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Rose Pak is Winning

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.

If Pak is indeed corrupt, it’s a rare sort of corruption that’s seemingly uninterested in amassing personal wealth. Others may benefit from her influence—the building-permit expediter Walter Wong, who helped win approval for projects like the Metreon, has likely profited from his ties with Pak, as has casino magnate Steve Wynn, who scored a casino permit in Macao after going on one of her China trips—but there’s scant evidence that Pak herself has profited. Her only known asset is a below-market-rate condo in South Beach that she bought in 2002. Pak says that she gets a monthly stipend from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, as well as some money each year from Stephen Fong, the longtime president of the chamber, with whom she lived for a time. (Pak insists that, contrary to published reports, the two have never been a couple.) None of it points to a lavish lifestyle.

Even after 40 years in the trenches, Pak seems genuinely disturbed by the drumbeat of criticism from her opponents. “Why do they care so much?” she asks me. It reminds me of something she said to Kim at Chu’s wedding banquet, a piece of advice from a veteran to a rising star. Earlier that week, Kim had tried to transfer control of the new Redevelopment Commission from the mayor’s office to the board. A standoff ensued, and Pak stepped in to force Kim to back down. Kim was still smarting from the dustup, but Pak told her, evidently with no hard feelings, “Don’t ever let people see how vulnerable you could be, because it’s a dog-eat-dog world in politics. I’ve found out. Even if it kills you inside, you have to act tough.”

Over time, I got a glimpse of the kind of vulnerability that Pak might have been referring to. One afternoon, while discussing the extent of her influence, Pak told me about an elderly Chinese-American couple who had recently come to her with a problem. Their son had been killed, the distraught couple told her, and their daughter-in-law, a Korean national, had fled to South Korea with the elderly couple’s grandson. They hoped that Pak could help them find the woman and get the grandchild back.

Pak’s voice faltered as she recounted the story, and she began to cry. “They claimed that everyone told them I’m very powerful in the community,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a napkin. “But how could I help them?”

 

AT BOTTOM, ALL POLITICS IS TRIBAL, and Pak fits into a long tradition of San Francisco leaders who carved out a bigger slice of the civic pie for their community, from labor folks like Jimmy Herman, president of the longshoremen's union, to Robert Barnes, the political consultant who helped put dozens of gay and lesbian politicians into office. Through the work of Pak and others, the Chinese electorate—the so-called sleeping giant of San Francisco politics—has awakened.

One measure of the community’s emergence as a political force is the number of new leaders who aren’t closely bound to Pak. Chu and Mar, for instance, didn’t come up underneath Pak’s wing, although Pak has forged ties with both in the years since their elections. Chiu, though he received support from Pak during his first supervisorial campaign, has never been part of her inner circle. Even Pak allies such as Kim and Olague (who was ousted by London Breed in the November election) haven’t always voted in line with her wishes—as evidenced by their recent votes to allow sheriff Ross Mirkarimi to keep his job.

Which is just as it’s supposed to be. Indeed, once marginalized communities join the establishment, they’re less likely to need leaders like Pak. The city’s gay community is a case in point. In 2010, sexual orientation hardly factored into the supervisorial race for District 8, which includes the Castro, because both of the main contenders were gay. Instead, the contest broke down along the progressive-versus-moderate lines typical of our era.

'Inevitably, Pak’s influence will fade, along with the sense of ethnic solidarity that she helped foster. “The Chinese story in San Francisco is the story of every ethnic group,” says political consultant David Latterman. “Immigrant groups come to America and they vote ethnically at first, before branching out. It just takes time.”

Ling-chi Wang, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley who helped establish the school’s Asian American Studies program, looks forward to the day when the electorate—and the politicians it supports—cares less about ethnicity than about ideals. “Our politicians need to have a citywide vision,” he says.

For now, though, Pak is still on top. This fall, federal funding for the Central Subway, for which Pak and the CCDC have been working since the Embarcadero Freeway collapsed, finally came through. The subway will extend Muni’s underground metro line into Chinatown, connecting the neighborhood more firmly to the wider city—much to the chagrin of the Lee administration’s opponents, progressive and conservative alike, who turned against the project during last year’s mayoral race. By any standard, it’s a huge victory for Pak.

The same is true of the legislation that authorizes Chinese Hospital’s seismic retrofit and rebuild. On a blustery day this fall, Mayor Lee, along with virtually everyone else of consequence in Chinese-American politics, is in Chinatown for the signing of the bill, which was fast-tracked thanks to Lee, Pak, and their allies on the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission.

Pak takes the mike. She looks out into the crowd, into faces she has known for decades. “What we are doing is very small compared to what they had to do years ago when conditions were not good, when we were discriminated against,” she says. “So it’s very gratifying for me today.”

The mayor signs the bill, the cameras click, and the Chinese-language media swarm Pak. A well-wisher gives her a rose. Pak turns to me. “This has nothing to do with politics,” she says, a note of vindication in her voice. “It’s about community.”

 

Read More: Who's Got Clout? A mayoral influence index.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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