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Politics & Policy

Inside the cutthroat race to win over San Francisco’s frustrated Asian voters

A vibrant street scene with colorful lion dance costumes and two smiling people amid a festive atmosphere.
Mayor London Breed lights a firecracker at the Chinese New Year parade, one of almost 30 Lunar New Year events she attended this year. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Wearing a traditional bright red Chinese dress, San Francisco Mayor London Breed was extremely excited at the annual Chinatown parade celebrating the Year of the Dragon. “This is the best Lunar New Year parade in the world!” Breed yelled passionately into a microphone, looking to the sky as her float arrived at the grandstand. 

Her recent calendar reflects that enthusiasm. In total, Breed attended almost 30 Lunar New Year events across the city this year as she looked to garner support from the Asian American community, which helped her win the mayoral race in 2018. On Feb. 10, the first day of the Chinese New Year, she hit up six events within four hours in Chinatown, her office told The Standard.

Behind Breed’s strenuous effort to maximize exposure in the Chinese community are plummeting poll numbers and a crumbling base of Asian American support as the city has struggled with crime caught in viral videos and downtown store closures. Over the past few years, the Asian American community has been increasingly outspoken about public safety and what they see as lawlessness—and the mayor’s inability to fix it. 

Meanwhile, sharks are circling Breed as her competitors aggressively target the moderate, pro-police and pro-business Chinese and Asian voters that could decide the mayor’s race.

Lurie’s impressive gains

Two days after the parade, nonprofit founder and Levi’s heir Daniel Lurie, a political newcomer, held a rally to announce his policy platform to address drug abuse in San Francisco.

But Lurie did not choose the Tenderloin or SoMa, the epicenters of the drug crisis. He chose Chinatown to unveil his plan, capitalizing on his impressive gains with the Chinese community.

Prominent Asian American law enforcement officials attended Lurie’s event, including Asian Firefighters Association President Stan Lee and retired San Francisco Police Department Commander Paul Yep. Also present were a dozen other Asian leaders from community nonprofits, political clubs and private businesses.

A man converses with someone in a street lined with red lanterns and festive flags.
Mayoral Candidate Daniel Lurie campaigns in Chinatown in January. | Source: Philip Pacheco for The Standard

Many of them, such as recall activists Leanna Louie, Selena Chu and Chinese American Democratic Club leader Wilson Chu, are loyal moderates and former Breed supporters.

“We share a commitment to restoring safety, supporting small businesses,” Lurie said in a statement, “and increasing [Asian American Pacific Islander] representation throughout city government.”

Tommy Yang, owner of the famous Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant, was among those in attendance at Lurie’s event. He told The Standard in Chinese that he believes Lurie is the fresh face City Hall needs to get San Francisco back on track.

Mark Farrell, a former supervisor and mayor challenging Breed, has also actively campaigned in Chinatown and with the Chinese community. But so far he lacks Lurie’s momentum of picking up prominent Chinese American supporters, though a San Francisco Chronicle poll shows that Farrell and Lurie have comparable support among Asian voters.

The day after Breed backed off a controversial plan to create a sober housing facility in Chinatown, Farrell met with vocal business owners who rallied against it.

A man speaks at a podium with "Mark Farrell for Mayor" signs, a woman stands behind him, and microphones are in front.
Mark Farrell, who formally announced his candidacy for San Francisco mayor in mid-February, has actively campaigned in Chinatown and with the Chinese community. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Though he doesn’t currently hold office, Farrell made his way into the Chinese New Year parade wearing a traditional Chinese outfit and posing with the police lion dance team.

Retired Deputy Police Chief Garret Tom publicly supports Farrell and appears in his ads, calling him “a very smart guy and a local boy who loves the city,” with experience in both City Hall and the private sector. But Tom said that Farrell, who only recently began campaigning, has yet to garner much Chinese American support. A loyal moderate, Tom said he would consider Lurie or Breed as his second or third choice under the city’s ranked-choice voting system.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, despite announcing his candidacy almost a year ago, has struggled to find prominent Chinese American supporters to side with him. On his donor’s list, Gorretti Lui, a philanthropist and board member of the Chinese Historical Society of America, stood out.

Lui said she supported Safai and Breed because they helped Chinatown during the pandemic, especially by setting aside budgets for a small museum like the historical society during a challenging time when no one was visiting the neighborhood. Lui said the museum received city funds for its building renovation and the curation of a Bruce Lee exhibition.

The potential wild cards

Potential wild cards who could disrupt the mayoral race and split the Chinese votes include Chinese American City Attorney David Chiu and longtime Chinatown representative and current Board President Aaron Peskin.

Chiu filed for city attorney reelection in November, meaning he’s not currently challenging Breed. In a statement about Asian American votes, he said the community wants leaders who understand them, have deep local roots, deliver results and have a compelling vision.

Peskin has long been rumored to be plotting a dark-horse run for mayor but repeatedly deflected the reports, saying he’s focusing on policy work. However, one source in Chinatown told The Standard that Peskin told them that he will definitely run.

A man in a suit speaks at a clear podium, gesturing, with a blurred woman in the background.
Current Board President Aaron Peskin has long been rumored to be plotting a dark-horse run for mayor. | Source: Philip Pacheco for The Standard

Allan Low, a former park commissioner and progressive attorney, is a strong Peskin ally. But Low surprised some in the community when he showed up to support Lurie in Chinatown on Monday.

He explained that Lurie is his personal friend, so he’s supporting him, but the ranked-choice voting system allows him to seek other more progressive candidates.

“The field has yet to be defined,” Low said. “A lot of Asian American voters are still exploring the candidates.”

He emphasized that the Asian American community is not a monolithic voting bloc and noted that political moderates may be splintering off between Breed, Lurie and Farrell.

Still Team London

Breed is not wasting any opportunities to earn some more Asian American community support. At the Chinese New Year Parade grandstand, Breed held hands with one high-profile critic, Chino Yang, a rapper who criticized her as a clown in a rap song, triggering a political firestorm. They vowed to work together, creating a perfect reconciliation photo op for the multiple reporters holding cameras and ready to post images to social media.

Despite poor poll numbers, some loyalists—including some Chinese American city commissioners she appointed—are standing by Breed.

Cyn Wang, a member of the Entertainment Commission, said she’s still “Team London,” praising Breed’s personal resilience as a Black woman rising from public housing to mayor. Wang said Breed has consistently supported Asian parents on education and public safety.

A woman gestures while speaking to seated, masked elderly individuals outdoors. Urban setting, sunny day.
Mayor London Breed chats with seniors in Chinatown on Jan. 26, 2023. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

“There’s frustration about San Francisco, safety, downtown recovery,” Wang said, “and it’s falling unfairly on her.”

Wang criticized both Lurie and Farrell as having no track record of working with and supporting the Asian American community.

Lydia So, who serves on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, expects four more years of Breed’s leadership, citing her growth over the past five years despite challenges.

But So added that the mayor and supervisors need to cooperate. Managing the city is defined by teamwork, not partisan ideology, she said.

Mary Jung, a Democratic Party powerbroker and a moderate leader, said Breed successfully steered the city through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, resulting in a lower death rate compared to other major cities

Jung also shot fire at other candidates, saying they were “missing in action” while Breed was doing the hard work, facing incredible challenges.

“It’s easy to criticize,” Jung said. “It’s much harder to lead.”