Breed works to charm Chi­na­town

San Francisco Chronicle - - NEWS - By Rachel Swan

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.

Jes­sica Chris­tian / The Chron­i­cle

Lon­don Breed greets com­mu­nity mem­bers at a Chi­nese New Year event in Portsmouth Square.

Jes­sica Chris­tian / the Chron­i­cle

Chil­dren dressed as dogs to mark the Year of the Dog leave Chi­na­town’s Portsmouth Square af­ter per­form­ing Fri­day.

Jes­sica Chris­tian / The Chron­i­cle

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.

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