On political accomplishment


How many people might have dreamed San Francisco’s next mayor would be an Asian American? I have no way of knowing, but I remember one guy who actually predicted it.

On a June Saturday back in 2007 — an eon ago in political time — I attended a summit hosted by the Asian Pacific American Leadership Project, a nonprofit geared toward preparing APAs to run for office. Reporting on the event for the Nichi Bei Times, I was sitting in a lecture hall in the State Building on Golden Gate Avenue, listening to a panel discussion on whether our country might ever elect an Asian American president. No one had a memorable take on that particular question, but I clearly recall panelist Eric Jaye playing the role of Nostradamus: “I believe the next mayor of San Francisco will be a Chinese American.”

The pronouncement felt weighty and bold, maybe a little provocative, and it gave me pause. Did this represent a truly conceivable future? I guessed it had to, coming from Jaye, a savvy political operative who engineered both of Gavin Newsom’s successful mayoral campaigns. He went on to make his case, attesting to the rising prominence of Asian Americans in his field and pointing out that the community’s steady demographic growth had resulted in increasing democratic leverage.

Through the lens of hindsight, it doesn’t actually seem like he was going out on a limb. I don’t mean to say that the history written this week was inevitable, and Ed Lee, as a long-time bureaucrat, appeared an unlikely figure to write it. But in a city where Asian Americans comprise more than a third of the population, and have come to hold so much influence, we shouldn’t be all that surprised.

I still think this is an occasion for celebration, and I feel proud and energized by it. Yet as we applaud the inspirational example set by both Lee and Jean Quan, his newly-elected counterpart across the Bay in Oakland, I feel we should acknowledge that this moment provides an instructive indication of where we stand as a community.

Asian Americans have struggled through tremendous adversity, yet as a result of perseverance and hard work, especially by our forebearers, we now find ourselves in a position of relative prosperity. We have become pioneers in science and technology. We have made waves in the arts and academics. We have fulfilled grand ambitions in industry and business. Many of us are quite wealthy. Our reach extends far and wide. Our name is on the door of the mayor’s office.

Of course, challenges remain; systematic forces continue to operate against us. But in my mind, the symbolism and the practical reality of Lee and Quan’s accomplishments serve as reminders of our power and our privilege. And this which we have earned and inherited, we must not abuse. We carry an incredible responsibility, and we should handle it with utmost care.

When we comprehend this, we won’t spend as much time dreaming of which leadership positions might someday be ours. That future shouldn’t be too difficult to predict anyway. The more important question we will want to consider is, how will we choose to lead?

Alec Yoshio MacDonald is an associate editor at the Nichi Bei Weekly. His work has also appeared in Nikkei Heritage, the Pacific Citizen, Nikkei Family Magazine, the Chicago Shimpo, the East Bay Express and Hyphen Magazine. He lives in Oakland.

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