Chinatown's "House of Cards"

By Joel P. Engardio

If Netflix wants to produce a “House of Cards” based on San Francisco politics, the race to win Chinatown has plenty of plot points.

Mayor Ed Lee is popular in Chinatown and will likely win re-election without challenge in November. But his real opponent is running for supervisor in District 3, which includes Chinatown and North Beach.

Former supervisor Aaron Peskin -- nicknamed the “Napoleon of North Beach” -- was a polarizing force when he held office from 2001 to 2009. Now he wants his old job back. Supervisors can serve again if they sit out at least one term between two consecutive terms.

Peskin is running on a populist “affordable city” platform, but don’t be fooled. Peskin’s policies helped create today’s housing crisis. He made sure we didn’t build enough housing to meet demand, which led to higher prices.

A master of Not-In-My-Backyard politics, Peskin said no to new housing, a new subway, even a new library because they didn’t fit an idealized, frozen-in-amber version of San Francisco.

Peskin’s return is part of a NIMBY agenda to undermine Mayor Lee, starve the tech industry of office space and housing, keep millennials out (along with the change they bring) and take San Francisco back to the 1970s.

It’s a good plan for residents who already have secure housing and prefer the “Tales of the City” era. But limiting density in the high-demand eastern neighborhoods only pushes property values higher -- making below-market renters more vulnerable for eviction.

If Peskin wins, the so-called “progressive” supervisors will have a majority. They support anti-progress measures like a moratorium on new market-rate housing in the Mission, which most economists say will make the housing crisis worse.

If Peskin loses, Mayor Lee and the moderate supervisors will prevail. They know that more housing construction at every price point takes pressure off existing units, which means fewer evictions -- and helps the kids and grandkids of longtime San Franciscans afford to stay here.

So the stakes are high.

Peskin is running against Julie Christensen, who was appointed District 3 supervisor by Mayor Lee in January.

While District 3 stretches from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown determines its politics, said David Lee, director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.

He said District 3 turnout is typically 30,000 votes, which means Chinatown’s bloc of 7,000 votes can swing an election.

Mayor Lee’s popularity in Chinatown explains why Peskin’s Chinese-language flyers claim how much he will “work with Mayor Lee.”

Yet Peskin regularly tells non-Chinese media what he really thinks about the mayor’s leadership: “the hegemony of nothingness” and “a cesspool of pay-to-play politics.”

When Peskin opposed the mayor’s move to relax chain store restrictions, he told the San Francisco Chronicle “we will stick it up their asses.”

The tone is familiar to anyone who had to endure Peskin’s widely reported temper. The Chronicle recently quoted Mayor Lee warning a return to “the days of drunken calls at midnight.”

Then there are Peskin’s incendiary quotes in the Epoch Times denouncing the “political influence” of the “People’s Republic of China” in San Francisco.

If the race is decided on the issues Chinatown cares about, Christensen has the edge. She supported the central subway, a parks bond to renovate playgrounds and Mayor Lee’s transportation bond to improve pedestrian safety. Peskin opposed all of it.

Still, Chinatown political expert David Lee predicts a close race.

“Chinatown voters don’t pay attention to negative quotes on campaign mailers. They remember who they saw on the sidewalk kissing babies,” said David Lee, who isn’t endorsing anyone in District 3. “The best-organized candidate who can meet the most people will win. Christensen is committed, down-to-earth and approachable. Even Peskin can be warm and friendly, and his Chinese isn’t bad.”

As Chinatown goes, so goes San Francisco. Voters should choose wisely.

Also published in San Francisco Examiner May 24, 2015

PoliticsJoel Engardio