Breed works to charm Chinatown
On the first day of the Chinese New Year, Supervisor London Breed stood on a stage in San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square, a row of red lanterns bobbing behind her.
In halting Chinese, she greeted a crowd of tourists and residents who had gathered Friday beneath the decorative pennants, the orange dragon and the stage festooned in bunting. Breed smiled archly at the Chinatown dignitaries — and at her mentor, former Mayor Willie Brown — who were lined up alongside her on the platform.
That group of players could determine who becomes the city’s next mayor, and it appears they’ve picked Breed — an African American woman who grew up in a Western Addition housing project and who might not seem like an obvious choice for the Chinese American com-
Supervisor Jane Kim and Mark Leno, who are also running in the June 5 race, were at the celebration as well. But “right now, it’s London,” said David Ho, a consultant and rising figure in Chinatown politics. “A month or two from now, it’s going to be clear she’s the person that Chinese voters feel the baton should be handed to.”
With four months left until the election, Breed is emerging as the heir to the Chinese American power structure that helped to elect Ed Lee, who died of a heart attack in December. Chinatown’s political elite is pulling away from Leno and Kim, who would be the first Asian American woman to be mayor, for one simple reason, political observers say: Breed is the candidate they think will win.
Her rise comes in spite of controversial remarks she’s made in the past, accusing Asian Americans of “monopolizing” the city’s affordable housing lottery. Community leaders seem willing to overlook those statements in the name of pragmatic politics. That was the approach that Chinatown’s most famous power broker, Brown ally Rose Pak, was known for.
Pak died in 2016. In her absence and with Lee’s death, “There’s a leadership void in the Chinese community, so people are looking to Willie Brown,” said David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University who also runs the nonprofit Chinese American Voters Education Committee.
Brown, who writes a weekly column for The Chronicle, has treated Breed as a protege. With him in tow, Breed has begun a charm offensive in the city’s Chinese American neighborhoods. After the Lunar New Year event on Friday, she served lunch to senior citizens at the Chinatown Salvation Army. On Tuesday, she and Brown will speak at a Chinese American Voters Education Committee banquet at the Chinatown Hilton hotel.
“What you’re seeing now is the Willie Brown coalition being put back together,” Lee said.
The endorsements are piling up. Ho, Supervisor Katy Tang and Chinatown businessman Pius Lee are all behind Breed. Their support will help sway an electorate that spreads from its political center in Chinatown out west to the Sunset District and south to the Bayview neighborhood. Chinese Americans account for roughly a fifth of voters in any city election.
“This is an important voting bloc — one that could push a candidate over the top,” said Josephine Zhao, a community organizer in the Sunset who is running for the Board of Education. She has not yet endorsed anyone in the mayor’s race.
Zhao and others stressed that the Chinese American community is not a monolith. But high-profile endorsements definitely matter. If the crowd that brought Ed Lee into power gives Breed its blessing, that says something.
It’s particularly noteworthy because not everyone views Breed as a natural successor to the late mayor. She represents the progressive District Five, which doesn’t have a lot of Chinese American residents. And she doesn’t have strong relationships among Chinatown tenant groups, who have long been tied to Kim, a much stronger advocate for affordable housing.
Kim has endorsements from Chinese American nonprofit leaders Anni Chung and Gordon Chin, as well as Chinatown’s Community Tenants Association.
Breed’s reputation in the Chinese American community may have been diminished by statements she made in a 2013 interview with the news site Hoodline that recently resurfaced and became a source of gossip at City Hall.
In the interview, Breed said that “one ethnic group” — Asians — was dominating the city’s lottery system for affordable housing. Two years later she introduced “neighborhood
preference” housing legislation designed to give African Americans a leg up.
“Was it a poor choice of words? Absolutely,” Ho said of the comments in Hoodline.
Yet he and others have forgiven Breed, saying she made the statements early in her political career and that she’s since matured. Breed later apologized through her campaign spokeswoman, Tara Moriarty.
“The African American and Chinese communities have much in common and have faced similar challenges in that they have both faced housing discrimination in our city, and both have a need for affordable housing,” Moriarty said.
Breed worked to repair her relationship with Chinese American residents from the moment she announced her candidacy in January — not in her own district, but at a playground in the heavily Asian American Outer Sunset, alongside Tang. A week later, she proposed renaming Portsmouth Square — the historic heart of Chinatown — after Ed Lee. And Breed recently added a Chinese translation of her name to her public Facebook page.
“She said publicly that she will carry on Ed Lee’s policies and programs in Chinatown,” said Pius Lee, chairman of the Chinatown Neighborhood Association, who threw a fundraiser for Breed at the Imperial Palace restaurant Saturday.
Breed is also promoting a ballot measure that would increase taxes on commercial properties to pay for more housing for lower- and middle-income families and provide shelters for the homeless, two things that have broad appeal among Chinese American residents. Representatives of Chinatown Community Development Center, an influential nonprofit that often sides with progressives, have pledged support for the measure. Breed is considered a moderate.
It would undercut a competing tax measure by Kim, a progressive, which would use a similar tax increase to raise money for child care subsidies.
Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of Chinatown Community Development Center, said his group will probably support both measures. But he’s already put the housing one in front, backing it at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing last week.
The fact that progressives in Chinatown are creating an opening for Breed at all is significant.
Some political observers say Breed has positioned herself strategically in a race where no one has an immediate claim on the Chinese American vote.
Kim is viewed by some as too liberal to win that electorate. She lost the 2016 state Senate race against Scott Wiener in west side neighborhoods like the Sunset and Ingleside, where residents are concerned about car burglaries, small businesses and property rights. Few voters in those neighborhoods would be fired up by Kim’s rhetoric about stopping evictions or taxing corporations.
“She could get a strong boost from Asian American voters, but it would take a grassroots voter mobilization campaign, and I’m not sure that’s what she’s created,” said former Supervisor Eric Mar, a progressive who endorsed Kim.
Leno, the former assemblyman and state senator, began his campaign by promising to take San Francisco in “a new direction,” a slogan that some people interpreted as a repudiation of Lee’s policies, meaning it wouldn’t play well in the Chinese American community.
His consultant, Jim Stearns, disputed that perception.
“When it comes to property crime and homelessness, the city needs to do better,” Stearns said. He noted that Leno has endorsements from several high-ranking San Francisco Democrats: Assemblyman Phil Ting, state Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma, Supervisors Norman Yee and Sandra Lee Fewer, and state Controller Betty Yee.
The only Chinese American candidate for mayor is Ellen Zhou, a social worker from the west side who isn’t well known and doesn’t have the political apparatus to run a citywide race.
That opens the door for Breed to make her case to the Chinese American community, said political consultant Tom Hsieh, whose father was a San Francisco supervisor in the 1980s. He sees Breed as a promising candidate.
“She grew up in San Francisco and went to San Francisco public schools — and making schools excellent is right in the wheelhouse of Chinese voters,” Hsieh said.
He added that the African American and Chinese American communities “have a very shared past” because they both faced discrimination from mainstream society.
If she can make that connection, she might be able to unite Chinatown with west side voters to claim the mayor’s office, said Lee, the San Francisco State University lecturer.
It can be done, he said — Willie Brown proved that.
London Breed greets community members at a Chinese New Year event in Portsmouth Square.
Children dressed as dogs to mark the Year of the Dog leave Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square after performing Friday.
Costumed entertainers with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce take photos with attendees during Friday’s kickoff event for Chinese New Year in Portsmouth Square. Mayoral candidate London Breed is courting Chinatown voters.