SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Jeff Adachi says he grew up hearing the stories of his Japanese-American family's internment during World War II.
"They lost everything. But they taught me not to be bitter, to get an education and to stand up for what's right," Adachi, San Francisco's public defender, writes on the website devoted to his campaign for the city's mayor.
He's one of six Asian-Americans candidates who are drawing on their life stories of immigration, discrimination and empowerment as they try to become the first Asian-American elected mayor in the city's history.
San Francisco already has an Asian-American mayor in Ed Lee, who was appointed in January. But the Nov. 8 election is being seen as an historic moment in a city that has the largest percentage of Asian-Americans in the continental United States and boasts the nation's oldest Chinatown.
While the candidates are from diverse Asian backgrounds and differ on policy, all agree that the community's time has come.
And it's not just in San Francisco. The race "is just a glimmer of what's to come for Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities across the country," said Gloria Chan, president of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies in Washington, D.C.
If an Asian-American candidate wins, San Francisco will be the largest U.S. city with an elected Asian-American mayor. There are 35 Asian-American mayors nationwide, including Lee, according to APAICS.
Having one elected in San Francisco would have special meaning.
"There has been a long history of anti-Asian sentiment in California, even in San Francisco," said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, a Chinese-American who is among the mayoral candidates and was endorsed by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Chinese, for example, came during the Gold Rush then stayed to help build railroads and bridges. When gold became scarce and wages began to fall after the Civil War, many Chinese were forced to take up low-income jobs.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the nation's first law limiting immigration based on race or nationality.
Later, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, some 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans like Adachi's family were sent to internment camps. Some remember the tales of the camps and other eras of discrimination.
When Chiu first ran in 2008, there was only one Asian-American on the board. Today, Lee, who became interim mayor when Gavin Newsom became lieutenant governor, notes that four of the 11 board members are Asian-American.
"It says Asian professionals actually consider the political civil service arena to be a viable one," Lee said. "Ten years ago, you still had parents telling their kids, 'Doctor, lawyer, professional — but not politics.'"
Asians, Lee said, have moved beyond Chinatown and issues that only pertain to that part of the city. "So there's an Asian awakening and I certainly think the voting interest is more there because of the generations of Asians who have now matured and are civic minded," Lee said.
The Asian-American population in the U.S. grew 46 percent between 2000 and 2010, making it the fastest growing racial group. There are 3,000 elected or appointed Asian-Americans in office in 38 states, according to Don Nakanishi, director emeritus of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
Still, Asian-Americans hold a small share of elected positions. There are 12 members of Congress who are Asian-American or Pacific Islander, according to the APAICS.
Chiu noted that Asian-American community is not monolithic. It includes the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, Indian and Pakistani. "All these elements of diversity have made it more difficult for the Asian-American community to coalesce around particular candidates," he said.
San Francisco political consultant Johnny Wang said that in the city, the Chinese vote is going to determine how the city goes. "It's the awakening of the sleeping dragon," he said.
Only a decade ago, Wang said, the city's Chinese-Americans didn't vote as a bloc and turnout at the polls was low. They were disenfranchised, partially by their own cultural fear of politics and belief that their votes would not count.
Today, they represent some 20 percent of the city electorate, but their issues — namely education, safety and transportation — are being addressed. They have their own powerbrokers and the clout to hold their winners accountable.
"The Chinese read newspapers religiously, they are very well informed," he said. "Even the little granny on the street corner will be talking politics."
When Lee was named interim mayor, it was a big development for the Chinese-American community. "The Chinese community in San Francisco has never had this opportunity before," city Supervisor John Avalos said in January, before casting his vote for Lee. "It's very, very meaningful."
But that was then. Lee reneged on a pledge not to run for mayor, and Avalos himself decided to campaign for the seat.
Avalos and 14 other mayoral aspirants were flummoxed when Lee announced in August that he would run, giving him the incumbent's advantage. Yet that has helped to make the race more about qualifications and experience than ethnicity.
As the front-runner, everyone is aiming for Lee. His campaign has come under investigation by the district attorney for possible ballot tampering by an independent expenditure committee, the SF Neighbor Alliance for Ed Lee.
Lee insists he had nothing to do with the group's activities and welcomes the probe.
Adachi claims the alliance is "a tight group of affluent and politically motivated individuals," including Chinese-American building construction contractors who have received millions of dollars in city contracts.
Ultimately, though, Adachi said that, whoever wins, it is a positive development that so many Asian-Americans are running for public office.
But that can't be the end of the story.
"We can't rely on being a certain ethnicity to define who we are," Adachi said. "I feel it's incumbent on Asian-Americans to distinguish themselves as leaders in their own right."
- Jeff Adachi