Politics

04.02.14

The Gun-Running Senator Leland Yee

Things went downhill fast for the San Francisco politician who ‘flirted with both sides’ and as a result, put the bulls eye on his own back.

It is still possible, when the fog rolls in across the bay in San Francisco, to peek into one of the elegant dining establishments downtown or in North Beach and see a familiar figure holding court at the bar.

Dressed in a fedora and sporting a pocket square, Willie Brown continues to lord over San Francisco politics ten years after stepping out of gilded City Hall due to term limits. City boards and commissions are still stacked with his appointees—or “cronies,” as his opponents (and there are many) call them. He was there smiling proudly as two of his protégés—current lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom and current mayor Ed Lee—were sworn in as his successors, one after the other.

And now, as San Francisco finds itself caught up in one the most bizarre scandals the Bay Area has ever seen; one that involves a state lawmaker named Leland Yee—the gun running and supposedly reformed Chinatown gangster with the unhelpful moniker of “Shrimp Boy”—Brown is naturally not far from people’s minds.

Which is where he wants to be. In his weekend column in the San Francisco Chronicle—a space usually devoted to reporting on the local celebrities who drop by the restaurants he visits—Brown described Yee’s visit to the St. Regis where Brown keeps an apartment.

“It was an unexpected visit to say the least. For the past 10 years, Yee has been a staunch Willie Brown basher,” Brown writes, inserting himself into the story in the third person,” accusing me at every campaign stop of cronyism, corruption and ‘power broker’ politics. But then that is classic Leland: bash you one day, then show up at your event and talk about how long you've been buddies.”

Political insiders say the duo represent opposite ends of the same San Francisco story. “Leland Yee is the anti Willie Brown,” said one long-time local political operative. And it is not just because Brown was known to change his clothes several times a day, and Yee showed up to his arraignment in a windbreaker.

But rather, the operative said, it was because despite his long career in politics, Yee was the opposite of a powerbroker like Brown. “If you had something you wanted to get done, you never went to Leland Yee. I don’t think anyone ever thought of him as pulling the levers of power.”

Rather, Yee had the reputation of a dogged political survivor; someone who despite a long career had few legislative accomplishments, but had somehow managed to win every electoral contest he had ever entered until he ran for mayor against Brown’s handpicked candidate, Ed Lee, in 2011. At the outset, Yee looked like the favorite, the consensus candidate who came from neither of the two warring factions of the city’s political landscape—the pro-business moderates, led by Brown, and the pro-neighborhood progressives, led by Tom Ammiano, an icon in the LGBT community for becoming the first public school teacher to publicly out himself and become a rabble rouser on the Board of Supervisors.

Yee was, as Brown writes, a Brown acolyte at one point, representing a district of middle class single-family homeowners. But as the progressives took over city government, Yee distanced himself from the mayor while never fully embracing the progressives either. He positioned himself as a path-breaking Asian American politician, while never being embraced by the Chinatown political machine, and potentially spoiling Lee’s chances to become the city’s first Asian American politician.

“He flirted with both sides in his career but the main thing you have to understand about Leland was that he was always his own operation,” said Chris Daly, a former supervisor turned Bay Area labor leader. “He did his own thing. He was extremely independent.”

But if Yee could play both sides, it meant he was beloved by neither. Yee was termed out of the Board of Supervisors by the time of his mayoral race, climbing up the greasy political ladder to a seat in the State Assembly, and, a few years later, to the State Senate.

“He flirted with both sides in his career but the main thing you have to understand about Leland was that he was always his own operation. He did his own thing. He was extremely independent.”

An incident in the Senate crystalized Yee at his most Yee-ian. It was 2010, and Yee was assistant pro tem in the body. Democrats were working hard to pass a budget in a divided government, and Yee was charged in part with rounding up the votes. Once he had done so, and it was clear the budget (despite being stripped of many liberal goodies), was set to pass, Yee announced his opposition and left his fellow lawmakers holding the bag.

“He sold everybody out to make himself look good. ‘I was the only politician who took a stand on horrific budget cuts,’” said one lobbyist. “He did it just for the mayor’s race. But you can’t jump out of the shit canoe just as you try to get everyone else to climb in. No one buys that.”

After the incident, Yee had to step down from his position in the Senate leadership, and in a kiss-off goodbye letter, wrote, “I am proud to have been the first Asian American to ever hold this position. However, I am more than willing to relinquish this title if that is the price for voting my conscience on the state budget and standing up against severe cuts to education, social services, and health care.”

That was also classic Yee, who close observers of San Francisco politics say was far more comfortable stoking outrage over perceived slights to the Asian-American community than passing legislation. Prior to his indictment for trading arms for campaign donations, Yee’s previous claim-to-fame came when ESPN titled a report about NBA star Jeremy Lin’s recent string of bad performances, “A Chink In The Armor.” The editor who wrote it called the headline “an honest mistake” and was later fired. The network apologized, but Yee went into high dudgeon mode, comparing the incident to slights Jackie Robinson endured when he integrated major league baseball.

After Yee finished a dismal fifth in the mayoral election, he began to look out for his next move, which is when he got ensnared in the FBI plot. In the complaint, what is shocking is not only that Yee, a devoted gun control advocate, engages in a pay-to-play gun trafficking scheme, but that he does so for such meager rewards. Yee was not trying to pad his pockets; he was trying to pay down his campaign debts from his mayoral run and to prepare for a statewide campaign for Secretary of State.

Certainly none of his colleagues pegged Yee as having much truck with Filipino terrorist groups, but the fact that he was willing to readily engage in trading favors surprised no one, even if the stakes in doing so were shockingly small. For a $6,800 donation, for example, he offered a state legislative proclamation honoring the fraternal association “Shrimp Boy” was linked with—the kind of proclamations that are regularly given out to community groups and are worth exactly nothing.

But Yee may have been a little bit desperate. Thanks to reforms from the 1990’s, California does not permit its state lawmakers to collect a pension while serving the state. A term limits law meant that Yee had to run for higher office, even if few gave him much of a chance to win statewide after his flameout in the mayoral race. But if he didn’t win, Yee would be jobless. And as someone without many allies and who had not accrued much political power, he couldn’t exactly open up a lobby shop as many in his position do.

“The whole thing sounds to me like desperation,” said Corey Cook, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “He had a desperate need to win the next office, and had to raise money to do it.”

Progressives say that the whole involvement of big money in local politics stems from Brown’s tenure, who was close to real estate interests, and who, as his living quarters and Chronicle column attest, enjoys the good life. But although the FBI was regularly investigating Brown for putting friends and associates on the city payroll or rewarding them with city contracts, unlike Yee, he’ll still be dining out tonight, too. Read about it on Sunday.