Asian-American leaps barrier to run for mayor of San Francisco


SAN FRANCISCO -- History is made in moments large and small, and Tom Hsieh, the first Asian-American to campaign seriously for mayor of a major U.S. city, is having several small moments here at the Old Timers Club.

The men at the club are Irish and Italian, most of them retired, all of them former baseball players, many of them also former firefighters. Mr. Hsieh, running for mayor of San Francisco, is an elegant man with a bow tie, a Chinese accent and a name pronounced "Shay."

He gives Al Salido a quick slap on the back.

"Good to see you," says Mr. Salido, who once played pro ball and now hovers in a white apron over the baked ham in the club's kitchen. When Mr. Hsieh disappears around a corner, Mr. Salido whispers, "He's the nicest guy. He's no phony."

Mr. Hsieh strides over to Leo Burns, who once played third base in the Texas League.

"How are you?" he asks.

Mr. Burns is fuming about the incumbent mayor, Art Agnos, criticizing Mr. Agnos' employment of seven deputy mayors at salaries close to $100,000. This is one of Mr. Hsieh's favorite themes against the mayor. Mr. Burns ends with, "Throw him out," and promises to vote for Mr. Hsieh.

Mr. Hsieh likes what he hears, laughs, circulates some more, his hand out in the classic politician's pose.

There are 240 Old Timers here tonight, the core of old working-class San Francisco, and he wants to chat with as many as he can, trying to build momentum, to earn votes and, finally, to win that intangible called acceptance.

In a city where Chinese-Americans make up 18 percent of the population and all Asian groups together make up 28 percent, Asian-American politicians are few; in 1988, Mr. Hsieh was the first to be elected in a citywide ballot to the 11-member Board of Supervisors.

In cities around the country, Asian-American politicians are almost non-existent.

"It's 1991 -- it's kind of sad," says Mr. Hsieh. "My race will give inspiration to our community, a sense that they do have an equal voice in government."

Edward Liu, attorney for the influential Chinatown Merchants Association here, says, "We think it's a political catharsis for the Asian-American and Chinese-American communities.

"It's like a coming-out party. Tom Hsieh is in a win-win situation. It's about time there is a viable Chinese-American candidate."

So far Mr. Hsieh is the underdog in this mayoral race, which will come to a vote in November, but he has proved his seriousness by raising more than $350,000, much of it in cities across the country, including $10,000 raised this spring at a fund-raising dinner in Towson.

"Tom is one of the few in our generation brave enough to step out of the boundary of a professional person into politics," says P. C. Huang, a professor of biochemistry at the Johns Hopkins University and an organizer of the fund-raiser.

Participating in politics has never been encouraged in Asian-American culture, which has been more concerned with seeking financial and professional security, Mr. Liu says.

"With our children, we say the last thing we want them to be is a politician," he says. "We'd rather have them be a doctor. That is going to have to change."

These cultural factors contribute to the unusually low voter registration rate, which the Hsieh campaign is trying to improve. Only 23 percent of Asian-Americans in the city are registered, compared with 55 percent of whites, according to Leslie Yee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.

"Most people come from countries where they've never been allowed to vote," says Alicia Wang, vice chairwoman of San Francisco's Democratic County Central Committee. "They don't understand the political process and are very reluctant to get involved."

Also problematic for Mr. Hsieh is that there is no well-developed sense that Asians will vote as a bloc for him or any candidate, says Ms. Wang. Because of their widely varying geographic, political and economic backgrounds, Koreans, Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Japanese and Chinese are only beginning to work together as Asian-Americans.

Mr. Hsieh, who calls himself a social moderate and a fiscal conservative, is competing for votes against three other candidates: incumbent Mayor Agnos, former Police Chief Frank Jordan and city Assessor Richard Hongisto. Mr. Hsieh and Mr. Jordan will compete for the more conservative votes, and Mr. Agnos and Mr. Hongisto will go after the liberal side. Mr. Agnos, faced with a budget deficit of $136 million, is in a vulnerable position.

This week, the Hsieh campaign began airing a 10-second television spot that plays up Mr. Hsieh's pro-business themes and emphasizes his assault on what he calls "the waste at City Hall."

The campaign is also making use of a biographical video about Mr. Hsieh. He arrived in San Francisco 40 years ago, at age 19, with a suitcase, $400, a Chinese-English dictionary and a guitar. He bought the guitar when the boat stopped in Japan, he says, "because I thought all Americans were cowboys and had a guitar and a campfire."

Mr. Hsieh was no hick, though. His father had earned a doctorate in chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins, and his mother was one of the first women in China to attend college. Mr. Hsieh worked as a houseboy while paying his way through the University of California at Berkeley.

He also has taken on directly an issue some said could become an image problem in his campaign.

"Let me share a secret with you: I have an accent," Mr. Hsieh said in his campaign announcement speech. "But I think people would rather elect a mayor with an accent than a mayor who talks from both sides of his mouth."

The television spots this week are a $35,000 step to remedy Mr. Hsieh's lack of name recognition.

"In terms of viability, initially no one knows who he is," says Jerry Austin, Mr. Hsieh's campaign consultant who was national campaign manager for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's 1988 presidential bid.

"Money gets to buy time to be competitive," Mr. Austin says. "For Tom Hsieh to be successful, he has to put together a coalition of votes from Asians, moderate and conservative Democrats and Republicans and Hispanics. That coalition has never existed in San Francisco."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad