San Francisco, once a stronghold of Asian American politics, struggles to find its next AAPI leaders

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A half-decade after becoming the youngest person elected to the Berkeley City Council, Rigel Robinson announced a bid last fall to become the first Korean and Asian American to serve as the city’s mayor. But his history-making turn in government has been dogged by relentless harassment, threats and stalking for his support for progressive policies, including a controversial project to build housing for students and homeless people.

In January, at the age of 27, Robinson resigned and suspended his mayoral run to protect himself and his family from the vitriol.

In an election year, the resignation of a rising Asian American star captures yet another tumultuous moment in local politics in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) elected representation has declined sharply in the past decade. The trend has alarmed experts and longtime community leaders, who say the escalating toxicity in local government has made it difficult to build a bench of young talent.

At the same time, Robinson said he thinks it’s more important than ever for young people to bring diverse perspectives to city government. “Democracy depends on people who will bring both conviction and common sense to elected office,” he said. “But it’s a sacrifice — I won’t and shouldn’t sugarcoat it.”

The battle for control of one of San Francisco’s most reliable “Chinese seats,” in particular, reflects seismic demographic and attitude shifts in a city that’s long served as a beacon of Asian American political power. After a dozen years representing the 19th Assembly District, which includes the city’s west side and is more than 40% Asian American, Democrat Phil Ting will be termed out in November. Since 2002, the district has elected three consecutive Chinese American representatives.

But ahead of the March primaries, Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a moderate Democrat who oversees the predominantly white and affluent District 2, has emerged as the early front-runner. (The Democratic nominee is heavily favored to win November’s general election.)

In the mid-2010s, lawmakers of Asian descent secured a majority of San Francisco’s top offices, including the mayoral post and two Assembly seats, as well as five of 11 positions on the board of supervisors. Yet today, as Asian Americans have become a formidable voting bloc across the country, only Ting and one supervisor, Connie Chan, retain their seats in government.

“It’s disappointing and sad to see the number of Asian Americans and Chinese Americans shrinking in San Francisco,” Ting said. “Our community hasn’t done enough to encourage the next generation of people to run.”

Last fall, Ting and several other Chinese American leaders recruited and endorsed David Lee, a community organizer and political science professor at San Francisco State University, to challenge Stefani in the primary. Lee said his campaign has raised $250,000 in donations over the past two months, which he saw as a testament to the strong grassroots support for a Chinese American candidate.

Lee, also the executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, said the toxicity and infighting in local politics has dampened the political aspirations of young Asian Americans who don’t want to subject their loved ones to abuse by running for office.

“There’s a feeling that the leadership has failed and there’s a real hunger for change,” he said. “Civil dialogue has become much more pointed and personal.”

Yet, the race also revealed the limitations of representation in local politics. The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, which endorsed Stefani, noted that Lee provided vague responses to questions about criminal justice and education policies — top issues for Asian American constituents. Stefani, who touted her strong connections with the community and efforts to address anti-Asian hate, has secured endorsements from prominent Asian American leaders, including City Attorney David Chiu and state Treasurer Fiona Ma.

Lee said he wants to fight for more funding for public education and build more affordable housing so that working families can stay on the west side. At the same, he said, he’ll continue investing in initiatives to combat anti-Asian racism. “My purpose for running is not for myself but for the community,” he said.

Brian Quan, the president of the Chinese American Democratic Club, said the loss of Asian American lawmakers in a city that is one-third Asian should be a call to action. The Chinese American community, he said, has become complacent about the tremendous progress that leaders have made in recent decades. “Decline is the natural course when a movement has been so successful,” he said. “People forget the hard work it takes to sustain political momentum.”

San Francisco is a bastion of liberal politics, and the Democrats who rule City Hall fall along a progressive-moderate divide. Most elected Asian Americans have been progressives, who have had the upper hand for decades. But attitudes have shifted since the pandemic.

Exit polls and studies have shown that contentious issues like education and public safety have driven Asian American voters to the center. In 2022, Chinese American voters fed up with distance learning and the surge in anti-Asian hate incidents drove the successful recall campaigns of three school board members and progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Later that year, Gordon Mar, a progressive supervisor who opposed the recalls of the school board members, lost his re-election bid in a district that had elected Chinese American representatives for more than two decades.

Quan also attributed the community’s waning political might to the deaths of power brokers and activists like Rose Pak and Harold Yee, who built the Chinese American organizing machine decades ago, as well as Ed Lee, the first Asian American mayor of San Francisco, who died of a heart attack during his second term in office. “Their deaths left a vacuum,” Quan said. “We’re in a period where we don’t have that big-name organizer at the moment that the community can rally around.”

But there’s still cause for hope, Quan said. While there might be fewer Asian Americans in elected office at a city and state level, plenty are involved in organizing, advocacy groups and down-ballot races. A dozen Asian candidates, including Quan and former Supervisor Jane Kim, are vying for seats on the Democratic County Central Committee. “There’s still a lot of good energy in the community,” Quan said. “It just takes time to build that ladder.”

CORRECTION (Feb. 13, 2024, 10:45 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the amount David Lee raised over the past few months. The sum is $250,000, not $2.5 million.

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