SAN FRANCISCO — The day after Gavin Newsom squeaked to victory in a runoff election here, the mayor-elect scheduled only one stop: the narrow streets of Chinatown.
Shortly before his swearing in last month, Newsom went to thank the community that had helped hoist him into the city's power seat.
"There is one reason I won a very close election," Newsom told 600 supporters in one of Chinatown's oldest banquet halls, after lion dancers and cymbals welcomed him. "And that is the support of the Asian community, and the Chinese community in particular. I could not have done it without you."
Then Newsom was off, running to yet another celebration five blocks away with another lion dance and 500 other supporters allied with a more nascent crop of Chinese community leaders.
San Francisco's Chinese population has long been large in number. But now, as voter participation increases, it is also gaining political clout.
Long labeled a sleeping giant, the country's oldest Chinese enclave is stirring, and there isn't a politician in town who can afford to ignore it.
"It's not only awake," said San Francisco State political science professor Richard DeLeon. "It's out of bed and standing up. Politicians are paying attention because they want to and because they have to."
Newsom's campaign concedes that he probably lost the white vote -- which tends to be liberal here -- to Board of Supervisors President and Green Party member Matt Gonzalez and says he prevailed largely because of support from Asian and African Americans. He also lost to Gonzalez among voters who went to the polls Dec. 9, pulling off his narrow victory with a solid lead from early absentee voters.
About 22% of those who voted by mail were Chinese American, according to an analysis of surnames by the nonprofit Chinese American Voters Education Committee. That is striking, considering that only 18% of the city's registered voters are Asian American -- up from 13% a decade ago, said David Lee, the group's executive director. Overall, Newsom carried precincts with large Chinese American populations with a consistently higher margin of victory than in the city as a whole.
"It can't be understated," Newsom said of the community's importance. "I think what we're seeing is the future of San Francisco."
The first political candidate to pay attention to San Francisco's Chinese community was the late Phillip Burton, in 1956. Although their voting numbers were small, Burton -- brother of state Sen. President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) -- needed them to beat Republican Assemblyman Tom Maloney, said Lee, who recently completed a master's thesis on the Chinese American electorate.
Burton spoke out against mass subpoenas that had been served on the city's Chinese family associations in a heavy-handed crackdown on immigration fraud, and he earned the community's backing. But by the 1960s, a new movement was afoot as younger Chinese American liberals, empowered by the civil rights movement and financed by government grant money, formed nonprofits.
Finding a Voice
The birth of the advocacy movement in Chinatown gave voice to poor tenants and the elderly who lacked decent housing, and they allied closely with Democratic Party leaders affiliated with the Burtons.
At the helm was Rose Pak, who has worked tirelessly from the offices of Chinatown organizations for 35 years, securing a master plan for the neighborhood and working to preserve low-income housing. Pak had the ear of many politicians, including Willie Brown. When he swept into office eight years ago, she was at his side.
Brown appointed more Chinese Americans to commissions and city staff positions than any other mayor, bringing them ahead of parity with their population for the first time in city history.
Brown also campaigned heavily in Chinatown and visited often for events and ribbon-cuttings. Newsom's election, however, saw a larger percentage of Chinese American voters turn out. Further, his narrow margin of victory gives his Chinese American supporters even greater significance.
As with many minority groups flexing new political muscle, San Francisco's Chinese are emerging not as one community, but many -- rife with infighting and varied political agendas. Still, even archenemies here agree that the surge in voter participation can only be healthy for a community relegated to the political sidelines for decades.
The implications are striking. In a city where Asians comprise 32% of the population -- most of them Chinese -- a surge in participation could tilt the political scales away from San Francisco's notorious liberalism.
A younger generation of Chinese Americans is eager to promote a progressive agenda, but, overall, a more moderate ethos prevails. Chinese here are more likely to own homes and small businesses and have children in city schools than residents as a whole.