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Politics & Policy

Fourth time’s a charm? San Francisco Chinese American activist makes another run for office

A man speaks into a microphone on a city street, with four onlookers behind him, building and foggy sky in the background.
David Lee, a longtime Chinese American activist in San Francisco, announces his campaign for state assembly on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

David Lee wants to be a lawmaker. The San Francisco native and political activist, 54, has run unsuccessfully for the Board of Supervisors three times. But now he’s eyeing a higher office.

On Friday afternoon, Lee was surrounded by current and former Chinese American elected officials in the Richmond District to announce his campaign for the 19th state Assembly district, which covers San Francisco’s west side and northwestern San Mateo County.

“This is a chance to have an impact at the state level,” Lee told The Standard. “The state Assembly has an enormous impact on what happens in San Francisco.”

Lee emphasized that the state Legislature has the power to allocate resources and change laws, which can lead to real impacts on his policy priorities: housing and homelessness, education, and improved public safety.

Lee has been active in the city’s Chinese American community for decades by serving as the executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. He often appears on Chinese-language media at election time to analyze Chinese American voting trends. He’s also an educator who works at Laney College in Oakland.

His political career centers on his bids for supervisor in 2012, 2016 and 2020, all of which he lost. Lee was also a Recreation and Park commissioner in the 2000s and early 2010s.

The Standard published a story in August about the history of this particular Assembly seat. Chinese Americans have held it for the last two decades, and 40% of its population are people of Asian descent. Lee said the article inspired him to run, and he counts the current officeholder, Assemblymember Phil Ting—who is termed out—as a supporter.

“We really need to have someone that understands our community, has been in the community, has served our community,” Ting said. “David has been working in our community for decades behind the scenes.”

A group of people smiling, holding political campaign signs for David Lee for California Assembly, on a city street.
David Lee, center, a longtime Chinese American activist in San Francisco, is surrounded by his supporters as he announces his campaign for State Assembly on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

Other early Lee supporters include many of the city’s progressive Chinese American leaders: Supervisor Connie Chan, former Supervisors Norman Yee and Sandra Lee Fewer, and retired Judge Lillian Sing.

Five months from the primary election, Lee faces a strong opponent in Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who is supported by a large group of well-known political leaders.

Stefani campaign team member Mark Mosher issued a statement slamming Lee as a "political novice" who has lost every race he’s contested and accusing him of being two-faced by changing his political philosophies often. Based on his previous campaigns, Lee is among the moderate faction of San Francisco politics.

“Voters should be concerned that David Lee doesn’t have the experience, skills, consistent beliefs or broad support necessary to deliver major change on crime and homelessness in the district,” Mosher said.

Another candidate, Republican Arjun Sodhani, has also filed to run. The primary will be March 5, 2024. The top two winners will then head to the general election in November 2024.