SAN FRANCISCO -- The Visitacion Valley Community Center (VVCC) was packed last Thursday night as a diverse, but mostly Asian, cross-section of the neighborhood showed up to listen to 11 candidates running for the Board of Supervisors from District 10.
Twenty-one people are vying to take over the seat being vacated by Sophie Maxwell, who made an appearance at the candidates forum sponsored by the Chinese American Voter Education Committee (CAVEC), New America Media and VVCC.
In this isolated thumb of San Francisco, residents feel even more neglected than they do in other parts of the generally forgotten D10. The relatively rich and white Potrero Hill and the crime-ridden epicenter of development Hunter’s Point neighborhoods usually dominate the district’s politics.
But rapidly changing demographics, highlighting an emerging Asian immigrant community, has shown a spotlight on the Visitacion Valley enclave, where the swing votes may live.
CAVEC’s director, David Lee, noted that the event—which was broadcast on Chinese T.V., translated into Cantonese—drew every major candidate for the seat.
Of District 10’s approximately 37,400 registered voters, close to 20 percent are Chinese American. They are “the fastest-growing Chinese voter population in the city,” Lee said.
Standing out among the crowed field was Marlene Tran, a longtime activist and teacher in the neighborhood. “I am the only candidate from Visitacion Valley,” she noted. “Many of the people here have benefited from my ESL classes and later became citizens.” Pointing to the rear of the VVCC recreation room, she added, “The back of this very room [is where] I taught citizenship classes for the last 15 years.”
Tran focused on her record of working with the San Francisco Police Department on public-safety issues, bringing expanded Muni bus service to the neighborhood, advocating for greater language access, and promoting job training and green jobs.
"Tran is one of the only serious Chinese candidates," Lee said. “She'd have to win over 70 percent of the Chinese-American vote and pick up a fair percentage of white and black voters to prevail. If she doesn’t win, who will Tran’s voters choose as their second choice?”
The field is flush with African-American candidates. District 10 is notable as the only heavily black district in San Francisco, whose black population has plummeted in recent years—from close to 9 percent in 2000 to 6 percent in 2009, according to U.S. Census figures.
Lynette Sweet, a BART board member and local banker, is the de facto frontrunner, with the backing of major political players, including current Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Mayor Willie Brown. Sweet pointed to her experience as a legislator and businesswoman. “I am an elected member of the BART board of directors…right now, BART has a $700 million operational budget, we were able to get that budget balanced and save money. That’s what I’m going to bring to the Board of Supervisors.”
Though Malia Cohen is one of the youngest candidates, she has picked up momentum in recent weeks. “There are three key things I am focused on in my race: keeping District 10 folks working, healthy and safe.” Cohen opened her remarks with the Chinese greeting neih hou.
Public safety is a key issue in D10. Visitacion Valley was just hit with a gang injunction, and the city was rocked a few months back with a rash of black-on-Asian violence.
Each candidate had a formula to deal with the violence and the perceived cultural divide between African Americans and Asians, but most of their solutions included jobs and education.
Cohen called the level of violence “unacceptable” and proposed employing technology to fight crime. “Simple things like increased [street] lighting, encouraging people in a multilingual way, to report crimes.”
Chris Jackson, a young Community College Board member, said: “These are crimes that are rooted in poverty. When they cut things from us, we need to start looking at it as a public-safety issue.”
Dewitt Lacy, a civil rights attorney and former prosecutor, said, “The solution to criminal activity does not come from locking everybody up. We have to support programs that give a viable alternative to recidivism.”
In response to a question about how each candidate would reach out and work with the Asian community, Lacy pledged to learn to speak Chinese— “all 5,600 characters,” he said.
Other burning issues included access to jobs for local workers and the lack of grocery stores and fresh foods in the neighborhood. If the discussion was polite, it was also light on details.
What came through clearly, however, was that the Visitacion Valley’s Chinese community is activated and engaged and that would-be politicians are acknowledging their emerging influence. "This was in stark contrast to just a few months ago,"" said Lee, who recalled “scenes of angry Chinese-American protesters, from this very neighborhood, who rallied for hours in front of City Hall [demanding] that politicians pay attention to them and complaining that they had been long ignored. Tonight was the very first time that this community was taken seriously by those in power.”
Kevin Weston is the director of new media at New America Media.