The one-time conservative supervisor is gaining broad progressive support. But who is Leland Yee, really?
Here's what I found: Public records show that in July 1999, Yee and his wife, Maxine, purchased a house on 24th Avenue for $875,000 (it's now assessed at slightly more than $1 million). At the time, Yee was a San Francisco supervisor, earning a little more than $30,000 a year. (The salary of the supervisors was raised dramatically shortly after Yee left the board and went to the state Assembly.) His wife wasn't working. And his economic interest statements for that period show no other outside earnings. So the disposable, after-tax income of the entire Yee family couldn't have been much more than $25,000.
That, by any normal standard, shouldn't have been enough to float a mortgage that, records show, totaled $516,000. In fact, the interest payments alone on that mortgage alone would total $3,600 a month — more than Yee's gross income.
Documents in the Assessor's Office show another paper trail, too. In 1989, Jung H. Lee, Yee's mother, transferred the deed on a four-unit Dolores St. building where the family had been living to Maxine and Leland Yee — for no money. And a few months before the Yees bought the Sunset house, they took out a $320,000 home-equity loan on that property. That was the down payment on the Sunset property.
Still: At that point, the Yees would have been paying off two mortgages, with a total nut of about $5,000 a month — and supporting four kids, in San Francisco. In 2002, Yee's economic interest statement's show some modest income from teaching at Lincoln University — but nowhere near enough to pay that level of expenses.
What happened? Yee explains it this way: "For more than 10 years, we were living rent-free in my parents' property," he told me I an interview. "We were a close Chinese family, and my parents provided the food and helped pay for the children's clothing. So we had almost no expenses and we lived very frugally."
During that period, Yee was working for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the Oakland Unified School District, and a San Jose nonprofit, earning, he said, between $50,000 and $90,000 a year. If he saved almost all of that money, he would have had more than a half-million dollars in the bank when he bought the Sunset house.
There's nothing on any of his economic disclosure forms showing any ownership of stocks or other reportable financial interests during that period, so he wasn't investing the money. In fact, he says, it was, and is, all in simple savings accounts. A bit unusual for that large a sum of money.
How did he get a mortgage? "Back then," he said, "banks were willing to lend a lot more freely than they do today."
Starting in 2003, Yee was in the state Assembly, making a higher salary — but still not much in excess of $100,000 a year. After taxes, he was probably taking home about $75,000 — and $60,000 was going to the two mortgages.
How did he do it? "We have been supplementing our income with our savings," he said. "We don't take vacations, we are very careful with our money." And they clearly aren't desperate for cash — Yee's daughter occupies two of the four units in the Dolores St. building they own, but the other two units are vacant.
It's possible. It's plausible. But I don't blame people for wondering how he managed to pull it off. (Tim Redmond, with research assistance by Oona Robertson)
BIG CORPORATIONS HAVE BACKED YEE
Yee became a prodigious fundraiser in Sacramento — and a lot of the money came from big corporations that had business in the Legislature. And while he has perfect scores from the Sierra Club and the big labor unions, he's taken tens of thousands of dollars from some of the biggest corporations, agribusiness interests, and polluters in the state. And at times, he's voted their way.