IT'S 3 P.M. ON A FALL afternoon, and San Francisco's political class has descended on an ornate Chinatown banquet hall to toast the impending nuptials of District 4 supervisor Carmen Chu. The 34-year-old politico navigates the crowd, making small talk and blushing a little from all the attention. But, apologies to the bride-to-be—most of the action centers on the event’s host, Rose Pak, a rotund 64-year-old with a smoker’s cough and a grasp of city politics four decades deep. The Chinatown grande dame is seated at the head table receiving a steady stream of well-wishers: city department heads, business magnates, politicians. Some are allies, some enemies. Some love her, some fear her. But they all come.
Mayor Ed Lee is here, of course. He and Pak have been best friends since the 1970s. There’s Jane Kim, the District 6 supervisor Pak helped elect in 2010, and George Gascón, the district attorney whose office recently dropped its investigation into Mayor Lee’s campaign operation, with which Pak was closely involved. Pak’s old buddy Willie Brown is here, too. A fastidious man in a bespoke suit, the former mayor glides through the crowd, his wingtips not quite touching the ground.
Pak takes the podium. There’s a rich tradition of “Rose Pak on the microphone” stories, tales to be savored over happy-hour drinks and retold during off-the-record talks. This appearance will soon join the canon. Pak starts by saying this about Chu: “Every parent wishes she were their daughter.” But there’s an edge to her voice when she introduces District 3 supervisor David Chiu, who once had a working relationship with Pak but has been in her doghouse since last year’s mayoral race, when he went up against Lee. “It pains me to get the guy up,” she tells the crowd, only half playfully. “But it’s Carmen’s wedding, so I have to. David Chiu, it’s your turn to speak.”
Uneasy laughter from the crowd. How will the supervisor respond?
“Thank you, Rose, for that warm introduction,” Chiu says wryly, and the audience roars with delight. Awkwardness averted.
When Pak returns to the table, she scolds me good-naturedly. “You didn’t eat,” she says, pointing to the plates of untouched chicken wings and egg rolls on the lazy Susan. She fixes me with a mischevious grin. "So, David Chiu squirmed."
PAK HAS BEEN general consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce since the 1980s, but the title hardly does her justice. She is a confidante of mayors, a consumate political infighter who can get people hired or fired, and one of the leaders of a Chinatown-based political machine that has helped elect generations of local politicians. Most famously, of course, Pak and Brown engineered Lee’s ascension to the mayoralty in 2010, making him the city’s first Asian American to hold the position.
So these are good days for Rose Pak. But they are also good days for the Asian-American (particularly the Chinese-American) political class. Surveying the local landscape, it’s tempting to say that the community has suddenly reached political maturity. At press time, 4 of the 11 members of the Board of Supervisors were Asian-American, including David Chiu, who has served as board president for the past three years. (The race for a possible fifth spot, for Norman Yee, was still undecided.) Mary Jung is chair of the Democratic County Central Committee, and Sacramento has state senator Leland Yee and assemblyman Phil Ting, who will replace the termed-out Fiona Ma in January. Asian Americans now constitute almost 34 percent of San Francisco’s population (22 percent are of Chinese ancestry) and, for the first time ever, an even higher percentage of its political leadership.
To be sure, plenty of other influencers besides Pak helped make this happen, from Julie Lee on the west side to Marlene Tran in Visitacion Valley, and plenty of Asian-American politicos owe nothing to Pak. Moreover, the Asian-American rise to power didn’t happen overnight. “It’s the result of a lot of foundation-laying and a lot of losing campaigns that laid the bones for the progression of Chinese Americans,” says Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), the nonprofit that provides services for low-income Chinatown and has long been allied with Pak.
But Pak is unquestionably the prime mover behind the power shift. An activist who came of age during the civil rights movement, she has worked all her life for the Chinatown community. A prodigious fundraiser, she turned the Chinese New Year parade into a money-minting juggernaut and kept Chinese Hospital afloat, allowing it to continue serving Chinatown’s poor. Her support for neighborhood nonprofits has aided thousands of low-income immigrants, and, in the 1980s, she was key to preventing developers from tearing down Chinatown’s historic buildings and erecting high-rises.
Pak realized early on that to get ahead, the Chinese-American community needed political power, and she has done much to foster it over the years. In fact, her rise closely parallels the community’s political awakening. Not for nothing do the media describe her as a “power broker,” though she resents the term. “If I were white, they’d call me a civic leader,” she says.
Pak’s political enemies—and they are legion—have their own loaded terms to describe her. They see her as a Chinatown “godmother,” ramming through policies that benefit her friends and punish her enemies. They say that she’s corrupt, dictatorial, an all-around nasty piece of work. Even the extent of her power is the subject of much debate in political circles. Sometimes she revels in her notoriety, but mostly she down-plays her influence. “Power,” she likes to say, “is an illusion.” If so, a lot of people can’t take their eyes off the shadow on the wall.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS after the banquet, I find myself careering down a steep fairway in a golf cart at the Olympic Club, the old-line, members-only golf course out on the city’s southwestern edge. It’s a rare bluebird day with a light breeze off the ocean—perfect for the charity tournament Pak has organized here for the last 18 years to benefit Chinese Hospital. She has already raised $25 million for the hospital’s rebuilding. Today will bring in another $720,000.
Pak is in the cart ahead with the mayor, who drives hunched over the wheel as if fleeing a bank robbery. At the wheel of my cart is David Ho, a 35-year-old community outreach manager with the CCDC and one of Pak’s closest associates. Periodically, Lee and Pak stop to chat with golfers beerily playing their way through a round. At one stop, Pak yells to a man about to tee off, “Hey, you need a mulligan? We’re selling them for 125 bucks a pop!” She laughs—ahuh-huh-huh-huh, like a muscle car backfiring—and then they’re off again.
By all indications, Pak has always been a larger-than-life character. She was born in northern China, the daughter of a rich businessman. After Mao’s Communist forces drove the Nationalists from power, life became increasingly difficult for her family. In 1951, Pak’s father put her and the rest of the family on a plane full of nuns bound for Hong Kong. The family never heard from him again.
Pak attended Catholic schools, first in Hong Kong and then in Portuguese-run Macao. She was a bright student, learning both English and Portuguese, but even then she was a troublemaker. When she was seven or eight and the papal nuncio came to visit, she put Chinese firecrackers in his incense burner, creating a miniature bomb. “He threw it out the window, he was so scared!” she recalls.
In 1967, Pak won a scholarship to San Francisco College for Women. She wanted to come to the United States to study journalism, and this was one of the only places where she knew people. She arrived to find a Chinatown that was insular, overcrowded, and overwhelmingly poor. “Great place, great food and all of that,” says Mayor Lee, conjuring up the neighborhood of his and Pak’s youth. “But there were all of these poor SROs where people died in their beds.”
Inspired by the civil rights movement, Chinese-American activists, including then–lefty firebrand Ed Lee, began working for their long-marginalized community—and Pak was drawn to the tumult. After getting her master’s in journalism from Columbia University in 1972, she became the first female Asian-American reporter at the Chronicle. It wasn’t always pleasant. One of her editors, for instance, repeatedly called her “cookie.” But it was the start of Pak’s political education. She hung out in the offices of congressmen John and Phil Burton, San Francisco’s foulmouthed kingmakers, peppering them with questions and learning how to swear. “They called everybody under the sun ‘motherfucker,’” she says. “I thought it was a term of endearment.”
As the only Chinese speaker at the Chronicle, Pak became the paper’s go-to person for all things Chinatown. Assigned to cover the Wah Ching, the Chinese youth gang that burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, she called George Woo, a student radical and the gang’s spokesman. Woo, who would go on to teach ethnic studies at SFSU, says that at first he refused to speak with Pak. Then, however, the stories started getting back to him. When gang members tailed Pak’s car to intimidate her, she pulled over and chewed them out, threatening to call the cops. Woo says, “When they told me that, I thought, ‘Hey, that woman I’ll talk to.’”
Pak also got to know the world of the Six Companies, the group of family associations that had controlled most aspects of Chinatown life since its inception, and that of the Tongs, the semi-secret brotherhoods that were often tied to organized crime. By the end of the 1970s, Pak—an outspoken northern-Chinese woman in a society dominated by southern men—knew everyone in Chinatown worth knowing. More important, they knew her.
ONE DAY IN 1979, Pak got an SOS call from the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The State of California was planning to shut down Chinese Hospital in five days because its facilities were no longer up to code. Thousands of poor, monolingual Chinese Americans would be without a hospital until a new one could be built.
Pak sprang into action, working her political contacts to delay the closure and leaning on her ties with the Six Companies to raise money. It took three years of off-and-on work, but Pak persuaded the state to grandfather in the existing hospital and secure funding for a new one. “Without Rose, this hospital might well be gone,” says James Ho, a hospital board member and former deputy mayor under Art Agnos.
It turned out to be a dry run for the rest of Pak’s career. Abandoning journalism, she threw herself into her new persona: activist, fundraiser, and 360-degree fixer for the Chinese-American community. As the years passed, Pak grew ever more adept at shifting between the disparate worlds of Chinatown and the city’s white-run establishment—and at plying her influence. In 1987, for example, Pak helped lead the fight against developers who wanted to evict the low-income tenants in Chinatown’s Orangeland building in order to demolish it and build a high-rise in its place. “The vote was 9 to 2 against us,” Pak remembers. “But I went and worked on the board, and the new vote was 9 to 2 in our favor.”
Sometimes Pak had to bring politicians to the neighborhood just to convince them of her sway. “We’d take somebody through Chinatown, and everybody would say hello to us,” Woo says describing the process. “They’re not necessarily a supporter—they may be your enemy—but it’s a small town. And the visitor looks at it and says, ‘Wow,’ right?”
Pak continues that tradition today by entertaining newly elected Asian-American politicians—regardless of whether she supported their campaigns—at sumptuous dinner parties at the official residence of the Chinese consul in Forest Hill. Eric Mar and Carmen Chu got this treatment in 2009, though they have never received any help from Pak. She also organizes trips to China for favored politicians and developers. Mar, Chu, and David Chiu accompanied her on a 2009 trip, traveling to Hong Kong and Macao to meet a raft of Chinese government officials whom she has courted to foster business ties.
Pak also makes herself useful as a sort of political translator. Former mayor Agnos, who was chief of staff to assemblyman Leo McCarthy when he hooked up with Pak, was one of the earliest policy makers to receive her now-patented late-night phone calls. She called him every night at about 11 p.m., he says, to fill him in on, say, what Sing Tao had reported that day—and offer her “strong opinions,” Agnos recalls. “She would go over whatever was on her mind for at least an hour. She’s very well-informed, and if you’re a politician, you want to be informed too.”
Pak supplemented these intelligence briefings with copious amounts of money, culled mostly from the Chinatown establishment. Agnos and Brown have benefited, as have Lee, Kim, and Chiu. This June, Pak hosted a fund-raiser for Christina Olague, the progressive former Planning Commission member whom Lee appointed as supervisor to District 5. It was an absurdly lucrative event, and it made headlines. Pak insists, though, that reports of the take as nearly $50,000 were too low; the real haul, she says, was $70,000.
The final piece of the puzzle that explains Pak’s power is her ability to mobilize the troops. “To get elected supervisor, it only takes 10,000 votes,” says political consultant Jim Ross. “If you can create an operation that turns out two or three thousand votes, you can have a real impact.” And that’s exactly what Pak’s ally David Ho can do. Through his work for the CCDC, which owns or manages 2,200 affordable housing units primarily in Chinatown, he knows every square inch of Chinatown’s apartment blocks and can turn out volunteers en masse.
Not surprisingly, Ho’s people tend to vote in line with Pak, which is one reason that she has been able to vault her allies—most of whom are Asian-American—into positions of power. Pak encouraged Ed Lee to work for Agnos’s mayoral campaign in 1987, which led to Lee’s first city appointments. Under Mayor Brown, she beat back challenges from west-side influencers like Julie Lee to place her own people in high office—consider Doug Wong’s stint as port director or Fred Lau’s appointment as the first Asian-American police chief. As pro- gressive power broker (see page 93) and former District 3 supervisor Aaron Peskin puts it, “Rose is smart and works her ass off and has people in the government buried everywhere.”
Through it all, one of Pak’s most potent weapons has been her fearlessness: She’s not afraid to fight—whomever, wherever. Despite having worked on Dianne Feinstein’s first supervisorial campaign in 1968, she quarreled with Mayor Feinstein over the Chinatown Master Plan in order to protect the neighborhood from downtown developers aligned with city hall. And she broke with Agnos over his decision not to rebuild the Embarcadero Freeway after the Loma Prieta earthquake, a project that Chinatown merchants desperately wanted.
Some of Pak’s conflicts have become intensely personal. As supervisor, Peskin tried to block the construction of a parking garage on Vallejo Street in North Beach—a project that Pak supported. Although Peskin lost, he showed up at the ribbon-cutting ceremony anyway. When Pak saw him, Peskin says, she commandeered the microphone and declared, “Here comes the Taliban.”
And Pak doesn’t hesitate to draw on that well for political ends. Earlier this year, when she heard that someone who had worked for her enemies was about to be hired by Mayor Lee’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, she made sure that the job offer was rescinded. She makes no apologies. “I sounded the alarm,” she says. “I called the mayor and the chief of staff. I’m very proud of it, and I'd do it again."
THAT SORT OF BEHAVIOR, of course, will make you enemies—lots of them. Given Pak’s power, almost none of her critics would speak to me on the record. Most say that they believe her dedication to Chinatown is genuine, but they are unanimous in their conviction that she cuts a lot of corners in doing good for her people.
One, who spoke on condition of anonymity, raised questions about the Olague fundraiser. “I have never heard of a single event in a supervisorial race raising more than $25,000. Do I believe that all of those people wrote $500 checks [the maximum legal donation to a supervisorial race]? Absolutely not. She takes whatever money she has and gives somebody $500 to write a check.”
Pak vociferously denies the charge. “Where the hell do I get money to give other people? I convince people to give money; I don’t have any to give. It’s ludicrous.”
It should also be noted that no official charges have ever been brought against Pak—her record is clean. Still, rumors have dogged her for years, and last year’s mayoral race was no exception. Several critics pointed to allegations of campaign violations. When an independent committee supporting Lee set up a mock voting booth plastered with “Ed Lee” signs in Chinatown, opponents alleged that volunteers were improperly filling out ballots for Chinese-American seniors. The district attorney dropped his investigation in September, citing lack of evidence. Ho concedes that those supporters could have “used better judgment.” But he adds that many of the community’s seniors can’t read very well and need help. So, he asks, “Is it an empowerment issue, or is it voter fraud?”
Pak sees racism in the accusation. Noting that 85 percent of all Chinese-American voters went for Lee, she says that his opponents “were trying to suppress the minority vote.”
Critics also charge that Pak is an unregistered lobbyist, receiving payment, in violation of city law, for helping to push controversial development projects through the bureaucratic pipeline. Take the case of 8 Washington. The project, which aims to build 134 luxury condos across from the Ferry Building, would necessitate tearing down part of a private tennis club and would block some neighbors’ views. A consortium of neighborhood and anti-development groups (joined by the granddaddy of all neighborhood groups, Peskin’s Telegraph Hill Dwellers) has fought the project for years. The developer, Simon Snellgrove, modified the plan, and this year it passed the Board of Supervisors with ease, garnering votes from supervisors not known for their pro-development stances—Pak allies like Jane Kim and Olague. (Recently, Peskin and his cohorts collected enough signatures to place a referendum on the project on the 2013 ballot, temporarily halting 8 Washington in its tracks.)
Many believe that Pak and Ho influenced the proceedings by leaning on their allies on the board. Peskin, who says that Pak lobbied him for the project when he was in office, is the only one willing to say it on the record. And, he adds, “I’d allege that she received some form of compensation for it.” But both Pak and Ho deny speaking with anyone on the board about the project, and they deny receiving payment. “There are plenty of lobbyists on that project,” Ho says. “I’m sure they don’t need my help.”
That said, Pak is definitely a quiet supporter of the project. For one thing, Snellgrove is an old friend and a frequent guest on her China trips. Then there’s the stash of affordable housing money that could come Chinatown’s way if the project goes through. To satisfy the city’s affordable housing requirements, developers must pay into a fund if they don’t want to include low-income units onsite. In theory, that money can go to any project in the city, but in practice, it rarely leaves the immediate vicinity. Because the nearest community-development organizations are in Chinatown, the cash would conceivably go to the CCDC.
If Pak is indeed corrupt, it’s a rare sort of corruption that’s seemingly uninterested in amassing personal wealth. Others may benefit from her influence—the building-permit expediter Walter Wong, who helped win approval for projects like the Metreon, has likely profited from his ties with Pak, as has casino magnate Steve Wynn, who scored a casino permit in Macao after going on one of her China trips—but there’s scant evidence that Pak herself has profited. Her only known asset is a below-market-rate condo in South Beach that she bought in 2002. Pak says that she gets a monthly stipend from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, as well as some money each year from Stephen Fong, the longtime president of the chamber, with whom she lived for a time. (Pak insists that, contrary to published reports, the two have never been a couple.) None of it points to a lavish lifestyle.
Even after 40 years in the trenches, Pak seems genuinely disturbed by the drumbeat of criticism from her opponents. “Why do they care so much?” she asks me. It reminds me of something she said to Kim at Chu’s wedding banquet, a piece of advice from a veteran to a rising star. Earlier that week, Kim had tried to transfer control of the new Redevelopment Commission from the mayor’s office to the board. A standoff ensued, and Pak stepped in to force Kim to back down. Kim was still smarting from the dustup, but Pak told her, evidently with no hard feelings, “Don’t ever let people see how vulnerable you could be, because it’s a dog-eat-dog world in politics. I’ve found out. Even if it kills you inside, you have to act tough.”
Over time, I got a glimpse of the kind of vulnerability that Pak might have been referring to. One afternoon, while discussing the extent of her influence, Pak told me about an elderly Chinese-American couple who had recently come to her with a problem. Their son had been killed, the distraught couple told her, and their daughter-in-law, a Korean national, had fled to South Korea with the elderly couple’s grandson. They hoped that Pak could help them find the woman and get the grandchild back.
Pak’s voice faltered as she recounted the story, and she began to cry. “They claimed that everyone told them I’m very powerful in the community,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a napkin. “But how could I help them?”
AT BOTTOM, ALL POLITICS IS TRIBAL, and Pak fits into a long tradition of San Francisco leaders who carved out a bigger slice of the civic pie for their community, from labor folks like Jimmy Herman, president of the longshoremen's union, to Robert Barnes, the political consultant who helped put dozens of gay and lesbian politicians into office. Through the work of Pak and others, the Chinese electorate—the so-called sleeping giant of San Francisco politics—has awakened.
One measure of the community’s emergence as a political force is the number of new leaders who aren’t closely bound to Pak. Chu and Mar, for instance, didn’t come up underneath Pak’s wing, although Pak has forged ties with both in the years since their elections. Chiu, though he received support from Pak during his first supervisorial campaign, has never been part of her inner circle. Even Pak allies such as Kim and Olague (who was ousted by London Breed in the November election) haven’t always voted in line with her wishes—as evidenced by their recent votes to allow sheriff Ross Mirkarimi to keep his job.
Which is just as it’s supposed to be. Indeed, once marginalized communities join the establishment, they’re less likely to need leaders like Pak. The city’s gay community is a case in point. In 2010, sexual orientation hardly factored into the supervisorial race for District 8, which includes the Castro, because both of the main contenders were gay. Instead, the contest broke down along the progressive-versus-moderate lines typical of our era.
'Inevitably, Pak’s influence will fade, along with the sense of ethnic solidarity that she helped foster. “The Chinese story in San Francisco is the story of every ethnic group,” says political consultant David Latterman. “Immigrant groups come to America and they vote ethnically at first, before branching out. It just takes time.”
Ling-chi Wang, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley who helped establish the school’s Asian American Studies program, looks forward to the day when the electorate—and the politicians it supports—cares less about ethnicity than about ideals. “Our politicians need to have a citywide vision,” he says.
For now, though, Pak is still on top. This fall, federal funding for the Central Subway, for which Pak and the CCDC have been working since the Embarcadero Freeway collapsed, finally came through. The subway will extend Muni’s underground metro line into Chinatown, connecting the neighborhood more firmly to the wider city—much to the chagrin of the Lee administration’s opponents, progressive and conservative alike, who turned against the project during last year’s mayoral race. By any standard, it’s a huge victory for Pak.
The same is true of the legislation that authorizes Chinese Hospital’s seismic retrofit and rebuild. On a blustery day this fall, Mayor Lee, along with virtually everyone else of consequence in Chinese-American politics, is in Chinatown for the signing of the bill, which was fast-tracked thanks to Lee, Pak, and their allies on the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission.
Pak takes the mike. She looks out into the crowd, into faces she has known for decades. “What we are doing is very small compared to what they had to do years ago when conditions were not good, when we were discriminated against,” she says. “So it’s very gratifying for me today.”
The mayor signs the bill, the cameras click, and the Chinese-language media swarm Pak. A well-wisher gives her a rose. Pak turns to me. “This has nothing to do with politics,” she says, a note of vindication in her voice. “It’s about community.”
Read More: Who's Got Clout? A mayoral influence index.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.
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