The one-time conservative supervisor is gaining broad progressive support. But who is Leland Yee, really?
In 2001, Yee voted to uphold a Willie Brown veto of legislation to limit tenancies in common, a backdoor way to get around the city's condo conversion ordinance. Only Hall and Newsom, then the most conservative supervisors on the board, joined Yee. At one point, he started asking whether the city should consider repealing rent control.
He opposed an affordable housing bond in 2002, joining the big landlord groups in arguing that it would raise property taxes. Every tenant group in town supported the measure, Proposition B; every landlord group opposed it.
I asked Yee about his tenant record, and he told me that he now supports rent control. But he said that he was always on the side of homeowners and small landlords, and that property ownership was central to Chinese culture. "I was responding to the Chinese community and the West Side," he said.
He wasn't much of an environmentalist, either — at least not in today's terms. He was one of the only city officials to support a "Critical Car" rally in 1999, aimed at promoting the rights of vehicle drivers (and by implication, criticizing Critical Mass and the bicycle movement).
His record on LGBT issues was mixed. While he supported a counseling program for queer youth when he was on the school board, he also supported JROTC, angering queer leaders who didn't want a program in the public schools run by, and used as a recruiting tool for, the military, which at that point open discriminated against gay and lesbian people.
Yee was also one of only two supervisors who voted in 2001 against extending city health benefits to transgender employees.
That was a dramatic moment in local politics. Nine votes were needed to pass the measure, and while eight of the supervisors were in favor, Yee and Hall balked. At one point, Board President Tom Ammiano had to direct the Sheriff's Office to go roust Sup. Gerardo Sandoval, who was ducking the issue in his office, to provide the crucial ninth vote.
Yee didn't just vote against the bill. According to one reliable source who was there at the time, Yee spoke to a community meeting out on Ulloa Street in the Sunset and berated his colleagues, quipping that the city should have better things to do than "spend taxpayer money on sex-change operations."
It was a bit shocking to trans people — Yee had, over the years, befriended some of the most marginalized members of what was already a marginalized community. "There was one person at the rail crying, saying 'Leland, how could you do this to us,'" Ammiano recalled.
The LGBT community was furious with Yee. "I didn't speak to him for at least a year," Gabriel Haaland, one of the city's most prominent transgender activists, told me.
Yee now says the vote was a mistake — but at the time, he told me, he was under immense pressure. When he voted for the queer youth program, he said, "the elders of the Chinese community ripped me apart. They called my mother's friends back in the village [where he was born] and said her son was embarrassing the Chinese community."
That must have been difficult — and he said that "if I had known the pain I had caused, I wouldn't have voted that way." But it was hard to miss that pain his vote caused.
On the other hand, people learn from their experiences, attitudes evolve, we all grow up and get smarter, and the way Yee describes it, that's what happened to him.
In 2006, when he was running for state Senate, Yee met with a group of trans leaders and formally — many now say sincerely — apologized. It was an important gesture that made a lot of his critics feel better about him.
"He didn't have to do that," Haaland said. "People change, and he paid for his crime, and that's genuine enough for me."
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