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Rose Pak is Winning
Chris Smith | Photo: Jim Hughes | November 26, 2012
For the first time in San Francisco history, the halls of power are dominated by Asian-American leaders, and many of them have one brilliant, tireless, and, according to her enemies, unscrupulous woman to thank.
It turned out to be a dry run for the rest of Pak’s career. Abandoning journalism, she threw herself into her new persona: activist, fundraiser, and 360-degree fixer for the Chinese-American community. As the years passed, Pak grew ever more adept at shifting between the disparate worlds of Chinatown and the city’s white-run establishment—and at plying her influence. In 1987, for example, Pak helped lead the fight against developers who wanted to evict the low-income tenants in Chinatown’s Orangeland building in order to demolish it and build a high-rise in its place. “The vote was 9 to 2 against us,” Pak remembers. “But I went and worked on the board, and the new vote was 9 to 2 in our favor.”
Sometimes Pak had to bring politicians to the neighborhood just to convince them of her sway. “We’d take somebody through Chinatown, and everybody would say hello to us,” Woo says describing the process. “They’re not necessarily a supporter—they may be your enemy—but it’s a small town. And the visitor looks at it and says, ‘Wow,’ right?”
Pak continues that tradition today by entertaining newly elected Asian-American politicians—regardless of whether she supported their campaigns—at sumptuous dinner parties at the official residence of the Chinese consul in Forest Hill. Eric Mar and Carmen Chu got this treatment in 2009, though they have never received any help from Pak. She also organizes trips to China for favored politicians and developers. Mar, Chu, and David Chiu accompanied her on a 2009 trip, traveling to Hong Kong and Macao to meet a raft of Chinese government officials whom she has courted to foster business ties.
Pak also makes herself useful as a sort of political translator. Former mayor Agnos, who was chief of staff to assemblyman Leo McCarthy when he hooked up with Pak, was one of the earliest policy makers to receive her now-patented late-night phone calls. She called him every night at about 11 p.m., he says, to fill him in on, say, what Sing Tao had reported that day—and offer her “strong opinions,” Agnos recalls. “She would go over whatever was on her mind for at least an hour. She’s very well-informed, and if you’re a politician, you want to be informed too.”
Pak supplemented these intelligence briefings with copious amounts of money, culled mostly from the Chinatown establishment. Agnos and Brown have benefited, as have Lee, Kim, and Chiu. This June, Pak hosted a fund-raiser for Christina Olague, the progressive former Planning Commission member whom Lee appointed as supervisor to District 5. It was an absurdly lucrative event, and it made headlines. Pak insists, though, that reports of the take as nearly $50,000 were too low; the real haul, she says, was $70,000.
The final piece of the puzzle that explains Pak’s power is her ability to mobilize the troops. “To get elected supervisor, it only takes 10,000 votes,” says political consultant Jim Ross. “If you can create an operation that turns out two or three thousand votes, you can have a real impact.” And that’s exactly what Pak’s ally David Ho can do. Through his work for the CCDC, which owns or manages 2,200 affordable housing units primarily in Chinatown, he knows every square inch of Chinatown’s apartment blocks and can turn out volunteers en masse.
Not surprisingly, Ho’s people tend to vote in line with Pak, which is one reason that she has been able to vault her allies—most of whom are Asian-American—into positions of power. Pak encouraged Ed Lee to work for Agnos’s mayoral campaign in 1987, which led to Lee’s first city appointments. Under Mayor Brown, she beat back challenges from west-side influencers like Julie Lee to place her own people in high office—consider Doug Wong’s stint as port director or Fred Lau’s appointment as the first Asian-American police chief. As pro- gressive power broker (see page 93) and former District 3 supervisor Aaron Peskin puts it, “Rose is smart and works her ass off and has people in the government buried everywhere.”
Through it all, one of Pak’s most potent weapons has been her fearlessness: She’s not afraid to fight—whomever, wherever. Despite having worked on Dianne Feinstein’s first supervisorial campaign in 1968, she quarreled with Mayor Feinstein over the Chinatown Master Plan in order to protect the neighborhood from downtown developers aligned with city hall. And she broke with Agnos over his decision not to rebuild the Embarcadero Freeway after the Loma Prieta earthquake, a project that Chinatown merchants desperately wanted.
Some of Pak’s conflicts have become intensely personal. As supervisor, Peskin tried to block the construction of a parking garage on Vallejo Street in North Beach—a project that Pak supported. Although Peskin lost, he showed up at the ribbon-cutting ceremony anyway. When Pak saw him, Peskin says, she commandeered the microphone and declared, “Here comes the Taliban.”