The one-time conservative supervisor is gaining broad progressive support. But who is Leland Yee, really?
For four years, Yee lived with his sister and mother in a one-room apartment with a shared bathroom while his father worked as a sailor in the merchant marine. It was, Yee recalled in a recent interview, a tight, closed, and largely self-sufficient community.
"The movie theater, the shoe store, the barber shop, food — everything you needed you could get in Chinatown," Yee said. "You never had to leave."
Of course, after a while, Yee and his mom started to venture out, down Stockton Street to Market, where they'd shop at the Emporium, the venerable department store. "It was like walking into a different country," he said. "If you didn't know English, they didn't have time for you."
Yee, like a lot of young Chinese immigrants of his era, put much of his time into his studies — in the San Francisco public schools and in a local Chinese school. "My mom spoke a village dialect, and we had to learn Cantonese," he said. "Every little kid had to go to Chinese school. We hated it."
When Yee was eight, his parents managed to buy a four-unit building on Dolores Street, and the family moved to the Mission, where he would spend not only the rest of his childhood but much of his early adult life. He graduated from Mission High School, enrolled in City College, studied psychology and after two years won admission to UC Berkeley.
Berkeley in 1968 was a very different world from Chinatown and even the relatively controlled environment he'd experienced at home in the Mission. "You didn't protest in school. You'd have been sent home, and your mother would kill you," he said.
At Berekely, all hell was breaking loose, with the antiwar protests, the People's Park demonstrations, the campaign to create a Third World College (which led to the first Ethnic Studies Department), and a general attitude of mistrust for authority. "I developed a sense of activism," Yee said. "I realized I could speak out."
That spirit quickly vanished when Yee lost faith in some of his fellow activists. "People would work with us, then get into positions of power and use that against you," he recalled. "A lot of my friends said 'forget it.' I left the scene."
Yee once again devoted his energy to school, earning a masters at San Francisco State University and a Ph.D in child psychology from the University of Hawaii. Along the way, he met his wife, Maxine.
With his new degree, the Yees moved back to San Francisco — and back in with his parents at the Dolores property, where he, Maxine and a family that would grow to four kids would live for more than a decade.
Yee worked as a child psychologist for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, starting the city's first high school mental-health clinic. He went on to become a child psychologist at the Oakland Unified School District, then joined a nonprofit mental health program in San Jose.
In 1986, Yee decided to get active in politics for the first time since college, and ran for the San Francisco School Board. He lost — and that would be the only election he would ever lose. In 1988, he won a seat, and established himself as an advocate for students of color, fighting school closures in minority neighborhoods. He also tried to get the district to modify its harsh disciplinary rules, arguing against mandatory expulsions.
On fiscal issues, though, Yee was a conservative. For his first term, despite the brutal cutbacks of the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he insisted that the district make do with the money it had. His solution to the red ink: Cut waste. Only in 1992, when he was up for re-election, did he acknowledge that the district needed more cash; at that point, he supported a statewide initiative to tax the rich to bring money to the schools.