San Francisco Mayoral Debate Gives Glimpse of Chinatown Politics

September 29, 2011 3:17 am Last Updated: February 8, 2013 9:28 pm
An elderly man wearing a pro-Central Subway sticker stands and claps enthusiastically during the Wednesday San Francisco mayoral candidates' debate at the Chinese Cultural Center. He was amidst a large group of elderly Chinese with similar pink stickers sitting front and centre near the stage. (Matthew Robertson/The Epoch Times)
An elderly man wearing a pro-Central Subway sticker stands and claps enthusiastically a San Francisco mayoral candidates' debate at the Chinese Cultural Center on Sept. 28, 2011. He was amidst a large group of elderly Chinese with similar pink stickers sitting front and centre near the stage. (Matthew Robertson/The Epoch Times)

SAN FRANCISCO—In a sometimes raucous yet tightly-controlled debate at the Chinese Cultural Center on Wednesday, first eleven and then, with the addition of two late arrivals, thirteen mayoral hopefuls attempted to explain the advantages of their own particular plans for public spending, and how they would use the city government to massage the economy.

But the meat and potatoes of the debate came after the opening questions in the discussion of the Central Subway. And half the action was in the crowd. As things heated up—the air conditioning wasn’t working—a series of unrehearsed outbursts by members of the audience punctuated the debate, and several audience members drew attention to themselves through seemingly organized clapping and booing.

Moderator Kwokshu Leung of KTSF introduced the much-discussed project that has recently drawn a good deal of controversy. Among other questions, he asked: “Is there a racial bias against the project?”

The moderators went through the list of candidates, looking for succinct expressions of support or opposition; they got both, including suggestions of political corruption (real estate speculators are “licking their chops” one speaker said), arguments about the needs of the community, and serious questions about the fiscal sustainability of the scheme.

The mayoral hopeful John Avalos, who supports the project, said he got squeamish when he thought about the cost: $1.6 billion, which at around a billion dollars per mile of track makes the Central Subway an unusually expensive public infrastructure project, particularly for its estimated ridership.

After hearing several complaints about the design of the project Mayor Ed Lee, who has consistently supported it, said: “Let’s be very real about this. If it was badly designed, after years of review they would have rejected it. But time and time again it’s been reinforced as one of the best… transportation systems ever designed.”

The mayor’s views fly in the face of expert opinion. Tom Matoff, a consultant and authority on the subject who was commissioned to write a report on the project, didn’t agree with the mayor’s claim. He wrote in a report in 2007 that if the project went ahead as planned it might make travel more inconvenient for many and suggested a complete redesign. A Civil Grand Jury said the same thing in a July, 2011 report. The Wall Street Journal called the project “a case study in government incompetence and wasted taxpayer money.”

“We can’t afford to delay this,” Lee said. “How can those residents travel around the city otherwise? They can’t go on the surface on the streets anymore.”

“The experts are not the Civil Grand Jury,” Lee said.

In a question at the end of the panel The Epoch Times asked Lee why the Transit Preferential Streets (TPS) plan, a $9 million investment approved by voters in 2003 that would alleviate traffic congestion on Stockton street, was never enacted.

Critics of the Central Subway say the TPS plan would eliminate the congestion, which would end the justification for the Central Subway.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera makes a point as he speaks on Wednesday at the Chinese Cultural Center. Herrera was heckled throughout the evening, possibly because of his public opposition to the Central Subway project. (Matthew Robertson/The Epoch Times)
City Attorney Dennis Herrera makes a point as he speaks on Wednesday at the Chinese Cultural Center. Herrera was heckled throughout the evening, possibly because of his public opposition to the Central Subway project. (Matthew Robertson/The Epoch Times)

Lee first said that he was not sure, that it was a historical question, and that “I’m not so sure I can answer specifically.” He then said “I don’t know if that’s the solution. You’re jumping to a conclusion that I don’t agree with.”

The exchange may not have mattered much, though. When Lee gave his support for the project at the podium, elderly Chinese sitting in a group near the front stood up at multiple points during the evening and clapped loudly.

The group, all elderly Chinese and appearing to behave as a claque, were identified by bright pink “Central Subway, YES!” stickers on their chests. They muttered to each other in Cantonese during the speeches, fumbled with their audio devices, and burst into standing ovations on cue when Lee entered the room, or when anyone said anything good about the Central Subway.

Meanwhile, several young Asian men in the crowd booed City Attorney Dennis Herrera practically every time he spoke. Herrera recently issued a public statement opposed to the project, and did not seem perturbed at the young men’s behavior.

Because of his position on the subway, he has been called a racist in the pages of the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao. Sing Tao is a Chinese Communist Party-aligned daily that regularly gives favorable coverage to Ed Lee. The wife of Sing Tao’s chief-editor is Lee’s personal secretary.

A number of the elderly Chinese wearing stickers were not listening to the Cantonese translation of the proceedings through headphones. When approached by an Epoch Times reporter afterwards, several of them confirmed they could not understand what was being said. They had been seen clapping when their peers clapped. These individuals batted away further questions.

Rumors circulate in Chinatown that the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), a city-funded organization that offers low-income housing, uses its sway over its mostly elderly tenants to support political candidates—specifically Ed Lee.

The outgoing head of the CCDC was head of the “Run Ed, Run” campaign, organized to publicly demand that Lee, who had promised before he became interim mayor that he would not run for the mayor’s office, go back on his word and run.

The group is also linked with Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, and has received heat recently for apparently lavish expenses for meetings, billed to the city. CCDC also gets a juicy subcontract related to the Central Subway project, including $30,000 a month to spend on “community outreach.” It is unclear whether the presence of the elderly Chinese wearing stickers at this event was, officially or not, part of that outreach campaign.

At the conclusion of the event The Epoch Times asked Norman Fong, incoming director of the CCDC, whether he knew anything in particular about that group of elderly Chinese, whether he knew where they might have received their pink stickers, and whether he knew if they were residents of CCDC’s low-income units.

Fong became visibly flustered and at one point refused to say whether he knew the origin of the stickers, or whether he knew if the individuals were CCDC residents. He said that the Central Subway is supported by the whole Chinatown community.

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