The Great Gentrification
A Redistricting Plan Threatens to Mute Minority Voices Including the Richmond’s Chinese Americans
By Julie Pitta
Supervisor Connie Chan came to San Francisco in 1991. Then 13, Chan, her mother and brother, settled in Chinatown, the first home for many new arrivals from China. The Chans struggled, as immigrants often do, to secure a place in their adopted home. Through hard work, they not only survived, they thrived.
Connie Chan’s story resonated with District 1’s Chinese-American voters who played an important role in electing her to public office. The supervisor, who is fluent in Cantonese, enjoys a special bond with her Chinese-American constituents. Not infrequently, they stop her on neighborhood streets, greeting her as they would a family member. To them, she is simply “Connie” and she is one of their own.
During most of her career, Chan has acted as a bridge between the Chinese-American community and city government. As a member of the Board of Supervisors, she continues that work, acting as an important connection between Chinese Americans and City Hall where they have often been overlooked.
A plan for redistricting the City’s 11 supervisorial districts threatens to dilute the influence of the San Francisco’s minority communities, including Black, LGBTQ and Chinese-American residents. A preliminary map, just released by the Redistricting Task Force, scatters so-called “communities of interest,” in effect muting voices that fought long and hard to be heard in the City’s corridors of power.
The map drew sharp criticism from several sitting supervisors, among them Rafael Mandelman who represents District 8, which includes the Castro.
“This district has reliably elected an LGBTQ person since Harvey Milk,” Mandelman said. “I don’t think that would be the case anymore.”
Redistricting occurs every 10 years, beginning 60 days after the federal census results are released. Last month, my Richmond Review colleague, former District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, offered a detailed description of the process.
The Redistricting Task Force, a nine-member panel appointed by the mayor, the Department of Elections and the Board of Supervisors, must weigh multiple factors when redrawing district maps. The most important should be maintaining the voting power of communities of interest defined as ethnic, political, social and economic minorities.
At the same time, the Task Force is required to accommodate population changes, creating districts of similar size. Districts 2, 5, 8, 9 and 11 have seen their numbers remain stable since the last census. Districts 6 and 10 saw significant increases, while Districts 1, 3, 4 and 7 declined. That means Districts 6 and 10 must shrink and 1, 3, 4 and 7 need to expand.
The Task Force has hit on a deeply problematic solution for boosting District 1’s size. It has added Sea Cliff– formerly part of District 2 and home to some of San Francisco’s wealthiest residents – to a district that is largely working class. Sixty percent of District 1’s residents are low- and middle-class renters, many living in rent-controlled apartments. Forty percent are Asian-Americans, including a sizeable number of non-English speakers.
Large concrete monuments, separating Sea Cliff from District 1, serve as stark reminders of the uneasy relationship between the two communities.
Tacking Sea Cliff onto District 1 would weaken the power of vulnerable communities, including Chinese-Americans who have earned their place at City Hall. It would roll back San Francisco’s progress toward creating a government that reflects the City’s rich diversity.
Much of that change can be attributed to district elections, first instituted in 1977. That same year saw the election of Harvey Milk, the first-openly gay man, Ella Hill Hutch, the first African-American woman, and Gordon Lau, the first Chinese American, to the Board of Supervisors. Lau, the son of a warehouseman and a typist, became District 1’s representative.
Lau was a trailblazer. After graduating from law school, he worked tirelessly to organize the City’s Chinese-Americans to speak out for fair treatment in employment and housing. It came at a time when few in that community participated in the political process. Former State Senator John Burton compared Lau to Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball.
“He was a first, the first elected Chinese American when the Board of Supervisors used to be all white people and a few women,” Burton said.
Unfortunately, these wins proved short-lived. In 1980, San Francisco returned to citywide elections and the results were impossible to ignore: The Board of Supervisors again became largely white and largely male.
In 2000, San Francisco reinstated district elections. Since then, District 1 has elected three Chinese American representatives: Chan, Fewer and Eric Mar, all staunch advocates for Chinese Americans and other vulnerable communities, including working families and tenants in rent-controlled apartments.
The Task Force has voiced a commitment to inclusion.
“I want as much public involvement as humanly possible,” said Task Force Chair Rev. Arnold Townsend, vice-president of the San Francisco NAACP. “It’s important that we try to draw districts that give people a fair chance to be represented, and be represented in a way that the people who represent them have to listen.”
A map drafted by a coalition of grassroots groups does just that. Called the Community Unity Map, it enlarges supervisorial districts without disrupting their demographic composition. It protects the hard-won political gains made by working-class communities of color. It allows another Connie Chan to be elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.