On a warm Friday afternoon in Chinatown, Daniel Lurie was running from boba shop to printing company to wonton noodle restaurant, introducing himself to the community. Lurie, a political newcomer who’s running for mayor of San Francisco, heard a similar message from the neighborhood’s merchants over and over again.
“They're not feeling safe,” Lurie said. “Safety is the No. 1 priority for me in this election. Gotta keep people safe.”
Hours later, at a waterfront Chinese restaurant not far away from Chinatown, Mayor London Breed showed up to celebrate the Lunar New Year. At the event, which was hosted by the political nonprofit Chinese American Voter Education Committee, Breed’s speech centered on public safety, too.
Citing the “rise in anti-Asian hate in San Francisco” during the pandemic, Breed promised her office’s full attention: “There is more that needs to be done.”
The community is listening, but so far at least, it remains undecided, especially with no major Chinese American political figure in the race. And so Lurie, Breed and other mayoral candidates are doing what they can to fill the vacuum, bending over backward—at times awkwardly—to make their case.
Asian Votes 'Are Up for Grabs'
In 2018, after the death of Mayor Ed Lee, San Franciscans elected Breed in an ultra-competitive race by a razor-thin margin. Breed, a moderate Democrat, received the highest support from Asian voters, which carried her to the victory line. In 2019, Breed easily won her first full term as no major opponent was running against her.
But a lot has happened since then. With a national media frenzy depicting San Francisco as lawless and dysfunctional, Breed’s popularity has plummeted, and other candidates are looking to peel off her base of Asian American supporters.
“That's why you see so many candidates seeking the Asian vote,” said David Lee, the executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee. “They want their names in Chinese. They want to appeal to Chinese voters in their own language, in Chinese-language newspapers and television.”
Since there are no major Asian American candidates running for mayor yet, he said, “Asian American votes are up for grabs.”
Lee is running for state assembly against Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a white candidate in a heavily Asian American district, and representation is one of his campaign strategies.
Though cautioning that the community is not monolithic, Lee believes that Asian American voting patterns overall are still very racially focused. “When Asian Americans run for office, more Asian Americans register, more Asian Americans vote,” he said.
Candidates Bashing One Another
Ahsha Safaí, a sitting supervisor and another mayoral candidate, sees Asian American voters as the key to his potential victory. He thinks he has the best track record of supporting the Asian American community.
In an interview, Safaí touted his understanding of the public safety concerns within the Asian community since his early campaign for supervisor in 2015, when many Asian families were being targeted by home invasions and burglaries. He’s now leading a controversial proposition to restore police department staffing. His ordinance in 2023 to ban new cannabis businesses from opening in San Francisco was viewed as a move to appeal to the Chinese American immigrant community.
“Being able to show the work that I've done [for the Asian community],” Safaí said, “allows me to then have more credibility than any of the other candidates.”
Safaí then took a few shots at Lurie and Breed.
“It's another thing when you're just introducing yourself to the community for the first time,” he said, “or you've been there like the mayor and haven't been able to address or listen to their concerns in an effective way.”
Breed’s campaign couldn’t be reached for comment.
Nine months out from the election, Breed’s supporters appear to have grown concerned about her appeal in the Asian community, and have started to place campaign advertisements in Chinese newspapers. On the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily, a group called Forward Action SF” financed by former New York City Mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, has been buying advertisements to promote Breed. And its message is loud and clear.
“Mayor London Breed: Working tirelessly to ensure our community’s safety,” the headline reads, with bullet points showing her accomplishments in pro-police policies and crime crackdowns.
Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, who has represented Chinatown as a supervisor off and on since 2001, said none of the current candidates for mayor has “a real history of involvement” with the Chinese community.
Peskin, with decades of exposure in the Chinese-language press, is one of the best-known non-Asian politicians among local Chinese voters with his long career and familiar-feeling Chinese nickname, 鬍鬚佬—Bearded Guy. Peskin, who is Jewish, said that education, fiscal prudence and public safety are fundamental values for both Jewish and Chinese communities.
As a rumored mayoral candidate who has repeatedly said he won’t run, Peskin said there are many Chinese Americans outside of his district, particularly on the city’s west side, who know him and call him by his Chinese name on the street.
“Many people from the Asian community have been encouraging me [to run for mayor],” Peskin said. “If I was running for mayor, I should have started about six months ago.”
For his part, Lurie is playing up his status as a political outsider while campaigning in the Chinese community. Most people either do not know him yet or have only heard of him as the rich white man from the Levi’s family.
“I get energy meeting people here in Chinatown and out in Richmond and Sunset,” he said. “People want change. They want it from the outside.”
He’s not wrong, at least for some Chinatown merchants wanting to see improvement in street conditions. After his short chat with the owners of Hon’s Wun-Tun House and Grant Place restaurant on Washington Street, the businesses agreed to put up his campaign banners on the front doors.
Amanda Yan, who runs the wonton place, had one suggestion for Lurie: get a translated Chinese-language banner instead of just bringing the English one to Chinatown.
Chinese Voters: Progressive or Moderate?
Historically, San Francisco’s Asian voters have voted for moderate candidates in citywide races. So it’s perhaps no coincidence that Breed, Lurie and Safaí, who share many similar positions, are all playing up their moderate bonafides. (Another potential candidate, former mayor Mark Farrell, is also a moderate.)
While Peskin is more progressive, he said, regardless of a candidate’s political ideology, Chinese voters are very aware of which politicians are genuinely invested in the well-being of the community.
But he pointed out that if a major Chinese candidate is running for mayor, that person could have a stronger chance of appealing to Chinese voters.
San Francisco’s Chinese American political representation has been dropping in recent years. David Chiu, the city attorney, is currently the only citywide elected Chinese American in a major political office.
Chiu, who ran for mayor more than a decade ago, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Given the possibility that more candidates will enter the mayor’s race, it’s unclear how the Asian community will split among the candidates.
Counter to the moderate-favoring narrative, on the city’s heavily Asian west side, voters have elected progressive Chinese American supervisors in recent years, including current Supervisor Connie Chan and former Supervisors Norman Yee and Gordon Mar. The Richmond District has been a progressive Chinese American stronghold since 2008, when left-leaning former Supervisor Eric Mar handed the torch to Sandra Lee Fewer and then Chan.
Adding another layer of complexity, Ellen Lee Zhou, a far-right Republican and Chinese American, is running for mayor for the third time. She said she would be the dark horse representing the Chinese community this time around.
In 2019, Zhou ran against Breed and ended up as the runner-up with 14% of the first-choice votes. Breed swept all neighborhoods except for Chinatown, where Zhou won more votes.
“Some Chinese think that my agenda is good, so they support me,” Zhou said. “I am confident this year a conservative will take back San Francisco.”