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Lauren Smiley | Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty | April 15, 2014
Leland Yee’s status as an outsider to the Chinese-American political machine may finally be paying off—for everyone but Leland Yee.
On the March day that California State Senator Leland Yee was arrested on gun trafficking and political corruption charges, a former TED fellow and Asian-American political pundit, Adrian Hong, blasted a bit of red-hot sarcasm into the Twittersphere: “Special thanks to @LelandYee today for singlehandedly setting back Asian Americans in public service a few decades.” An assistant political science professor at San Francisco State tweeted back that Asian Americans are too successful a force in San Francisco politics for Yee to matter. Someone else chirped up with a clearheaded, non-race-based view: “I don’t think of @LelandYee as an Asian American. I think of him as a Democrat. And an asshole.” Yet Hong remained unconvinced that race wouldn’t play into the fallout surrounding Yee, who was California’s first Chinese-American state senator. “For minorities in America, so far, any misstep by a member brands the group,” he tweeted back. “It most certainly hurts, even though it shouldn’t.”
His was a concern echoed by numerous Asian-American leaders nationwide—that one allegedly gun-trafficking senator’s downfall (complete with such quotable gems as “We control 6.8 billion, man, shit,” Yee’s alleged reference to the money he’d have at his disposal if elected mayor) would tarnish every Asian-American politician. In a Chronicle op-ed, David Lee, the executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, wrote that he’d been contacted by activists across the country about the “possible chilling effect on what had been viewed as one of the most spectacular political ascendancies in urban politics”—that of Chinese Americans in San Francisco in recent years.
Tellingly, much of the worry about broad-brush racism has come from outside city limits—and outside City Hall. “Ten years ago, it would [have had a bigger effect], but now we’re a diverse and sizable group,” says supervisor Jane Kim, who is Korean-American, but got her political start organizing Chinatown youth and maintains strong connections to that community. “I feel pretty comfortable that one person doesn’t take down an entire cohort.”
But perhaps the bigger reason that Yee won’t stain the group is that he didn’t really belong to it. Yee fashioned himself as an outsider and was known by politicians as “his own machine”—the obvious contrast being the Chinese-American political machine that’s gained power in San Francisco. “Leland is not a traditional Chinese politician; he’s a Westside guy,” says political consultant David Latterman, who currently advises Board of Supervisors president David Chiu. “One of the big surprises of this [scandal] is that he had these connections to Chinatown.” As Yee was allegedly trading favors for campaign donations over the last few years, he was also isolating himself from Chinatown kingmaker Rose Pak—who has called him morally corrupt in the press for years—and the emerging power structure she represents. (Yee won special disdain in Chinatown for opposing the neighborhood’s new City College campus.) Famously, Pak engineered the “Run, Ed, Run” campaign, pitting Ed Lee against Yee, perceived to be the early front-runner in the 2011 mayoral race.
Indeed, “Leland is out for Leland” was a sentiment often repeated in political circles: Unlike other Asian-American politicians who’ve risen to prominence in recent years, Yee didn’t go out of his way to help other politicos of his tribe—much different from, say, Chiu and Kim, who are former Richmond district roommates and were in the same club of young Asian-American professionals. During Kim’s supervisorial run, Chiu told the Cantonese press that all the Asian-American leaders who supported him were supporting Kim as well. “There’s nobody floating around in the current political system that you can say, he or she’s a Leland person,” says political consultant Jim Ross. Yee has endorsed a few Asian-American supervisors over the years, but asking insiders about his true allies tends to elicit a long pause. “I’m having to go back 15 years to answer that question,” says Eric Jaye, Gavin Newsom’s former strategist. “He wasn’t hanging out with the 500 insiders at City Hall.”
One former Yee ally was former city supervisor Ed Jew, who started his political career as a volunteer in Yee’s office. But Yee didn’t have any particular longtime loyalty to him, either—Yee was instrumental in the 2007 investigation of Jew’s extortion of bubble tea vendors in his supervisorial district (which overlapped Yee’s senate district). Hoping for a lighter federal prison sentence, Jew told federal agents about potential criminal activity by Yee, but apparently the feds never acted on the information. In fact, Yee wasn’t the target of the FBI investigation that ultimately ensnared him. Convicted Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow was, and it was only through Chow’s connection to Keith Jackson, a consultant to Chow’s fraternal organization and a Yee fundraiser, that the feds turned their attention toward the politician.
Perhaps the one way identity politics is playing out in the Yee scandal is in the sadness from some in the Asian-American community. Yet even that sentiment is far from unanimous. “Thirty years ago, maybe there’d be more Chinese Americans arguing that an attack on him is an attack on us, but I have seen very little of that around Yee’s arrest,” says Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. The novelty of having Asian Americans in office is gone, he notes—voters are interested in results. “I think the community is evolving and wants something better, as it should, something where ethnic pride isn’t the driving factor it once was.”
Yee largely now finds himself the way he positioned himself in politics—alone. “He was always off the reservation,” says political consultant David Looman. “He built a moat around himself, and now this scandal isn’t going to get across the moat.”
Originally published in the May Issue of San Francisco.