Yee has been a harsh critic of spending practices and secrecy at the University of California, and when UC Stanislaus refused in 2010 to release the documents that would show how much the school was paying Sarah Palin to speak at a fundraiser, Leland flew into action. He not only blasted the university and introduced legislation to force university foundations to abide by sunshine laws; he worked with two Stanislaus students who had found the contract in a dumpster and made headlines all over the country.
He's fought for student free speech rights and this year pushed a bill mandating that corporations that get tax breaks for job creation prove that they've actually created jobs — or pay the tax money back. He's also won immense plaudits from youth advocates and criminal justice reformers for his bill that would end life-without-parole sentences for offenders under 18.
Along the way, he compiled a 100 percent voting record from the major labor unions, including the California Nurses Association and SEIU, and with the Sierra Club. All three organizations have endorsed him for mayor.
Yee told me that he thinks he's become more progressive over the years. "My philosophy has shifted," he said.
Yet when you talk to his colleagues in Sacramento, including Democrats, they aren't always happy with him. Yee has a tendency to be a bit of a loner — he's never chaired a policy committee and in some of the most bitter budget fights, he's refused to go along with the Democratic majority. Yee insists that he's taken principled stands, declining to vote for budget bills that include deep service cuts. But the reality in Sacramento is that budget bills have until this year required a two-thirds vote, meaning two or three Republicans have had to accept the deal — and losing a Democratic vote has its cost.
"You have to give up all sorts of things, make terrible compromises, to get even two Republicans," one legislative insider told me. "When a Democrat goes south, you have to find another Republican, and give up even more."
In other words: It's easy to take a principled stand, and make a lot of liberal constituencies happy, when you aren't really trying to make the state budget work.
I met Rose Pak on a July afternoon at the Chinatown Hilton. She brought along her own loose tea, in a paper package; the waitress, who clearly knew the drill, took it back to the kitchen to brew. Pak and I have not been on the greatest of terms; she's called the Guardian all kinds of names, and I've had my share of critical things to say about her. But on this day, she was polite and even at times charming.
After we got the niceties out of the way (she told me I was unfair to her, and I told her I didn't like the way she and Willie Brown played politics), we started talking about Yee. And Pak (unlike some people I interviewed for this story) was happy to speak on the record.
She told me Yee had "no moral character." She told me she couldn't trust him. She told me a lot of stories and made a lot of allegations that we both knew neither she nor I could ever prove.
Then we got to talking about the politics of Chinatown and Asians in San Francisco, and a lot of the animosity toward Yee became more clear.
For decades, Chinatown and the institutions and people who live and work there have been the political center of the Chinese community. Nonprofits like the Chinatown Community Development Center have trained several generations of community organizers and leaders. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Six Companies, and other business groups have represented the interests of Chinese merchants. And while the various players don't always get along, there's a sense of shared political culture.
"In Chinatown," Gordon Chin, CCDC's director, likes to say, "it's all about personal connections."