In Willie Brown’s world, everything is political. Even golf.
For years, Da Mayor has worked diligently to promote the annual Chinese Hospital Golf Tournament, which will take place next week at the well-maintained Olympic Club in San Francisco. For the love of sport? The man does not play golf. But he likes to winâ¦ elections.
To do that in San Francisco, historically, you had to go through Rose Pak. The legendary Chinatown activist was a kingmaker in that city, delivering a cohesive bloc of Chinese voters who could sway the outcome either way. Willie Brown knew this and cultivated the relationship, for better or for worse. Five years after her death, he still co-chairs the golf tournament that she started with fellow former mayor, Ed Lee.
The Examiner spoke with Mayor Brown to discuss Pak’s legacy, the state of political activism in Chinatown, and what lies ahead for the neighborhood’s ties to City Hall. It was a fitting and fun chat with the ultimate San Francisco icon, just months before the city opened the Central Metro Rose Pak station in Chinatown, a project it fought for bitterly after the he old Embarcadero highway was demolished following the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Rose Pak wanted all roads to lead to Chinatown, benefiting her main constituency. Willie Brown helped her achieve this, leveraging that same constituency to consolidate political power. It was an alliance that has shaped this city in many ways, then and now.
Mr. Mayor, you have had a close connection with Chinatown throughout your career. Rose was in the middle of it. Has there been a leadership vacuum since his death? It’s been five years.
No one has surfaced as a single source, and I’m not sure anyone can ever resurface, as it’s the same in the black community. At one time you probably had a coalition of three or four black leaders. You had the leader of the black clerics, the leader of the blacks of the NAACP Urban League. And then you had those who were the workers. We don’t have that anymore. You cannot identify a group of black leaders in San Francisco. They don’t exist, period.
Chinatown currently suffers from the same non-central (structure). We still have the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which is good. We have Chinese nonprofits, two or three of them. And I’m not sure they get along, by the way. But under Rose, everyone was under one because Rose was helping to drive the community away from divisions, politically, in Chinatown nationally or globally, all in one source.
What was it about Rose that allowed her to unite people like that? She was known to be quite a difficult client. You clashed with her over a couple of different things.
Productivity. It was his strength. You need a job, you have it.
She understood understanding all the rules and regulations, period. She was very careful never to put herself in a position where there was an allegation that she was doing it for her financial benefit. Rose never got a dime. Used to annoy me. She would invite me to lunch and I had to pay. (Laughs.)
Where is this leadership now? Did you say you didn’t think it was going to come back centralized like this?
No, because I think that, as has been the case with ethnic communities, people are moving from the kind of original things that have driven decision-making in ethnic communities to a competitive world that makes decisions about everything, period. final. So you are not going to get a Chinese majority, the Chinese communications community is fully challenged by the world of social media, where many Chinese in San Francisco get their information. They no longer get it from Sing Tao. They no longer get it from these papers.
It’s a seismic change for San Francisco politics.
Not just here, but across the country.
Rose was able to deliver a significant percentage of the city on election night.
It has always been good for somewhere between 20 and 30% of voters. Of all voters.
Looks like you were thinking about her very hard. You’ve had a few clashes though, haven’t you? Did you manage to overcome this?
Oh, she was giving me more shit thanâ¦ are you kidding me? Oh my God. Rose was not transactional except when it came to Chinese.
Rose helped orchestrate Ed Lee’s ascendancy as mayor. And it had to be done without Ed Lee’s consent.
That’s right. He didn’t want to run, did he?
No. He didn’t want to do this job. And so Rose had orchestrated it all, and it had to be on the basis that he wouldn’t run (for the election). But Rose’s goal in life was to get a Chinese elected as mayor of San Francisco. She saw the opportunity, and she convinced a lot of us to help her, and we did. To get (Lee) to replace Newsom.
In a way, his greatest legacy is coming true. Wouldn’t you say the central metro was all pink? What do you think?
Almost to herself Rose. And that was the answer to the disappearance of the highway to Chinatown. Before, you could go to Chinatown from all over San Francisco. You landed in Washington or Broadway, and you were thrown straight into Chinatown. And the Chinese community has benefited from being the first off-ramp to drive tourists. The highway falls as a result. This is why the Chinese community split and supported (the former mayor) Frank Jordan. When (the former mayor Art) Agnos allowed this highway to go down he was punished for it and Rose directed that.
But then you suddenly had more Chinese in the Bayview than blacks. You had more Chinese in Richmond than white people. So suddenly you had to figure out how to bring Chinese back. The way to do it, obviously, was to go underground, hence the central metro. Nancy (Pelosi) agreed to make the money for the central metro. And that’s how we did it. But it was Rose. Rose rolled this together.
Let’s bring the conversation back to the present day. What is London Breed’s relationship with the Chinese community of The City?
She is slowly but surely improving it. His appointment of Malcolm Young to the airport commission was a very big decision because Malcolm is the guy who moves nonprofits to Chinatown.
But do you see a lot of different groups in Chinatown today?
Oh yes. There is the Chinatown Arts Group. There is a group of businesses in Chinatown. We have about five different groups in Chinatown. And we no longer have a unified media world in Chinatown. It is not yet unified.
Nope. It’s not like when Rose was alive.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.