A personal response to “Who runs S.F.?”

by Gen Fujioka, 2012-12-10

This month, San Francisco Magazine (SFM) published its “Power Issue” that purports to reveal the inner workings of San Francisco politics and, more specifically, promotes a particularly sensationalistic view of Rose Pak and “the Chinatown Connection.” As I discuss, SFM’s fear-driven narrative panders to anxieties about Asian American political participation. These anxieties combine with simple ignorance to obscure the real politics of diversity in the City.

Before I go further, in full disclosure, for over a year I have been the public policy manager at Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) and in my previous positions I have worked with CCDC and many of the ‘usual suspects’ in Chinatown for over twenty years. Despite my proximity to the people and players referred to, for better or for worse I retain my own independent perspective and the following reflects my personal views.

San Francisco Magazine: Racism Made Fashionable

The sensationalistic cover of San Francisco Magazine’s December edition offers a modernized 2.0 version of yellow-peril journalism for the 21st Century. The subliminal message of the smoke obscured face of Rose Pak, and the headline “Who Runs S.F.?”, were clearly designed to stir unease and even fear of a Chinese takeover of the City (consider instead if the photo was of smiling Ed Lee).

To ramp up the fear factor, SF Magazine presents a rigged “power list” of the city’s most powerful people and organizations. Relying upon its select panel of experts (none Asian American), the magazine ranks Rose Pak and her Chinatown “conspiracy” (including CCDC) as Number One.

Yup. It is I, Number One threat to democracy with a yellow face. In much of the rest of the country that face is portrayed with more of a shade of black or brown and comes with similar tales of insider deals and voter fraud. As in the pages of SFM there are probably the same disturbed stories of folk like us invading golf courses and country clubs with loud talk and reckless driving (the audacity!).

Count on San Francisco Magazine to capture the vibe of the local elite! The Chronicle liked SFM’s golf course story so much the paper promoted it as news.

As can be expected of SFM, this fashion journal offers more colorful anecdotes than facts to express its anxieties about Asian American political participation. And the ‘facts’ they do offer seem either trivial or are simply wrong.

In the ‘wrong’ category, SFM claims that CCDC staff mobilizes an “army of volunteers” from tenants in our buildings to support Rose Pak’s political endorsees. This tired story conjuring up images of some Mongol horde is false.

It does not happen. CCDC prohibits its staff from engaging in any candidate campaign activities on the job or in our buildings. And tenants are not sheep nor do they think all alike. CCDC does not and cannot mobilize its tenants to serve as Rose Pak’s ground troops.

Equally imagined is SFM’s exaggerated assessment of the roles played by Rose Pak and her alleged co-conspirators in the rise of Asian Americans in politics. “Pak is unquestionably the prime mover behind the power shift,” declares SFM. Unquestioned by whom? The magazine fails to quote a single person from within the Asian American community who shares that assessment. Instead we are offered the ample opinions of Aaron Peskin, who is a smart guy but cannot stop talking about his arch rival Rose Pak.

The reality is that the rise of Asian Americans in San Francisco’s politics is attributable to many, many more participants, activists, and players. Rose Pak plays a role but so too does the Chinese Progressive Association and SF Rising, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Local 2, ethnic media, and other individuals and organizations that have played essential roles in engaging Asian American voters and growing new leaders.

SFM’s crude and simplistic version of the expanded role of Asian Americans in SF politics de-values the efforts others in our community and insults the intelligence of all voters.

Why Karl Rove and David Lee Lost

For a step towards reality based journalism it is worth comparing the SFM analyses with the article “A Crash Course in SF Politics,” by blogger kurykh published on the political website DailyKos. The DailyKos post offers a less sensationalized set of answers to the same question, “who runs S.F.?” Relying on real voter data, it adds more layers analysis beyond the one dimensional frame of SFM.

The DailyKos post deserves more discussion than space allows here. We note in passing that the author unfortunately succumbs to using the same SFM tourist guide to Chinatown politics, portraying Rose Pak as Chinatown’s mastermind. Failure to recognize diversity within communities also leads the analysis to misplace David Chiu, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar in the same political “faction.” Painting with such a broad brush might make San Francisco “easier to understand” but the understanding that it yields only misleads.

Moving beyond the yellow-journalism of SFM and the analytical limitations of the DailyKos post, what is needed is an analysis of the growing number of San Francisco voters of all colors that have moved beyond stereotypes and old identity politics. A starting point for that analysis might be an evaluation of the resounding victory of Eric Mar over David Lee in District 1, an election result that fits neither of the aforementioned narratives.

As the readers of BeyondChron know, Mar won after being outspent 4 to 1 and despite Lee’s decades-long media driven status as an ‘expert’ on Asian American voters. The District 1 race and other results shows that elections in San Francisco can (and should) be won based upon values and issues. That is the real story that needs to be told, not racist caricatures of powerbrokers and stereotyped identities.