Allene Jue used to vote in a simple, rapid manner – scan the names on the ballot and pick the Asian sounding names.
That was before 2020.
“Something turned on during the pandemic and lit a fire,” said Jue, a Chinese American mother of two girls, ages 3 and 5, living on the west side of San Francisco. Throughout the pandemic, Jue watched as violent hate crimes against Asian Americans brought fear to the community with not enough response from local law enforcement or prosecutors. As the school closures wore on and on in California, Jue saw her local school board discuss progressive policy issues like renaming schools ahead of focusing on simply returning students to the classroom.
Jue, who generally considers herself a Democrat, recalled her anger at liberal local politicians.
“They care about policies that don’t really help someone who just lives in the city and just want to be safe, who wants their kids to be educated well,” she said. “They forgot the core problems for regular people. I wanted to do something to try to change and take that power back. It was fear and frustration, a lot of frustration, that I turned into action.”
Her involvement began with stuffing envelopes for recall campaigns against the district attorney and several school board members and then grew – she even appeared in Chinese language campaign ads for a moderate Democrat running for city supervisor.
It was a political awakening replicated to varying degrees by other Asian Americans in San Francisco, resulting in a series of political upheavals in one of the United States’ most progressive cities – including a moderate White man unseating a progressive Chinese American incumbent for supervisor of the majority-Asian American Sunset District
California activists warn that these shifts in the politics of San Francisco – a place that has long been a beacon for progressives – are a signal to national Democrats ahead of 2024 that the party needs a course correction with the fastest growing racial group in the US – Asian Americans.
“I see this frustration with the direction of the party,” said Charles Jung, a civil rights attorney and local Bay Area advocate. “Asian Americans feel like Democrats are focused on the wrong things, that they’ve let ideology run amok. If Democrats don’t redouble their efforts to focus on core Democratic issues, they will lose people of color over time.”
Supervisor Joel Engardio, a gay married man who by most national standards is a liberal, describes himself as a moderate in San Francisco. And he is quick to criticize the word “progressive.”
“To me, progressive is forward thinking, moving into the future and building a better city,” said Engardio from his San Francisco City Hall office. “For too long, we have not followed that definition of progressive. Progressive is a city that works and functions and builds toward the future.”
Engardio unseated a Chinese American incumbent last year, becoming the first non-Asian supervisor to represent the majority Asian American district in more than 20 years. He campaigned on removing roadblocks for small businesses, putting more police officers on the streets, and using merit-standards for public schools. He said his supervisor race, while close, sends a broader political message about the limits of liberal ideology.
“We should all pay attention that San Francisco, the most liberal place in America, is saying enough. We want safe streets. We want good schools. That should tell anyone – pay attention,” said Engardio.
CNN national exit polls do show the pendulum shifting among Asian American voters in recent elections. In 2018, during the Donald Trump presidency, Asian Americans overwhelmingly supported Democrats by 77% vs. Republicans at 23%. In 2022, Asian Americans remained supportive of Democrats, but that preference slid 58% vs. Republicans at 40%.
That’s a significant shift, warns Jung. “You saw a substantial double-digit erosion of support from Asian Americans from this midterm election to 2018. And incidentally, it’s not just Asian Americans, you saw the same thing among Hispanic voters,” he said. “I think if Democrats don’t redouble their efforts to focus on core democratic issues, they will lose people of color over time.”
While Asian Americans may be thought of as a Democratic constituency, Jung warns recent history shows that wasn’t always the case.
CNN’s historical exit polls on congressional vote choice show Asian American voters were closely divided or tilting toward Republicans in the 1990s. But since 1998, they have generally leaned toward the Democratic Party, by varying margins.
Erosion among Asian and Latino voters, said Kanishka Cheng of grassroots community building organization Together SF, is explained by Democrats forgetting the core values for immigrant communities.
“Democrats have a really hard time talking about public education and public safety,” said Cheng. “That’s the common denominator between the Asian and Latino community – we are immigrant communities. We came to America for stability and opportunity. Public safety and public education are the things that give us stability and opportunity. We need education and we need to feel safe.”
Engardio said that message came through loud and clear as he knocked on “14,000 doors, talking to voters. My advice is to talk about what they need, and actually, listen.”
Listening to Asian American voters is the work that Forrest Liu continues in the Sunset District as 2024 approaches. A former Bay Area finance worker, Liu left the business world and became an Asian community advocate to fight hate crimes targeting Asians.
Liu spends his day conducting field interviews to try to understand the political shift that took place among San Francisco’s Asian voters, because Liu believes it’s predictive of what will happen in the upcoming national elections. “I want to understand why they made the decisions they made last year and what they want moving forward. And what we should be advocating for,” said Liu.
What he’s learned so far, he said, is the community is far savvier than politicians may think.
“There are some politicians out there who are like, ‘Let me get in a photo with some Asian people. Let me walk through Chinatown, shake hands with a few Asian community leaders and that’s it. I got the Asian vote,’” said Liu. “No. You actually need to be in tune with what this demographic needs.”
Liu said the political discontent that led to Engardio’s victory remains, even as publicity around “Stop Asian Hate” may have faded.
“‘Why should I feel unsafe?’ I would say that’s the summary of the emotion of the people I’m interviewing. They still feel unsafe.”
‘I can’t live in a city like that’
You hear three languages spoken in Jue’s house – English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Her 5-year-old daughter, Eloise, is in a Cantonese immersion kindergarten, though she also speaks Mandarin. Lucille, 3, speaks Mandarin to her parents. Jue flips from one language to the next, a product of the multilingual public schools in San Francisco.
“I’m a public school kid, from kindergarten all the way to college,” she said. “There is a common background from my core group – children of immigrants who went through public school.”
Work hard, strive for educational success, and build a safe community – that’s what Jue and her generation grew up seeking.
The effects of the pandemic began to crack into all those core values. The attacks targeting Asian American – which spiked 567% from 2019 to 2021 in San Francisco – worried Jue.
“I’m Asian, my family’s Asian. If I have to worry about just stepping out to run an errand, I think that’s a huge problem and I can’t live in a city like that,” she said.
Amid those concerns in 2021, Jue noticed the school board vote to rename 44 schools whose names were linked to former presidents like Abraham Lincoln, stating the names were linked to “the subjugation and enslavement of human beings/ or who oppressed women.”
The school district at that time still had shared no public plan for reopening schools.
Jue, juggling working at her tech job and raising kids about to enter pre-school, was incensed.
Jue was among the Asian Americans in San Francisco who rolled out recall actions first against the school board, recalling three members. Jue then helped the successful effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, which a majority of the west side Asian communities backed.
Last November, Jue volunteered for her neighboring district’s supervisor race – where Engardio successfully challenged the Sunset district’s sitting city supervisor. She was featured in two Mandarin and Cantonese campaign ads.
Like many political shifts, Jue said the Sunset District was driven by discontent. And Jue said that discontent, while felt most profoundly in her city, is not limited to San Francisco.
The self-described socially liberal-fiscal conservative said while she is a registered Democrat, she struggles with the current state of the party entering 2024. “I don’t think they’ve gotten those basics down yet, like crime and education,” said Jue. “I know of folks that have traditionally voted Democrat that are now voting Republican because they do not feel that the Democratic Party is representing them.”