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The Human Jukebox: Leland Yee Spent Decades Singing Other People's Tunes 

Wednesday, Apr 2 2014

As the impact of L'affaire Yee continues to wash over San Francisco and its denizens, a number of popular themes have solidified.

A state senator hoodwinked into brokering an arms deal for Filipino jihadis; an ex-con named "Shrimp Boy" with a predilection for gangsterism, waistcoats, and having himself photographed with anybody and everybody; a political consultant, his son, and the son's sports agent buddy providing firearms for marijuana-tending thugs and blundering into a murder-for-hire conspiracy: This is movie shit.

Decades from now, audiences will laugh at the vintage 2014 costumes and hairstyles — and Yee's windbreaker — as the 2044 equivalent of Bradley Cooper portrays a dashing undercover FBI agent.

Get the popcorn started. But the more salient theme for those of us who've lived here a little while and hope to continue doing so pertains to Yee's political ascent. In short, these aren't the sort of corruption charges anyone could conceivably have expected him to get busted for. But Yee getting busted for corruption? That's an easy sell.

Yee has a well-earned reputation as a "human jukebox." You put the money in and he sings the song you want. Granted, it'd be a shock if you put money in the jukebox and guns and jihadis came out. But, if the voluminous criminal complaint underpinning the charges against Yee and 25 others is correct, he's simply transcended the legal, transactional role of a slick politician into a more lucrative and splendidly illegal version of the same game.

He was, then, behaving like Leland Yee — only more so.

Yee has a long backstory as a dodgy guy. But San Francisco is teeming with dodgy politicians; some of them even dabble in journalism.

The state senator's shoplifting incident in Hawaii and accusations of cruising for Mission District prostitutes — which were never substantiated — are well known. There are a litany of Yee stories reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's hijinks in the Texas statehouse. No one's naming a bridge after him anytime soon.

But the more substantive charges relate to those jukebox tendencies. In 2011, SF Weekly's Matt Smith documented the following:

He has authored 213 bills. Of those, 54 were sponsored by organizations including the casino Bay 101, which gave him $9,900, and the California Association of Health Plans, which gave him $22,938. In all, Yee reported receiving $188,755 in campaign contributions from the backers of so-called sponsored bills that bear his name.

In this, Yee was't so much a politician as a template. You just had to fill in the form and attach the necessary donation and he was there for you. It was akin to booking a motivational speaker for your event. Except your event would be a union rally or shepherding a connected donor and his pet legislation to the desired ends.

That's not to say Yee was solely a force for bad. Occasionally, good people pay up too. And he certainly knew how to pick his enemies. His crusade against CSU-Stanislaus' secret speaker's fee for Sarah Palin won him fans among government transparency advocates and people who can't stand Sarah Palin. (It turned out to be $75,000 — and her contract demanded bendy straws be made available).

When Rush Limbaugh or unhinged gun nuts took aim at him — somewhat literally in the latter case — it was political manna for a San Francisco representative.

Yee rose to the top by finding issues that riled people up and divided communities. Then he'd install himself as the leader and go-to guy for aggrieved single-issue activists who became his apparatchiks and shock troops.

Yee was an Asian citywide-elected politician back when that was a novelty; he was not afraid to play the race card early and often. As such, he sometimes took things to ridiculous lengths to stoke those fires. In 2002, inserting himself in a clash between native plant enthusiasts and off-leash dog activists, Yee sided with the latter. His argument, unsubtly, compared the plant enthusiasts to fascist eugenicists: "How many of us are 'invasive exotics' who have taken root in the San Francisco soil?" he wrote in The Independent.

In fact, Yee's dogs-vs.-native plants phase neatly encapsulates all of the above. By tossing out red meat for off-leash dog zealots and vilifying the hapless native-plant advocates with racially charged vitriol, he established himself as the alpha dog for a pack of followers who walked districts for him and even started up a Yee Political Action Committee.

Step three: profit.

Leland Yee may be innocent of the serious charges leveled against him. That's why we have affidavits and lawyers and trials. But he's very much guilty of being that human jukebox and a political cipher.

And we elected him and re-elected him and re-elected him.

Looks like we got what we paid for.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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