As a former school board member, Yee kept an interest in the schools — but not always a healthy one. At one point, he actually proposed splitting SFUSD into two districts, one on the (poorer) east side of town and one on the (richer) west. "We strongly opposed that," recalled Margaret Brodkin, who at the time ran Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. "Eventually he dropped the idea."
For all the problems, in his time on the Board of Supervisors, Yee developed a reputation for independence from the Brown Machine, which utterly dominated much of city politics in the late 1990s. His weak 43 percent rating on the Guardian scorecard was actually third-best among the supervisors, after Ammiano and the late Sue Bierman.
In 1998, he was one of the leaders in a battle to prevent the owners of Sutro Tower from defying the city's zoning administrator and placing hundreds of new antennas on Sutro Tower. He, Bierman, and Ammiano were the only supervisors opposing Brown's crackdown on homeless people in Union Square.
When he ran in the first district elections, in 2000, against two opponents who had Brown's support and big downtown money, the Guardian endorsed him, noting that while he "can't be counted on to support worthy legislation ... He's one of only two board members who regularly buck the mayor on the big issues."
(He never liked district elections, and used to take any opportunity to denounce the system, at times forcing Ammiano to use his position as president to tell Yee to quit dissing the electoral process and get to the point of his speech.)
In 2002, the westside state Assembly district seat opened up, and both Yee and his former school board colleague Dan Kelly ran in the Democratic primary. Yee won, and went on to win the general election with only token opposition.
His legislative record in the Assembly wasn't terribly distinguished. Yee never chaired a policy committee — although he did win a leadership post as speaker pro tem. And he cast some surprisingly bad votes.
In 2003, for example, then-Assemblymember Mark Leno introduced a bill that would have exempted single-room occupancy hotels from the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants for no reason. Yee refused to vote for the bill. Leno was furious — he was one vote short of a majority and Yee's position would have doomed the bill. At the last minute, a conservative Republican who had grown up in an SRO hotel voted in favor.
When he ran for re-election in 2004, we noted: "What's Leland Yee doing up in Sacramento? We can't figure it out — and neither, as far as we can tell, can his colleagues or constituents. He's introduced almost no significant bills — compared, for example, to Assemblymember Mark Leno's record, Yee's is an embarrassment. The only high-profile thing he's done in the past several years is introduce a bill to urge state and local governments to allow feng shui principles in building codes."
In 2006, Yee decided to move up to the state Senate, and he won handily, beating a weak opponent (San Mateo County Supervisor and former San Francisco cop Mike Nevin) by almost 2-1. His productivity increased significantly in the upper chamber — and in some ways, he moved to the left. He's begun to support taxes — particularly, an oil severance tax — and when I've questioned him, he somewhat grudgingly admits that Prop. 13 deserves review.
He's done some awful stuff, like trying to sell off the Cow Palace land to private developers. But he has consistently been one of the best voices in the Legislature on open government, and that's brought him some national attention.