Change in San Francisco politics serves as a warning for Asian American voters to Democrats in 2024
Allene Jue used to vote in a simple and quick way – scan the names on the ballot and choose the Asian sounding names.
It was before 2020.
“Something ignited during the pandemic and started a fire,” said Jue, a Chinese-American mother of two daughters, ages 3 and 5, living in west San Francisco. Throughout the pandemic, Jue has seen violent hate crimes against Asian Americans strike fear into the community without a sufficient response from law enforcement or local prosecutors. As school closures continued in California, Jue watched her local school board discuss progressive political issues such as renaming schools before simply focusing on getting students back into the classroom.
Jue, who generally considers herself a Democrat, recalled her anger at liberal local politicians.
“They care about policies that don’t really help someone who just lives in the city and just wants to be safe, who wants their kids to be well educated,” she said. “They forgot the basic problems of ordinary people. I wanted to do something to try to change and take back that power. It was fear and frustration, a lot of frustration, that I turned into action.
Her involvement began by stuffing envelopes for recall campaigns against the district attorney and several school board members, then grew — she even appeared in campaign ads in Chinese for a moderate Democratic running for president. city supervisor.
It was a political awakening replicated to varying degrees by other Asian Americans in San Francisco, resulting in a series of political upheavals in one of America’s most progressive cities – including a moderate white man toppling a progressive Chinese-American who holds the position of supervisor of the predominantly Asian-American Sunset District
California activists warn that these shifts in politics in San Francisco — a place that has long been a beacon for progressives — are a signal to National Democrats ahead of 2024 that the party needs a course correction with the racial group at fastest growing in the United States – Asian Americans.
“I see this frustration with the leadership of the party,” said Charles Jung, a civil rights attorney and local Bay Area advocate. “Asian Americans feel like Democrats are focusing on the wrong things, that they’ve let ideology run wild. If Democrats don’t work harder to focus on the core Democratic issues, they will lose people of color over time.
Supervisor Joel Engardio, a gay married man who by most national standards is a liberal, describes himself as a moderate in San Francisco. And he hastens to criticize the word “progressive”.
“To me, progressive is about thinking ahead, moving forward and building a better city,” Engardio said from his office in San Francisco City Hall. “For too long, we haven’t followed that definition of progressive. Progressive is a city that works, functions and builds towards the future.
Engardio overthrew a Chinese-American starter last year, becoming the first non-Asian supervisor to represent the majority Asian-American district in more than 20 years. He campaigned to remove roadblocks for small businesses, put more police on the streets and use merit standards for public schools. He said his overseer race, while close, sends a broader political message about the limits of liberal ideology.
“We should all pay attention to the fact that San Francisco, the most liberal place in America, says enough. We want safe streets. We want good schools. It should tell everyone – be careful,” Engardio said.
CNN’s national exit polls show the swing of the pendulum among Asian American voters in the recent election. In 2018, during Donald Trump’s presidency, Asian Americans overwhelmingly backed the Democrats at 77% against the Republicans at 23%. In 2022, Asian Americans remained supportive of Democrats, but that preference dropped from 58% over Republicans to 40%.
This is a significant change, warns Jung. “You’ve seen a substantial double-digit erosion of Asian American support from this midterm election to 2018. And incidentally, it’s not just Asian Americans, you’ve seen the same among Hispanic voters,” he said. “I think if Democrats don’t redouble their efforts to focus on core Democratic issues, they will lose people of color over time.”
While Asian Americans may be considered a Democratic constituency, Jung cautions that recent history shows that hasn’t always been the case.
CNN’s historic exit polls of congressional voting choice show that Asian American voters were narrowly divided or leaned toward Republicans in the 1990s. But since 1998, they have generally leaned toward the Democratic Party, with variable margins.
The erosion among Asian and Latino voters, said Kanishka Cheng of the grassroots community development organization Together SF, is because Democrats are forgetting the core values of immigrant communities.
“Democrats really have a hard time talking about public education and public safety,” Cheng said. “That’s the common denominator between the Asian and Latino community – we’re immigrant communities. We came to America for stability and opportunity. Public safety and public education are the things that give us stability and opportunity. We need education and we need to feel safe.
Engardio said the message came through loud and clear as he knocked on “14,000 doors, speaking to voters. My advice is to talk about what they need and, in fact, to listen.
Listening to Asian American voters is the work Forrest Liu continues in the Sunset District as we approach 2024. A former Bay Area finance worker, Liu left the corporate world and became an advocate for the Asian community to combat hate crimes targeting Asians.
Liu spends her day conducting field interviews trying to understand the political shift that has taken place among Asian voters in San Francisco, as Liu believes it is predictive of what will happen in the upcoming national election. “I want to understand why they made the decisions they made last year and what they want moving forward. And what we should stand for,” Liu said.
What he has learned so far, he said, is that the community is far savvier than politicians realize.
“There are politicians who say, ‘Let me take a picture with some Asians. Let me walk through Chinatown, shake hands with some Asian community leaders and that’s it. I got the Asian vote’ , Liu said. “No. You actually have to be in tune with the needs of that demographic.
Liu said the political discontent that led to Engardio’s victory remains, although publicity around “Stop Asian Hate” may have faded.
“Why should I feel in danger? I would say that sums up the emotion of the people I interview. They still don’t feel safe.
You hear three languages spoken in Jue’s house – English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Her 5-year-old daughter, Eloise, attends a Cantonese immersion kindergarten, although she also speaks Mandarin. Lucille, 3, speaks Mandarin to her parents. Jue switches from one language to another, produces multilingual public schools in San Francisco.
“I’m a public school kid, kindergarten through college,” she said. “There is a common background of my core group – the children of immigrants who went to public school.”
Working hard, striving for academic success, and building a safe community – that’s what Jue and his generation grew up on.
The effects of the pandemic have started to be felt in all of these core values. Attacks targeting Asian Americans — which soared 567% from 2019 to 2021 in San Francisco — have Jue worried.
“I am Asian, my family is Asian. If I have to worry about just going out for an errand, I think that’s a huge problem and I can’t live in a city like that,” she said.
Amid those concerns in 2021, Jue noticed the school board had voted to rename 44 schools whose names were linked to former presidents like Abraham Lincoln, saying the names were linked to “subjugation and enslavement human beings / or who oppressed women”.
The school district at the time had still not shared a public plan to reopen schools.
Jue, juggling her technical work and raising children about to enter kindergarten, was furious.
Jue was among Asian Americans in San Francisco who first launched recall actions against the school board, recalling three members. Jue then helped in the successful effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, supported by the majority of West Side Asian communities.
Last November, Jue volunteered for her neighboring District’s Overseer Race – where Engardio successfully challenged the City Overseer of the Sunset District. She was featured in two campaign advertisements in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Like many political changes, Jue said the Sunset District was driven by discontent. And Jue said the discontent, while felt most deeply in his city, is not limited to San Francisco.
The self-proclaimed socially liberal and fiscal conservative said while a registered Democrat she struggled with the current state of the party going into 2024. “I don’t think they’ve mastered those basics yet, like crime and education,” says Jue. “I know people who have traditionally voted Democrat who now vote Republican because they don’t feel like the Democratic Party represents them.”