Letter from San Francisco

Twenty years after Dan White murdered George Moscone and Harvey Milk, his old neighborhood is still spawning leaders who divide by race -- but these days they're Asian, not white.

By Lisa Margonelli

Published November 24, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

San Francisco's Excelsior district has always been far from downtown both geographically and politically, but these days it seems farther than ever. As a boom in construction has swept the city, the Excelsior is all but forgotten. There's a raw spot where Geneva Towers, a monument to the nation's failed subsidized housing policy, was blown up last year. While other neighborhoods squabble with developers to keep chain stores out, the merchants on Leland Street beg City Hall to build a Web site to attract new stores to the area.

"Dan White put this district on the map," Goldie Percivale reminisces from her Excelsior home, "and the whole city took a look at those nice conservative people living in tract homes." Now retired, Percivale was White's first campaign manager, and she helped the politically inexperienced White forge a constituency from his Irish and Italian neighbors -- the "thousands of frustrated, angry people ... waiting to rise up" who elected him.

Unfortunately, Dan White isn't remembered as a populist, but as the supervisor who murdered Mayor George Moscone and gay Supervisor Harvey Milk 20 years ago this week and then got off with a light sentence, thanks to the infamous "Twinkie Defense." He committed suicide in 1985 after getting out of prison. Rather than bringing the issues of the Excelsior to the fore in the city, White's actions made Dianne Feinstein mayor -- she succeeded Moscone and went on to the U.S. Senate -- while inspiring gays to fulfill Milk's dream and become a political force throughout the city.

Much has changed in the Excelsior over those 20 years. For one thing, it's now a majority Asian, not Irish and Italian. But it's still a backwater in a city that thinks it's too sophisticated for backwaters, and it's still offering up leaders who polarize at the same time as they try to uplift a politically forgotten people. Today, Percivale says, the district's rising political star is Marlene Tran, a powerful advocate for her Asian neighbors who, like White, has drawn fire for her racially charged rhetoric about crime, city services and San Francisco politics.

A 51-year-old Vietnamese-born schoolteacher and community champion who speaks five languages, Tran recently shocked Democratic Party insiders when she came from nowhere to win a seat on the County Democratic Party Central Committee. She was tapped to run for the seat by the powerful Asian-led San Francisco Neighbors Association because of her standing in the Excelsior. Small, energetic and dressed carelessly in a hot pink blazer, Tran mockingly calls herself "the little candidate." She calls politicians "cloud people" and describes herself as "grass-roots," swearing that she has no real political ambitions.

Recently, however, many "cloud people" -- mayoral hopeful Clint Reilly, Supervisors Leland Yee and Tom Ammiano and representatives from Mayor Willie Brown's office -- have been making pilgrimages to see "the little candidate." "People," Tran says happily, "are beginning to realize that Marlene has a lot of influence." When the city returns in 2000 to electing its board of supervisors by districts -- the arrangement that allowed White to rise to power -- instead of at-large voting, Tran could be a formidable candidate.

Tran thinks of herself as a crusader. "All my life I've wanted to help the underdog," she says. But Tran takes this further than most: She has five dogs and 18 cats in her house. "I take the ugly ones with three feet and one eye," she says forcefully. "I take the ones nobody wants." The underdogs in the Excelsior, according to Tran, are Asian immigrants who speak little English, take public transportation, access few city services and fear crime on the streets.

Part of the problem, according to Tran, is that Asians in the neighborhood have a hard time getting scarce city services in the area because of language problems -- and because most city services, including jobs programs and senior centers, are aimed at African-American residents. "All we do is work, work, work," she says. "Where are the programs for us?"

This morning she struggles with the locks on the door of the Asian community center she founded and pays for herself. She suspects someone tried to break in the night before. "This place has been burglarized two times before," she fumes. "People here are like that." Tran has become a crusader against crime, arguing that 80 percent of Asians in the neighborhood have been victimized, often by blacks. She has called anti-Asian crimes "atrocities," and when the San Francisco Examiner noted that her stridency was alienating her black neighbors, she was unapologetic. "The fact is if every time immigrants go out and they get hit by a red car, they start to be afraid of red cars," she told the Examiner. "I wish people would admit there's a problem, and then we can work together."

Since the Examiner article, Tran has become cautious in her speech. "I didn't say black crime," she warns, "so I don't want the emphasis." Nonetheless, it's clear that she sees crime as a racial issue -- she describes immigrants as "perfect victims," and the neighborhood as "tainted" by crime. "I moved to this community in 1989 fully knowing that it was a battleground," she says.

Leland Street may not be a battleground, but it's a cold, forbidding street, with dilapidated stores that seem ready to roll up in their armor like armadillos. The rolling metal shutters leave the stores gloomy inside. Walking the street with Tran, it's clear her crusade to improve Leland is heartfelt -- and needed. Some men, mostly older African-Americans, hang out on the sidewalk while people representing a mix of ethnicities scurry from store to store. The area is poorly served by the city. There are few bus lines and none of the amenities that make the rest of San Francisco attractive.

At the end of the block, the Bank of America has been robbed five times this year. Branch manager Connie Sandiego, who is president of the Leland Street Revitalization Committee, shivers as Tran reminds her to come to a community meeting with the mayor's office on Saturday. A few stores down, Gordon Chee, vice president of the committee, is packing up his wife's flower shop to move to a shopping mall south of the city. "Not enough foot traffic," he says philosophically. Chee, who will keep his import store open on Leland, regrets that the street is so different from the rest of the city. "What we need is a decent coffee shop here," he says.

Tran takes me to a dusky noodle shop, hung with shutters and security cameras, and fields a call from the mayor's office. A bunch of Chinese-language voter registration cards hang on the wall. A nearby sign advertises "Pork bun, Beef bun, Pineapple bun, Hot dog and cheese bun, Mexico bun." Maybe someday people in the Excelsior will be getting along as well as those multicultural buns.

But not today. Tran begins her thinly veiled racial rant about crime again: "Check with the police and see who are the victims and who are the perpetrators," she says adamantly. "I didn't create this problem. I'm just reporting it. I don't want to be racist." Two African-American women in the shop begin to talk in louder and louder voices. Tran doesn't notice, she's too focused on her argument.

"It's like AIDS," says Tran of racial crime, "people don't want to acknowledge it. It's too shameful." She describes crimes against immigrants as "rapes" in which the victims are "deaf, dumb and mute" because they can't report the crimes to the English-speaking police. The African-American women leave the restaurant. "We need more African-Americans to support us," Tran says, but she seems unable to reach out to them, or even imagine why her views anger them.

Studies by the Chinese American Voter's Action Committee (CAVAC) have shown that Chinese residents in the district are different from those in more established Chinese communities in the city. Politically, they are more conservative. Mainly immigrants, they are more likely to be from mainland China than Hong Kong, where most immigrant Chinese residents of the city come from. With an average household income of $46,000, they are also better off than their Asian counterparts elsewhere in the city, and better off than their non-Asian neighbors as well.

Yet many residents do not speak much English -- 80 percent of them get their news from Chinese-language media. They live, in a sense, on an island, apart from the rest of the city's Asian community and their adopted neighborhoods. Tran says she alone speaks for them in a city where no one listens. "I am the eyes and ears and the voice," she says.

David Lee, executive director of CAVAC, worries that district elections will further balkanize an already divided city. "In San Francisco, we think of ourselves as progressive and we look down on views we disagree with," he says, "but in a conservative district those unpopular views may galvanize neighborhood support for an indigenous leader. The more citywide politicians try to marginalize those views, the stronger the indigenous leaders may become." The question, says Lee, as the city gears up for the 2000 elections, is how to develop indigenous leaders with a citywide view.

Tran's efforts have brought many needed services for Asians to the Excelsior: more English classes, promises of streetlights and better street cleaning, new bus lines, a substation for police foot patrols based in Tran's garage and Chinese-language interpreters at some community meetings. But it's striking how closely her appeal echoes White -- who ran for supervisor under the slogan "Unite and fight with Dan White" -- all these years later. White too crusaded against black crime, and called on police to identify suspects by race. "If they're white, say they're white; if they're black say they're black; if they're Chinese says they're Chinese," he said then.

Goldie Percivale expects an Asian to win the supervisor's seat once held by
White. She sees parallels between her Italian and Irish neighbors and the Asian newcomers. "They're the same people with the same values. They eat pizza, drink beer, many are Catholic and they have young kids. They're the silent majority that hasn't woken up yet."

Lisa Margonelli

Lisa Margonelli is a San Francisco freelance writer.

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