Walking into the campaign office of California State Senator Leland Yee, one may sense the aura of a dedicated professional. As well-groomed young aides ran around arranging meetings, the senator sat coolly behind his laptop at the back of his office suite.
The warmth and experience that that flowed from Yee’s countenance impressed the University of San Francisco student reporter who interviewed him recently.
As Yee, 62, scrolled through his Blackberry and leaned forward in his chair, he looked right at home in the center of so much activity. He is a man of few hobbies.
“I’m one of those weird kinds of individuals who is a workaholic,” said Yee. “I thrive on and enjoy the work that I do. It gives me an opportunity to talk to all kinds of interesting people, understanding their values, understanding their needs.”
In 1951 his family moved from Taishan, Guangdong, China to San Francisco. Like many immigrant families of that era, they settled in a one-room apartment in Chinatown.
“My father was a veteran and back in those days, much like now, if you are a veteran, you are able to get citizenship,” Yee said. “And then you can petition your family to come over. That’s how I came over when I was three years old. My mother, my sister and I lived in a one-room apartment and went to the public schools.”
Yee was a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960’s during a time of many student protests. Being a student at this time of demonstration and dissent awakened the political conscience of the young Yee.
“I think that like any Asian family, you were never encouraged to get involved in politics. That was not something that neither of my parents encouraged me to do. It was more of the social activism that I developed when I went to Berkeley,” said the senator, who protested the Vietnam War and marched for civil rights. “So you started to ask questions – so many people are not in support of the war, so why are we in the war? If so many people are supportive of [civil] rights, why don’t we have them here? So I think it was that beginning experience in Berkeley where I started to question what was going on. And that is where my social activism started.”
After earning a Ph.D. in child psychology from the University of Hawai’i, Yee returned the Bay Area and worked in mental health and education in San Francisco and Oakland. In 1988 he was elected to the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education. He served two terms, including one as board president. In 1996 he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 2002 he was elected to represent California’s 12th Congressional District, and in 2006, the Democrat won his present seat in the state senate.
Despite the possibility of becoming the first elected Chinese-American mayor of San Francisco, a city that owes much to the work a robust Chinese-American community, Yee is unconvinced that this potential milestone will be a determining factor in election. “I think that at this point, when there are so many firsts that have already happened, it’s not so much the first Asian anymore, it’s more about the city being stagnant at this point.”
The senator cites a decline in revenues, rampant joblessness, and severe cuts to social programs as major problems for San Francisco. “I think that becoming a mayor here now at this time is really about helping individuals to have a better life. Are kids getting a better education? Are poor people getting health care? Are other individuals getting the support that they need to survive in our city? I believe that that is what this mayor’s race is about for me. Just to do whatever you can to help those individuals who are in need of help that cannot get that help.”
Yee and his wife Maxine raised their four children in San Francisco and live in the Sunset. “It’s a quiet neighborhood. There are singles, but it’s predominantly a family neighborhood with kids and extended families. There’s a merchant corridor. So I think it’s a place all of us wanted when we came here. It’s a place to raise your family and own a home. So that’s the environment that I live in.”
If he is elected mayor of San Francisco, he intends to reverse the trend of families flocking out of the city to raise their children. Yee’s children attended San Francisco public schools and he sees a variety of ways to encourage others to do the same.
“Providing the kinds of programs that our parents and our students want and allowing them to have those programs in their neighborhood is extremely important,” he said. He thinks parents want more science, math and art in the public schools and “academically competitive” programs to challenge children.
As for higher education, Senator Yee touts himself as one of the strongest advocates of students in the State Legislature. He points to a long list of bills he has written or sponsored to serve student interests.
“There’s been no one else in the state legislature that has been more concerned and protective of the students’ ability to write in a newspaper and not be subjected to prior restraint,” he said. “In the past, if the editor or the student advisor or the administration wanted to look at what you wrote and say, ‘Well, I don’t think you should write this or I don’t think you should write that. I’m going to simply just say ‘no’ and I’m going to take away your work,’ they could’ve done that.”
Yee wrote and helped get AB2581 passed. The law protects student journalists at public universities from prior restraint. Later, he introduced and saw through the passage of SB 1370 which prevents public school administrators from suspending or retaliating against advisors who fight for the protection of student speech.
“Since students were protected now, meaning that they could not be subject to whatever the administration wanted you to write and not write, they went after the teachers and student advisors,” Yee said. “So we then had a law that basically provided protection against retaliation by administrators against student advisors so that student advisors could not be pressured by college administrators to exercise that prior restraint.”
Yee is also proud of his record of fighting fee and tuition hikes in California public universities. “I think that over the years we have demonstrated that, number one, we understand the importance of higher education and we want everyone to have access to it. And once you get it, we want to make sure that it stays affordable,” said Yee, who has voted consistently against tuition hikes.
Yee wants to improve public education and attract more jobs to San Francisco. “I believe getting more individuals to work and live in San Francisco is also important,” he said. “If you both work and live in San Francisco, you’re going to generate more money for the economy and I think out of that those dollars will be spent to support more businesses. And with more businesses, you can create more jobs.”
Senator Leland Yee’s campaign site: http://www.lelandyee.com/