San Francisco’s energized Asian voting bloc: ‘We woke up a sleeping dragon’

School board recall galvanized a traditional political power base

Lily Ho was working with homeless kids at a San Francisco shelter. Ann Hsu had quit her job to care for her father and husband, both of whom were struggling with medical issues. Siva Raj was working on a tech startup with his partner, Autumn Looijen.

None of these people had ever been involved with politics. It just wasn’t part of their lives. Now, they’re at the core of an emerging group of political leaders in San Francisco, largely Asian American, who were galvanized by the ineptitude of the San Francisco school board.

The result? Three school board members were recalled in Tuesday’s election, a result clearly influenced by Asian American voters. And a newly engaged voter bloc has formed that’s looking to make change in a city that’s in desperate need.

“I hadn’t lived here long enough to really engage in the political process,” said Raj, who emigrated from Chennai, India, in 2010 and played a key role in organizing the recall movement. “But speaking to people in the community, it does feel like there’s a lot of people, just parents like us, who got involved through this campaign.”

Ho, who also played a key role in organizing support for the recall, concurred: “We woke up a sleeping dragon with the Chinese American community. People are realizing the importance of being engaged, staying engaged and voting.”

“We kind of created a garden where we’re growing new leaders,” said Looijen, who worked closely with Raj on the campaign.

Lily Ho speaks at the Recall S.F. School Board campaign’s election night party at Manny’s in the Mission Tuesday. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Lily Ho speaks at the Recall S.F. School Board campaign’s election night party at Manny’s in the Mission Tuesday. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Before we continue, let’s take a reality check. A lot has been written on the emergence of Asian American voters in San Francisco this week. Which is kind of ridiculous.

Did everyone forget Rose Pak, Chinatown’s long-time political power broker? Specifically, Chinese Americans have held huge sway at the ballot box for decades. They also make up 100,000 of The City’s 500,000 registered voters, according to the Chinese American Democratic Club. Asian Americans, overall, represent approximately 35% of the population here.

So this is nothing new.

But there was something different afoot in this week’s election, and it could have a major impact on San Francisco’s political landscape going forward. Recent immigrants to The City got involved, largely because their children’s education was at stake. That’s significant. Most everyone I talked to for this column pointed to schooling as the driving factor behind the increased engagement, and a key to ongoing engagement.

“Every parent has a natural instinct to watch out for the kids,” said Wilson Chu, board member and past president of the Chinese American Democratic Club. “The Chinese are a little bit unique. We have a lot of new immigrants in our community. A lot of them came here to provide a better life for their kids. Education is one of the most efficient means of climbing up the social ladder.”

Many in the Chinese American community felt targeted by the school board’s decision to change the admissions policies at Lowell High School, moving from a merit-based system to a lottery.

“The Lowell admissions criteria was squarely aimed at the Asian community,” said Hsu, who focused her recall efforts on registering Asian American voters. “They thought there were too many Asians at Lowell. So blatant! Didn’t even try to hide it. How do you stop the Asians from getting in because they get good grades?”

“They didn’t give enough public notice. Then they completely ignored the protests and comments from Asian parents. They didn’t want to hear it, and passed it through,” added Hsu.

That anger drove her to get involved at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, the high school attended by her two children, and ascend to PTA president in short order.

Now the question turns to sustainability. Will these newly minted politicos stick with it? The recall victory was heady stuff, for sure. But will they stay around for the public utilities debate? And the district voting discussion? And all the other painfully dull issues that make up municipal governance?

“We hope so,” said Hsu. “I am very new to San Francisco politics and civic engagement overall. I got into the PTA, having never done it before. And I got into (the recall), having never done it before.”

So there’s hope for continuity, with caveats.

“The Chinese typically do not concern ourselves with politics,” said Hsu, who was born in China, immigrated to the United States at age 11 and has lived both here and there as an adult. “As I said, I went all of my life before getting into this. It’s really not in our culture. It does not encourage civic engagement and … we really have a disdain for politicians. We’re very practical people. You do your own job well. Take care of your family. And mind your own business. Unless it really touches you, on a day-to-day basis. Otherwise, you don’t care. You’re too busy.”

Sounds like just about everyone I know. The key to keeping this newly energized group involved will likely hinge on the issues on the ballot. Public safety and racism loom large in that conversation.

A rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans in San Francisco will be the next rallying point, which will likely boost turnout for the June 7 recall election of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. A devout progressive, Boudin has denounced the wave of race-based crime but his lenient prosecution policies will work against him.

“The crimes against our community are outrageous,” said Ho. “You have homes in the Richmond with strong-arm robberies. In so many ways, you’d be crazy to live here. You have a 1,500-square-foot house for $2 million and you’re scared of getting robbed in the middle of the day?”

Does that mean the newly energized Asian American voters are more moderate? That’s been another theme beat to death by the national media all week while local scribes fell on their pens defending San Francisco’s progressive bona fides. The whole thing was embarrassing, frankly.

The “truth” lies somewhere in between, like most everything. The Asian American voting bloc in San Francisco is just like every other group. It’s not a monolith.

Asked if she thought this was a more centrist group, Ho didn’t mince: “That’s crazy. I don’t think anyone in this city is moderate, unless you pulled us all out and dumped us in the middle of Tennessee. I’m very much a progressive. I would say this is common sense.”

“When politicians have these very idealistic pitches, that’s great. But to implement things based on that, that makes a town ungovernable,” said Ho.

Which brings us to the core issue: San Francisco’s governance dumpster fire.

Michael Semler, a retired political science professor and former political consultant, has followed San Francisco politics for decades. He thinks The City’s political incumbents better sit up and take notice of what happened Tuesday.

“When people are angry, they come out to vote,” said Semler. “There was larger turnout in areas where the Assembly race wasn’t even on the ballot. The incumbents, who are progressives in the Richmond District and the Sunset District and the southern half of The City, should be concerned in terms of the Board of Supervisors. Those voters could be reminded that their supervisors did not support the recall of these school board members.”

In fact, the Board of Supervisors voted in the majority on an upcoming ballot measure that would make recalls more difficult to organize, the very day of Tuesday’s election. This enraged many of the newly engaged. They had just rallied around the recall, while their elected officials rained on the victory parade.

“The first lesson for political leaders is to listen, not to speak. If they listen, it will be interesting,” said Semler. “If you want to break up the coalition that’s worked for a long time, it’s telling the Chinese, ‘Your votes don’t matter.’ That’s what they’re saying. Your anger should be discounted.

“Aaron Peskin and his allies on the Board of Supervisors are trying to limit the ability to recall people. Are they listening? Is it arrogance or not being able to listen?”

Good question.

Editor’s note: Welcome to The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic in which he explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

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