Half a decade after becoming the youngest person elected to the Berkeley City Council, Rigel Robinson last fall announced a bid to become the first Korean and Asian American to serve as mayor of the city. But his historic turn in government was dogged by relentless intimidation, threats and stalking over his support for progressive policies, including a controversial project to build housing for students and the homeless.
In January, at the age of 27, Robinson resigned and suspended his mayoralty to protect himself and his family from the vitriol.
In an election year, the resignation of a rising Asian American star captures another tumultuous moment in local politics in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) elected representation has declined sharply over the past decade. This trend has alarmed experts and longtime community leaders, who say escalating toxicity within local government has made it difficult to build a pool of young talent.
At the same time, Robinson said he believes it is more important than ever for young people to bring diverse perspectives to city government. “Democracy depends on people bringing both conviction and common sense to their elected office,” he said. “But it is a sacrifice – I don’t want to and shouldn’t hide it.”
In particular, the battle for control of one of San Francisco’s most reliably “Chinese seats” reflects seismic demographic and attitudinal shifts in a city that has long served as a beacon of Asian American political power. After 12 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 ousted in November. Since 2002, the district has elected three consecutive Chinese-American representatives.
But ahead of the March primary, Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a moderate Democrat who oversees the predominantly white and affluent District 2, has emerged as the early frontrunner. (The Democratic candidate is heavily favored to win the November general election.)
In the mid-2010s, lawmakers of Asian descent won a majority of San Francisco’s top jobs, including the mayor’s post and two seats in the Assembly, as well as five of 11 positions on the Board of Supervisors. But 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 is disappointing and sad to see the shrinking numbers of Asian Americans and Chinese Americans in San Francisco,” Ting said. “Our community hasn’t done enough to encourage the next generation of people to take up running.”
Last fall, Ting and several other Chinese American leaders recruited and supported 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 $2.5 million in donations over the past two months, which he saw as evidence of strong grassroots support for a Chinese-American candidate.
Lee, who is also executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, said the toxicity and infighting in local politics have dampened the political aspirations of young Asian Americans who do not want to subject their loved ones to abuse by running for office.
“There is a sense that leadership has failed and there is a real appetite for change,” he said. “Citizen dialogue has become much more focused and personal.”
Yet the race also exposed the limitations of representation in local politics. The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, which endorsed Stefani, noted that Lee gave vague answers to questions about criminal justice and education policy — top issues for Asian American voters. Stefani, who touted her strong community ties and efforts to address anti-Asian hate, has received support 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 working families can stay on the West Side. At the same time, he said, he will continue to invest in initiatives to combat anti-Asian racism. “My purpose in 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 leaders have made in recent decades. “Decline is the natural progression when a movement has been so successful,” he said. “People forget the hard work it takes to maintain political momentum.”
San Francisco is a bastion of liberal politics, and the Democrats who govern City Hall find themselves in a progressive-moderate divide. Most elected Asian Americans are progressives, who have had the upper hand for decades. But since the pandemic, attitudes have changed.
Exit polls and surveys have shown that controversial issues like education and public safety have pushed Asian American voters toward the center. By 2022, Chinese American voters had had enough of distance learning and the wave of anti-Asian hate incidents led to 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 recalling 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 declining political power to the deaths of power brokers and activists like Rose Pak and Harold Yee, who built the Chinese-American organizing machine decades ago, and to Ed Lee, San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor , who died. of a heart attack during his second term. “Their deaths left a vacuum,” Quan said. “We’re in a period where we don’t have that big of an organizer right now that the community can rally around.”
But there is still reason for hope, Quan said. While there may be fewer Asian Americans in elected office at the city and state level, many are involved in organizing, advocacy groups and ballot initiatives. 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.”
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