While 60% of San Franciscans approved a November ballot initiative that outlaws aggressive panhandling -- and was decried by liberals as anti-poor -- fully 72% of Chinese Americans supported it, according to exit polls conducted for the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.
"Who's having more kids? Asians," Lee said. "Who's got kids in public schools? Asians. Who owns their own homes? Asians. These are the things that define middle class and they make for more moderate voters."
Newsom's moderate politics aligned well with the values of many of San Francisco's Chinese Americans. But in a first for this city, even Newsom's more progressive opponent catered to the Chinese American vote in the December election, opening a Chinatown office, campaigning aggressively with literature in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Between 1970 and 2000, San Francisco's Chinese population more than doubled from 8% to nearly 20%, U.S. census figures show. Many of those arrivals settled in a relatively conservative geographical area that curls around the city's more liberal core of the Mission, Tenderloin, Haight and Noe Valley neighborhoods. Chinese students now account for 31% of the San Francisco Unified School District's enrollment.
A demographic shift in the community opened the door to new participation, forcing Pak to share the stage with Julie Lee. She arrived from Hong Kong 35 years ago with her husband, raised four children and established a Sunset District real estate business before co-founding the San Francisco Neighbors Assn. In the late 1980s, she recalled, her group rallied 3,000 mostly Chinese homeowners to a Planning Commission hearing to fight zoning restrictions. But politicians didn't listen.
A friend bluntly explained why: "Because you don't vote."
The breakthrough came in 1997, when Julie Lee's group fought for reconstruction of a freeway destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. City leaders opposed the rebuilding. To their surprise, the Neighbors' Assn. gathered 30,000 signatures within three weeks to place the issue on the ballot. Then they mobilized the votes and won.
That startling victory was later overturned by a different ballot initiative, but the Chinese community had been seen and heard.
Lee said her group turned dry-cleaning proprietors across the city into block captains who gathered signatures from a stream of customers. And Lee took to the airwaves on her Cantonese-language radio program to urge participation.
"Every night I start the show by telling people, 'If you don't come out to vote, the politicians are not going to care about your community,' " Lee said.
Lee had lashed out at Brown for years, offended in part by his close relationship with Pak. (Lee called Pak "evil," while Pak dismissed Lee and her allies as "morons.") But Lee supported Brown in 1999. In exchange, Brown appointed her to the city's Housing Authority Commission, where she is now president.
Lee's affiliation with Brown caused her own group to fracture, but the organization remains important. Today, it claims 4,000 members, mostly Chinese homeowners on the city's wealthier Westside.
As San Francisco's Chinese population has blossomed, so has parent activism: Last fall, a group of Westside parents kept their children out of school for six weeks to protest a school district integration policy that compels many Chinese children near high-performing schools to travel great distances by public bus to inferior schools with fewer Asians. The protest ended when the superintendent offered charter school slots to the kids.
Meanwhile, the city's three Chinese language newspapers have boosted their coverage of local politics. And in recent years the city's big businesses, eager for a moderate swing vote, began financing voter registration efforts, said David Lee, whose organization has benefited from the investment.
His group registered 10,000 new Asian absentee voters last fall, he said, and it paid off: December voter participation in predominantly Chinese precincts was about double that of the 1999 runoff, he said.
When Newsom entered the mayor's race, Julie Lee was quick to back him, organizing phone banks and precinct walks and advocating for him nightly on her radio show. She hosted the second of the dual Chinatown celebrations Newsom attended shortly before his inauguration.
On a recent morning, her cellphone rang in her Sunset District office -- the sixth call she had received from a Chinese American interested in running for election to the Board of Supervisors this November. The candidates were seeking her organization's backing, she said.
Whether she can deliver votes remains to be seen. She was unable to do so for her son, who lost a 2002 bid for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. But in four of the seven districts where seats on the 11-member board are up for grabs in November, Asians make up more than 45% of the population.