The real Leland Yee

The one-time conservative supervisor is gaining broad progressive support. But who is Leland Yee, really?


It's early January 2011, and the Four Seas restaurant at Grant and Clay is packed. Everyone who is anyone in Chinatown is there — and for good reason. In a few days, the Board of Supervisors is expected to appoint the city's first Asian mayor.

The rally is billed as a statement of support for Ed Lee, the mild-mannered bureaucrat and reluctant mayoral hopeful. But that's not the entire — or even, perhaps, the central — agenda.

Rose Pak, who describes herself as a consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce but who is more widely known as a Chinatown powerbroker, is the host of the event. She stands in front of the room, takes the microphone, and, in Cantonese, delivers a remarkable political speech.

According to people in the audience, she says, in essence, that the community has come out to celebrate and support Ed Lee — but that's just the start. She also urges them not just to promote their candidate — but to do everything possible to prevent Leland Yee from becoming mayor.

She continues on for several minutes, lambasting Yee, the state Senator who lived in Chinatown as a child, accusing him of about every possible political sin — and turning the Lee rally into an anti-Yee crusade. And nobody in the crowd seems terribly surprised.

Across Chinatown, from the liberal nonprofits to the conservative Chamber of Commerce, there's a palpable fear and distrust of the man who for years has been among San Francisco's most prominent Asian politicians — and who, had Lee not changed his mind and decided to run for a full term this fall, was the odds-on favorite to become the city's first elected Chinese mayor.

The reasons for that fear are complex and say a lot about the changing politics of Asian San Francisco, the power structure of a city where an old political machine is making a bold bid to recover its lucrative clout — and about the career of Yee himself.

Senator Leland Yee is a political puzzle. He's a Chinese immigrant who has built a political base almost entirely outside of the traditional Chinatown community. He's a politician who once represented a deeply conservative district, opposed tenant protections, voted against transgender health benefits and sided with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on key environmental issues — and now has the support of some of the most progressive organizations in the city. He's taken large sums of campaign money from some of the worst polluters in California, but gets high marks from the Sierra Club.

His roots are as a fiscal conservative — yet he's been the only Democrat in Sacramento to reject budget compromises on the grounds that they required too many spending cuts.

He's grown, changed, and developed his positions over time. Or he's become an expert at political pandering, telling every group exactly what it wants to hear. He's the best chance progressives have of keeping the corrupt old political machine out of City Hall — or he's a chameleon who will be a nightmare for progressive San Francisco.

Or maybe he's a little bit of all of that.


Leland Yin Yee was born in Taishan, a city in China's Guangdong province on the South China Sea. The year was 1948; Mao Zedong's Communist Party of China had taken control of much of the countryside and was moving rapidly to take the major cities. The nationalist army of General Chiang Kai-Shek was falling apart, and Yee's father, who owned a store, decided it was time for the family to leave.

The Yees made it to Hong Kong, and since Mee G. Yee had previously lived in the United States and served in the U.S. Army during World War II, he was ultimately able to move the family to San Francisco. In 1951, the three-year-old Leland Yee arrived in Chinatown.

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