Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Throw The Jew Down The Well

(Left) Victim of a Rush To Judgment? Or Poster Child for the Municipal Equivalent of a Failed State? You Decide.

If you live in Northern California, you know that San Francisco's District 4 Supervisor Ed Jew is in big trouble. Headlines in the city's newspapers and blogs have been dominated by the ongoing criminal and civil charges against the 47-year-old entrepreneur, activist, and since last year, elected official.

To the uninitiated, Jew came upon the political scene as an activist for the interests of New Chinatown, the community of conservative, homeowning, second and third generation middle-class Chinese-Americans who moved to the City's West Side to buy homes and start businesses. Together with more affluent recent Chinese immigrants, this community started to find its own political focus during the mid-90's over issues like the fate of the Central Freeway, the shorting of their children in public schools as exemplified by the district's busing policy, rising taxes and utility use fees, and community opposition to their tendency to remodel their new homes to accommodate larger families, which they viewed as racist.

The truth is a bit deeper than that. Just as mainstream city leaders in the 1980's saw an exodus of light industry in favor of a new upper middle class changing the face of downtown and nearby development through infill housing, some leaders in the city's Chinese American community, then still centered politically around Old Chinatown on the East Side, saw the evolving needs of the community and worked to foster a new political voice for Chinese Americans which was independent of the Progressive, benefit-oriented ethnic politics of the time.

Chief among these were Harold Yee, the founder of Asian, Inc. and his protégé Roland Quan, a major leader in the Chinese American Democratic Democratic Club (CADC) in the 1990's. These people were contemporaries of other more assimilationist and Progressive identified Chinese American leaders like Supervisor Gordon Lau, Judge Lillian Sing, Professor Ling-Chi Wang, publisher John Fang, Democratic activist Alicia Wang, and others. However, they decided to go in a different direction politically.

It was in the late 1990's and early 2000's that this political faction started making visible gains. In 1994, CADC sponsored a class action against the San Francisco Unified School District, alleging that the district busing policy negatively impacted Chinese-American students by effectively holding them to far higher standards than those for other students. In 1999, they won a court order that forced the district to stop using race or ethnicity in admissions decisions. In 1997, newly elected Supervisor Leland Yee, a former School Board member who campaigned for his job based a moderate, reality-based political platform, championed a successful ballot measure to retrofit and preserve the Central Freeway, an artery considered important to car-loving Westside Chinese but as a blight generating impediment to the density-friendly redevelopment of Hayes Valley and nearby neighborhoods.

By 2000, however, things started to slump. District Elections forced Leland Yee to reinvent himself as a NIMBY politics candidate who put forward a conservative image but who was more than willing to be pimped by Progressives on citywide issues, essentially becoming a Chinese ghola of Quentin Kopp. Further ballot battles over the Central Freeway led to victories for the Progressives. But the icing on the cake was the demise of Julie Lee, the Taraval street realtor and rising political ward boss who acquired her first fat pipe during the first Central Freeway war.

Lee started a new organization called the San Francisco Neighbors' Association, which was ostensibly dedicated to championing issues dear to new (and thus implicitly including immigrant) homeowners, such as tax and fee relief, quality of life issues, and increasing housing supply. Unfortunately, Lee's personal ambitions, for herself as well as for her son, took over. And when they came crashing down, they took the political career of Kevin Shelley with them.

It is in the wake of all this that we now see the meteoric rise and fall of Ed Jew's political career.

Jew won his Supervisor's seat with an aggressive campaign which would seem, despite the recent revelations that he didn't even live in the district, to be a model for victory under the current electoral regime of district elections by ranked choice voting. He stayed clear of the backbiting and perceived factional string-pulling between other Chinese-American candidates, and turned out a base, which he carefully cultivated as a citywide leader.

Jew may not have earned the notice of the white-dominated city political clique until recently, but within the Chinese American community he was very well known as an activist on political issues, whether based in policy (water and sewer rates, neighborhood schools) or culture (urging Japanese acknowledgement of war crimes). His family ties - his father is a former President of the Chinese Six Companies - are also well known.

And while the political community may see his agenda as fungible (Jew entered politics as a Republican, but won office as a Democrat), his base, up until now, has seen him as True Blue (when Leland Yee turned his back on his constituency for the sake of first District Elections, and then State office, Jew in turn abandoned him).

But none of that matters anymore. There are a lot of indications that Jew, despite being respected in the community and having considerable personal wealth, simply "wanted it too badly." Insiders in the community readily acknowledged that during his recent and previous runs for office, his meeting of residency requirements was facile at best. Like a lot of rich people who run multiple businesses, Ed Jew likely sees a publicly known home address as an encumbrance if not an outright invasion of privacy. Despite running as a supposed outsider, he was well connected, and benefited from a number of the many entitlements which burden the City (for instance, his family holds tight-fistedly onto a taxi medallion).

So if Ed Jew was More Of The Same, and it certainly seems he has turned out that way, what's with the spectacularly sordid explosion of his political career? Jew's residency peccadilloes, although long suspected, were not focused upon until it was revealed that the FBI were already investigating him for shaking down businesses over permits. Oh Yeah - Jew had the brass balls to ask for $40,000, as an elected official, to expedite businesses supposedly arrears permits. The business in question didn't seem to feel compromised in the situation: after all, they went to the FBI, and helped sting Jew with FBI buy money. Which begs the question: ISN'T THIS WORSE? Any why has everyone stopped talking about it and instead focused on the residency issue, despite its own fungibility?

It certainly makes one wonder.