The Rise and Fall of Leland Yee

by Randy Shaw on August 29, 2011

Leland Yee has never lost an election. And until Ed Lee entered the San Francisco Mayor’s race, Yee was favored to keep his winning streak intact. The former member of the San Francisco School Board, Board of Supervisors, State Assembly and current State Senator was equal if not ahead in the polls, and seemed primed to follow his pattern of extending his lead as Election Day drew near. But Ed Lee’s entry into the mayor’s race changed this equation. Yee is now polling at least 25 points behind Lee, and is being swamped in the Asian-American community. A candidate some saw as unbeatable now appears surprisingly weak, a shift that becomes more understandable after a closer look at Yee’s political history.

Leland Yee thought he had it all worked out. He moved to the left politically on labor and good government issues in preparation for the 2011 mayor’s race, and was positioned to embody the hopes of those seeking San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor. He used his unopposed 2010 State Senate campaign to funnel campaign donations into his mayoral coffers, giving him a huge financial advantage over his rivals even before the race began. He made deals with key officials at the Sierra Club and other groups for endorsements, and got many progressives to back him despite his long history of opposing legislation protecting tenants.

It was a pretty clever strategy. And it likely would have worked had Ed Lee not run for mayor.

Much has been written about Leland Yee’s private and public life over the past two decades. I have slogged through two large volumes of opposition research on Yee, some of which was included in a SF Weekly “expose” and will likely soon find its way into the Bay Guardian.

This piece is not about Yee’s personal or political peccadilloes. Rather, it tries to explain why a man who has never lost a San Francisco election and who was the longtime frontrunner in the 2011 mayor’s race has seen his momentum ground to a halt in the past month.

Yee’s Asian-American Base

It was widely agreed as recently as last spring that Leland Yee’s path to victory required him to sweep Asian-American voters (18% of the electorate) while picking up enough support elsewhere. David Chiu was not seen as a serious challenger to Yee’s Westside Asian-American base, and neither Dennis Herrera nor John Avalos were expected to make a serious play for these votes.

Yet when Ed Lee entered the race, someone who has never run for office and whose highly-publicized links to Willie Brown and Rose Pak would presumably not help him much among Westside Asian-American voters, he quickly seized Yee’s former base. The Singtao Daily poll taken among Chinese-speaking voters on July 13-20 found Lee leading Yee by a remarkable 66%-3% margin.

Even discounting the earliness of the poll, that’s an astonishing gap. And those numbers reveal that Leland Yee’s “base” in San Francisco’s Chinese-American community is a lot weaker than most if not all pundits, as well as Yee’s campaign team, thought.

To be clear, the Filipino-American community is staunchly behind Yee. But Chinese-American voters like Ed Lee, are proud of what Lee has accomplished as mayor, and are not interested in replacing Lee with Leland Yee.

Yee’s Past Campaigns

In trying to discover how Yee’s Chinese-American base so suddenly shrunk, I soon realized that Yee has never defeated a strong Chinese-American candidate. And it could be argued that he has never defeated any well-funded candidate with a real political base in a head to head race.

In his big victory for the State Senate in 2006, his top challenger was San Mateo Supervisor Mike Nevin. Nevin somehow thought he could win the election by ignoring San Francisco voters, a strategy that proved even more foolish when Lou Papan joined the contest to further drain Nevin’s votes outside the city.

Yee beat Nevin by a larger than expected margin, which led many to overestimate his political clout in San Francisco. It’s now clear that Yee greatly benefited from being the only major Asian-American candidate, and from Nevin’s failure to campaign in San Francisco for either white or Asian-American votes.

Yee essentially ran unopposed in his 2002 primary campaign for the State Assembly, and John Shanley was his leading challenger in 2000, the only time he ran head-to-head as a San Francisco Supervisor (Yee’s prior races were citywide school board and supervisor contests). So until 2011, Leland Yee had never run against a strong candidate with a San Francisco base, and had never competed against a strong Asian-American candidate.

Now the obvious response to is that other strong Chinese-American candidates did not challenge Yee because they knew they could not win. That may be so. But the reason they felt they could not win may have been less about Yee’s personal dynamism and ability to connect with voters, and more about his large campaign war chest and his backing from political insiders.

Until 2011, Leland Yee was never forced to aggressively compete for votes with a Chinese-American candidate who had as much money and political backing as he does. And faced with such a fight for the first time in his political career, Yee’s Chinese-American “base” is proving a lot weaker than anyone imagined only two months ago.

In comparing Yee’s past races with the current mayor’s race, it may well be that San Francisco’s Chinese-American electorate saw Yee more of the “default” candidate (often backed by moderate white voters) than as a political leader who was the best the community had to offer. Chinese-American voters from diverse constituencies would not have urged Ed Lee to run if they were satisfied with Yee, and they would not have deserted their State Senator in droves if they wanted Yee to be San Francisco’s next mayor.

It can be hard transferring voter loyalties from a state or federal legislative office to an executive post, and Leland Yee is not the first longtime legislator to learn uncomfortable truths about their home “base” when they run for mayor. Longtime Congressmember and African-American icon John Conyers learned this when he came home in 1989 to run for Mayor of Detroit against Coleman Young (seeking a fifth term). Progressives cheered Conyers’ presumed coronation by voters, but he did not even make the runoff.

Without Ed Lee in the race, Leland Yee would have remained the overwhelming “default” choice of Chinese-American voters in November. But this is one election when Yee was unable to clear the field of strong candidates, and it is hard to think of anything Yee can do to dislodge Lee’s community support.

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