’s policies in Chinatown” and oppose cannabis dispensaries in the neighborhood, or within a thousand feet of a school.
And that message’s popularity will ring out beyond Chinatown, Pius said. “This is something the Chinese like to hear in the Richmond, Sunset and Cow Palace areas.”
In the basement of the Chinatown Salvation Army Friday, 200 seniors and low-income families gathered for a Chinese New Year banquet, funded to the tune of $8,000 by Pius Lee.
He told those gathered that the occasion was a “time for family,” and to thank seniors who faced discrimination when they first came to the United States. Then he introduced the candidate. Breed, apron-clad, smiled wide, stepped up to the small makeshift stage and spoke to the room.
“I’m Board of Supervisors President London Breed, wishing you good health and a happy new year,” she said, in Cantonese.
The crowd met her show of linguistic skill with wild applause.