If mayoral candidate Ahimsa Porter Sumchai were a superhero, she'd be Rescue Girl, her petite athletic form encased in a silver jumpsuit and cape as she swooped in, using her understanding of complicated medical and scientific issues as her secret weapon, to save high-risk communities from environmental racism, economic disenfranchisement, and social displacement.
Instead, she's the candidate who claims to be thankful her name was excluded from the San Francisco Chronicle's Aug. 11 coverage of the mayor's race, in which Gavin Newsom's challengers were dissed as a peanut gallery of lunatics.
"I'm glad the Chronicle did not disrespect me in the context of 'a chicken, a wolf, and a grasshopper'-style jokes, like the race is a big laugh," says Sumchai, 55, as I pick her up at the corner of Third Street and Palau Avenue, which lies a stone's throw from Sumchai's campaign headquarters in the heart of Bayview<\d>Hunters Point and a five-minute drive from the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund site at the Hunters Point Shipyard.
This intersection was the main drag for Navy operations when the shipyard was active, Sumchai explains as we pass rows of tightly packed houses and a sprinkling of churches including Grace Tabernacle Church, which has recently become a rallying point for hundreds of residents concerned about exposure to toxic asbestos dust at Lennar Corp.'s Parcel A redevelopment work site at the shipyard.
Sumchai has made that exposure a central focus of her campaign.
"When I become mayor, Lennar will shut down at Parcel A, and I will establish a plan that includes a human safety component and testing of potentially exposed residents," says Sumchai, who also opposes what she calls "the dirty transfer of the shipyard," through which Newsom has proposed folding Candlestick Point into the shipyard so he can build a stadium for the 49ers and Lennar can build 6,500 more condos at Candlestick.
Sumchai, whose grandparents came from St. Louis in 1939 and whose father was exposed to asbestos when he worked as a shipping clerk at the shipyard, is an academic success story, emerging from the Sunnydale housing project to graduate from UC San Francisco medical school in 1982.
But while Sumchai is incredibly bright, her eggheadedness sometimes seems to get in the way of letting her make concise, down-to-earth statements. Instead, she often comes across as if she spent too much time in the library, a trait that can leave audiences who don't have science degrees utterly baffled and uncertain as to what point she just tried to make.
And while the odds are clearly stacked against her in the mayor's race, Sumchai is using her candidacy to ask tough questions on behalf of a community that is beginning to rally for environmental justice after decades of exposure to pollution from two power plants, two freeways, the shipyard, and a sewage plant that impacts five percent of the city's population with the smell of treating 80 percent of the city's solid waste.
"To continue with activities that are harmful challenges the fundamental ethics of being a physician, says Sumchai, who practiced emergency medicine for 20 years.
It's an experience that informs her current crusade to halt Lennar's construction on Parcel A at the shipyard. The community's exposure to dust adds up to "an epidemic," she says.
"It gets on their clothing. It's airborne.