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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.
And Pak doesn’t hesitate to draw on that well for political ends. Earlier this year, when she heard that someone who had worked for her enemies was about to be hired by Mayor Lee’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, she made sure that the job offer was rescinded. She makes no apologies. “I sounded the alarm,” she says. “I called the mayor and the chief of staff. I’m very proud of it, and I'd do it again."
THAT SORT OF BEHAVIOR, of course, will make you enemies—lots of them. Given Pak’s power, almost none of her critics would speak to me on the record. Most say that they believe her dedication to Chinatown is genuine, but they are unanimous in their conviction that she cuts a lot of corners in doing good for her people.
One, who spoke on condition of anonymity, raised questions about the Olague fundraiser. “I have never heard of a single event in a supervisorial race raising more than $25,000. Do I believe that all of those people wrote $500 checks [the maximum legal donation to a supervisorial race]? Absolutely not. She takes whatever money she has and gives somebody $500 to write a check.”
Pak vociferously denies the charge. “Where the hell do I get money to give other people? I convince people to give money; I don’t have any to give. It’s ludicrous.”
It should also be noted that no official charges have ever been brought against Pak—her record is clean. Still, rumors have dogged her for years, and last year’s mayoral race was no exception. Several critics pointed to allegations of campaign violations. When an independent committee supporting Lee set up a mock voting booth plastered with “Ed Lee” signs in Chinatown, opponents alleged that volunteers were improperly filling out ballots for Chinese-American seniors. The district attorney dropped his investigation in September, citing lack of evidence. Ho concedes that those supporters could have “used better judgment.” But he adds that many of the community’s seniors can’t read very well and need help. So, he asks, “Is it an empowerment issue, or is it voter fraud?”
Pak sees racism in the accusation. Noting that 85 percent of all Chinese-American voters went for Lee, she says that his opponents “were trying to suppress the minority vote.”
Critics also charge that Pak is an unregistered lobbyist, receiving payment, in violation of city law, for helping to push controversial development projects through the bureaucratic pipeline. Take the case of 8 Washington. The project, which aims to build 134 luxury condos across from the Ferry Building, would necessitate tearing down part of a private tennis club and would block some neighbors’ views. A consortium of neighborhood and anti-development groups (joined by the granddaddy of all neighborhood groups, Peskin’s Telegraph Hill Dwellers) has fought the project for years. The developer, Simon Snellgrove, modified the plan, and this year it passed the Board of Supervisors with ease, garnering votes from supervisors not known for their pro-development stances—Pak allies like Jane Kim and Olague. (Recently, Peskin and his cohorts collected enough signatures to place a referendum on the project on the 2013 ballot, temporarily halting 8 Washington in its tracks.)
Many believe that Pak and Ho influenced the proceedings by leaning on their allies on the board. Peskin, who says that Pak lobbied him for the project when he was in office, is the only one willing to say it on the record. And, he adds, “I’d allege that she received some form of compensation for it.” But both Pak and Ho deny speaking with anyone on the board about the project, and they deny receiving payment. “There are plenty of lobbyists on that project,” Ho says. “I’m sure they don’t need my help.”
That said, Pak is definitely a quiet supporter of the project. For one thing, Snellgrove is an old friend and a frequent guest on her China trips. Then there’s the stash of affordable housing money that could come Chinatown’s way if the project goes through. To satisfy the city’s affordable housing requirements, developers must pay into a fund if they don’t want to include low-income units onsite. In theory, that money can go to any project in the city, but in practice, it rarely leaves the immediate vicinity. Because the nearest community-development organizations are in Chinatown, the cash would conceivably go to the CCDC.