Joel Engardio speaks during a press conference held by the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce on the steps of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 2021. Engardio is the first non-Asian American in two decades to represent San Francisco's District 4. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Leland Yee. Fiona Ma. Ed Jew. Carmen Chu. Katy Tang. Gordon Mar.
Since 2001, these six Asian American officials passed the torch to one another, representing San Francisco’s majority-Asian District 4 on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.
But now for the first time in more than 20 years — and the first time since San Francisco began electing supervisors by district, rather than citywide — a non-Asian elected official will represent its electorate.
Joel Engardio is now supervisor-elect. The incumbent, Mar, conceded the race to Engardio on Wednesday.
"For the Asian community and other communities of color, marginalized communities, it's extremely important to have representatives that share their lived experience and have the depth of understanding not only of their shared concerns but their hopes and dreams," Mar said in an interview, Friday. "It's been a great honor for me to represent District 4, a majority-Asian district, these past four years, as someone who does share that deep connection and experience with working-class Asian American families in the Sunset."
For his part, Engardio also represents a number of firsts. He’s the first openly gay legislator to represent District 4, and he’s the first challenger to topple an incumbent elected San Francisco supervisor in a district election.
But Mar’s defeat is a cause for concern among some Asian leaders in San Francisco — regardless of their politics. The usual tribalism in this city pits left-leaning progressives against centrist moderates. In that framework, Mar is seen as a progressive and Engardio a moderate.
Most Asian supervisors in San Francisco have leaned progressive, and often found backing among Asian communities. Yet a moderate-leaning faction of Chinese voters may have found their voice during recent recalls in the city — which could change the calculus of whom Asian voters send to office, no matter their ethnicity.
Still, longtime Asian American leaders see a benefit to having Asian elected officials in City Hall.
Mabel Teng, a former supervisor who won her office during citywide elections in the 1990s, noted that Mar’s defeat leaves only one Asian member of the Board of Supervisors — Connie Chan — in a city that’s 37% Asian.
She also bemoaned the defeat of Ann Hsu, who would have brought an Asian immigrant’s perspective to the school board.
“The Asian community is hurting deeply with the defeat of Gordon Mar and Ann Hsu. This is the first time in decades, since my tenure on the [Board of Supervisors], there is one Asian elected on the [board] and Board of Education,” Teng said.
Engardio says he wants to represent all of his constituents, and is committed to keeping an ear to the needs of Asian communities in his district.
“As a candidate, I did a lot to do Chinese-language outreach. And many people on my staff and many of my volunteers spoke Mandarin and Cantonese,” Engardio said. “I will do a lot to make sure that we're communicating with and connecting with every resident in the Sunset.”
District 4 encompasses the Sunset and Parkside neighborhoods, and is majority Asian (PDF) and nearly 40% Chinese (PDF), according to city data. Those neighborhoods — more than many dense, urban San Francisco locales — resemble a suburban utopia, with single-family homes and higher rates of car driving versus transit use. It’s a slice of the proverbial American dream for families who emigrated here and the generations that came after them. It’s also home to retail corridors with many Asian anchor businesses, like 25th Irving Market, a popular grocery store.
The Chinese community is so interwoven into District 4 that Supervisor Mar helped create the Chinese Cultural District in the Sunset in 2021. During the initial planning process, some of the groups involved with its formation planned a march against anti-Asian hate on the Great Highway in April.
“This is an example of the types of community activities that could be organized on a regular basis through the Sunset Chinese Cultural District,” Mar said at the time, in a statement.
David Lee, politics lecturer at San Francisco State University, noted that Asian American leaders tend to be more in tune with the needs of that community. And those issues are many: Rising anti-Asian hate stemming from the pandemic, related but separate hate crimes and violence against Asians, and the health of Asian-owned businesses rank among needs Lee says are top of mind.
“I think that is a concern for many people, including leaders in the Asian American community,” he said. “And it puts more pressure on the mayor to — through appointments, should openings come forward — to appoint Asian Americans to the Board of Supervisors so that we have a board that looks like the people of San Francisco.”
That lack of representation disproportionately affects the Chinese community in particular, which makes up a majority of District 4, said Malcolm Yeung, director of a prominent Chinatown nonprofit, the Chinatown Community Development Center.
“For the Chinese community, this is a blow. You know, it's decreasing our representation quite significantly,” he said.
There’s been an ongoing narrative since the recalls of District Attorney Chesa Boudin and three school board candidates of an “emerging Chinese moderate vote,” Yeung said, a more vocal sector of the Chinese community that leans more centrist in their politics. Notably, with some exceptions, many previously elected San Francisco supervisors who are Asian were progressives: Eric Mar (brother to Gordon), Sandra Fewer, Jane Kim, Norman Yee and Connie Chan, for instance.
But that newly activated electorate isn’t backing the usual Asian candidates in San Francisco, who have sometimes tacked toward progressive politics.
Notably, Gordon Mar spoke out against recalls, not because of the candidates necessarily, but on principle. That was out of step with many voters in his district.
“Clearly, that emerging moderate vote is not going towards Chinese candidates as a whole. We saw that with Gordon,” Yeung said.
Mar himself said there was more nuance in that argument: Conservative Chinese voters have always been around. They pushed back on legal cannabis dispensaries on the west side of the city, for instance, and have long organized around Lowell High School. But he acknowledged the recall may have bolstered their political views across the community.
Progressive former Supervisor Jane Kim, now the state director for the California Working Families Party, said she noticed this new emerging Chinese electorate, too.
“What we're also seeing is a greater diversity of perspectives that are now being represented by Chinese and Chinese American voters. Meaning they're not just going to vote for a candidate because they are aligned from the same community, but they're also going to be looking very carefully at their agenda as well,” Kim said.
Also, Mar was always considered a “major pickup” for the progressive bloc of supervisors, she said, because District 4 had previously voted for more moderate-leaning candidates. In short, his first win was a bit of an outlier.
Mar has long had to play a balancing act between his progressive politics and his constituents' more moderate leanings. For instance, when a rising sentiment against crime came alongside a lock-them-up attitude, Mar introduced an unarmed ambassador program to patrol the neighborhood. He gave that as an example of finding a compromise between his values, and his neighborhood's.
Whatever the reason for Mar’s loss, Kim said the decreasing voice of Asian Americans in San Francisco politics will lead to “an increased call for more representation in the 2024 [election] cycle.”
Albert Chow, owner of Great Wall Hardware on Taraval Street in District 4 personally endorsed Supervisor Mar. But when asked whether he would be concerned about a lack of Asian leadership in his neighborhood, he struck a favorable tone about Engardio.
“It’s Joel’s turn to take the seat as supervisor [of] District 4. I think he has concerns for Asians,” Chow said, noting that Engardio is married to an Asian man. “He’s also the first gay person to be our supervisor, [a community] which historically in his lifetime has had challenges.”
The Sunset was among the neighborhoods that rejected 2008's Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban, but it did so by only a sliver. Not so long ago, then, many Sunset residents voted against Engardio's community from marrying.
Engardio's experience through his community's hardships will hopefully inform his tenure representing a majority-Asian district, Chow said.
“I’m sure he’ll bring those perspectives and inequities he sees to help all communities, and all minorities,” he said.
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