“Rally” Offers Inside Story on Rose Pak and SF Politics

by on April 17, 2023

How Rose Pak Impacted San Francisco

Rose Pak was among the most influential San Franciscans of the past forty years. She did more to shape the city than the vast majority of politicians, playing key roles in the elections of mayor’s Agnos, Brown and Lee. Yet many of today’s San Francisco activists know nothing about Pak’s impact. That’s one reason why the new film, “Rally,” which premiers at the SF Film Festival on Friday is such a must-see.

The other reason activists should flock to “Rally” is to see how politics really works in the city. Former supervisor Chris Daly, Willie Brown, Art Agnos, current Board President Aaron Peskin, and Chinatown activists speak with surprising candor about their relationship with Pak.

Anyone interested in how San Francisco’s political decisions are actually made should see “Rally.”

The Remarkable Rose Pak

I connected with Rose after she led the effort to win Ed Lee’s appointment as mayor. So I came to the film as someone who knew her well and was a huge admirer (See “Rose Pak’s Complex Legacy,” September 20, 2016).

But the film is remarkably even-handed. Critics of Rose like the Falun Gong get a lot of time (she barred them from the Chinese New Year’s Parade). Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin are on camera saying that Pak was a Chinese government agent. I was almost always on the same side as Rose on issues—she was a huge advocate for tenants—but know firsthand how she treated people she got into a rift with. The film does not back off from showing this side of Pak.

Agnos, Brown and Lee

The core of the film is Pak’s key role in electing three San Francisco mayors. I was very gratified to hear Art Agnos speak about his reliance on Pak to get elected and their effective break-up after Agnos backed the teardown of the Embarcadero Freeway. As Gordon Chin explains, it was more about the process than the actual decision. Agnos backers have long blamed his defeat in 1991 on the loss of Chinese-American votes that Pak had helped secure in 1987.

Rose Pak was Willie Brown’s closest political ally. They were also each other’s best friend. “Rally” does a great job portraying their relationship and what it meant for San Francisco.

The film goes into great depth on Rose’s leadership in securing Ed Lee’s appointment as interim mayor in January 2011. I watched the Board of Supervisors meeting as the decision approached and yet I had forgotten a lot of what was said until seeing the film. It’s worth seeing “Rally” just for that portion of the film alone.

The film reminds us that the dispute between white progressives’ support for Sheriff Mike Hennessey and Asian-American progressives support for Ed Lee drove a deep wedge in the city’s progressive politics. Progressives seem to have still never forgiven David Chiu’s support for Lee.

The film then goes on to show the “Run Ed Run” process that convinced Lee to run for a full term. Again, it will bring back a lot of memories for those who were there and shed light on a key part of city history for those who were not.

Nobody disputes that Rose Pak was the key force in securing Lee’s appointment. And then convincing him to run for mayor.

Dispute With Lee

Pak’s dispute with Lee over his failure to appoint Cindy Wu to replace Chiu as District 3 Supervisor was painful to watch. It brought up bad memories Lee’s worst decision as mayor. At Pak’s request I gave a ten minute speech to Lee on why he must appoint Wu. My core argument was that if he didn’t appoint Wu, Aaron Peskin—at that point not even speaking to Pak and an opponent of the mayor—would easily win the D3 race.

That’s what happened. Pak made peace with Peskin and backed him over the mayor’s appointed Supervisor Julie Christensen. Peskin won back the Chinatown support that had joined Pak in breaking from him. That alliance remained after Peskin’s election.

Lee’s bypassing Wu deeply hurt Rose personally. Pak spent her career pushing for greater Chinese-American representation in city affairs and for greater protection for Chinatown. Lee’s supervisor choice had no Chinatown connections. Pak saw it as another example of a more qualified Chinese-American woman being passed over.

Rose Pak was a progressive hero. And while I wish “Rally” had included all the advocacy she did for tenants, her support from Gordon Chin, Jane Kim, David Ho, Malcolm Yeung, Reverend Norman Fong, Sunny Angulo and others speaks volumes as to her progressive agenda.

Here is the link to get tickets for the April 21 and 23 showings as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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