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The Many Faces of Leland Yee: A Politician's Calculated Rise and Dramatic Fall 

Wednesday, Apr 16 2014
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Within eyeshot of the capitol dome sit buildings filled with warrens of cubicles equipped with phones and little else. Every day, elected representatives amble out of the former structure and into the latter. Eluding a state prohibition against fundraising from within a government office is as simple as crossing the street.

The perennial campaign is here to stay: Fundraising, even for sitting legislators, requires hours of toil every day. This is not why most people get into politics. It galls their sense of shame. They hate it.

But not state Sen. Leland Yee.

"Leland doesn't have that sense of shame," says a longtime former associate. "He relishes sitting down with a list and calling a million people."

Via a distinctive knack for separating donors from their dollars — and a willingness to tell people whatever they desired to hear — Yee raised prodigious amounts of money, bankrolling an improbable three-decade political career. His pugnacity and ability to spin handshakes into gold distinguished him from other politicians. He drowned more squeamish opponents in oceans of cash.

But in 2013, two years had passed since a failed bid in the San Francisco mayoral race left Yee $70,000 in debt following a humiliating fifth-place finish. In the era of term limits, ambitious politicians are always scrambling for that next gig — and that always costs money. And Yee, more than ever, needed that money. If he couldn't win the forthcoming race for secretary of state, his long ride on the political carousel would be over.

Last May, Yee thought he'd found a donor with veins he could tap.

"Just give me the goddamn money, man, shit!" he fumed in a phone call to his consigliere and bagman, Keith Jackson.

Yee had built a career on pragmatism and caution; now he was acting desperate. "You should just tell them write some fucking checks, man," the senator snapped at Jackson.

His voraciousness for cash fueled his ascent. Now it would trigger his downfall.

By the time of that May phone call, undercover federal agents — including the one who wouldn't write the fucking checks, man — were already privy to the senator's every move. They were tapping his phones and shadowing his movements. Agents posed as glad-handing mafiosis intent on filling Yee's war chest, if the senator could make it worth their while.

Yee could always do that.

"If you asked for a second-class ticket to Mars, he'd say he could get you that," says a longstanding political enemy.

"He'd promise to sell you a dinosaur," says a longstanding political ally.

These anecdotal complaints have now been superseded by a meticulous federal complaint accusing Yee of parlaying influence and pushing legislation in exchange for bribes. The feds claim they induced Yee to sell an honorary proclamation to Chinatown gangster Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow's Chee Kung Tong syndicate for $6,800, and that he pocketed thousands of dollars as payment for introducing undercover agents posing as donors to fellow legislators or intervening on behalf of their professed interests.

Apart from this — and apart from anything anyone could have ever predicted — Yee is also charged with brokering an international $2 million arms deal at the behest of agents portraying East Coast mafia figures who ostensibly wanted to invest in the sale of "shoulder fire missiles" and other highly lethal fare to a Filipino jihadi outfit incongruously named "MILF."

That rattled people. The rest, however, came off pretty plausible.

Yee inspired rancor from his earliest political days as he flitted between slow-growth progressives, pro-business moderates, diversity-minded "Rainbow Coalitions," neighborhood Democratic clubs, Chinatown criminal syndicates: all the gangs that run San Francisco. He was tolerated, but never beloved.

But now, things were different. Now, Yee was being watched.

Only through a spectacular combination of bad luck, hubris, and clumsiness can a politician find himself at the receiving end of pay-to-play charges; Yee had it all. He'd blundered his way into a massive FBI sting. Jackson served as a consultant to Chow's enterprise in addition to his gig as Yee's bagman. Jackson and Yee's ham-handed attempts to extract funds from self-professed New Jersey mobsters — actually undercover agents scoping out Chow — all but forced the feds to shift the operation's focus to Yee.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 26, the senator was apprehended at his home in the Richmond District, and escorted in handcuffs to the federal courthouse in San Francisco. Images of a stone-faced Yee in a rumpled windbreaker blanketed the media landscape; by the time of his afternoon arraignment, a scrum of reporters was massed outside, cameras trained.

If the scene outside the courthouse resembled a movie cliche, so did the charges announced within.

Yee was hustled in front of Judge Nathaniel Cousins alongside a small army of fellow defendants ensnared in the feds' vast web, and facing a litany of federal charges: murder-for-hire, money-laundering, and contraband sale of anything and everything that could fall off a truck.

For many within San Francisco's political class, the prospect of Yee doing the perp walk was long-foreseen. "Shoulder fire missiles" and jihadis were not.

Strip away the more cinematic elements, however, and what remains is a garden-variety public corruption charge. Which harks to decades of complaints from jilted former allies and bitter enemies alike. Here, after all, was Leland Yee behaving like Leland Yee. But getting caught.

Everyone was shocked. Not everyone was surprised.

Wilma Chan got the call five minutes before it all went down. Leland Yee had changed his mind.

She hung up the phone and started running. By the time she reached the appropriations hearing upstairs, it was all over. An assiduously crafted bill had gone down by one vote.

"The next time I saw him, I asked what happened there," the former Oakland assemblywoman recalls, eight years later. "'I was assured by both yourself and your staff you were going to vote for that bill.' He denied ever saying that to me. He was adamant about it."

Yee, the child psychologist whose entree into politics began with school board campaign posters featuring wholesome apples and an exhortation for family-minded constituents to Vote For Dr. Yee, had just killed a bill to prevent potentially toxic compounds from being used in baby bottles.

"I asked, 'Could you give me a reason why?'" Chan continues. "There was no reason."

But there's always a reason.

Days before making his curious vote, Yee received $1,000 from Dow Chemical, manufacturer of the controversial baby bottle ingredient Bisphenol A.

This was no secret; it was a system. Anyone who cared to look could uncover a series of Yee votes catering to his well-heeled corporate benefactors. Apoplectic newspaper editorial writers and paid opposition researchers had a wealth of material to work with: In 2003, Yee opposed a bill that would lower gas prices, and subsequently received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests. In 2004, he stood against a bill that regulated prescription drug costs, and harvested more than $37,000 from the pharmaceutical industry. In 2005, he voted against a bill that called for enhanced safeguards against identity theft, then netted $8,000 in campaign contributions from bankers who opposed it.

Dozens of similar transactions fill hundreds of pages of political foes' dossiers on Yee. The senator, years ago, was decried as "a human weathervane" and then "a human jukebox," willing to play whatever song a donor ponied up for.

But, there's a rub. Most voters don't scrutinize their representatives' voting record. If a politician meets their expectations on bread-and-butter issues, why bother?

"While insiders knew about Leland, the average voter didn't care," University of San Francisco political analyst David Latterman says. "Voters almost entirely care about that which makes their everyday lives easier. Potholes. Getting to work. ... You can talk about Leland's pay-to-play, but for the average voter, it's like, 'Hell, if he votes the way I want him to, I couldn't care less who pays him.'"

So Yee raised ever greater gobs of money, and won office by ever more lopsided margins.

Many politicians promise one thing and deliver another, but Yee's fundamental strategy was to ride one political movement as far as it would take him before tossing it over for the next. In San Francisco, that's a pretty neat trick. Divisions among city political groups have an almost tribal cast. But Yee, by design and by necessity, never joined any one tribe. Belonging to a core political camp would require fealty to core political ideals. Yee was unencumbered with these. He curried favor with everyone to ascend the political ladder, leaving behind a trail of curdled relation-

ships.

At one time, Westside homeowners saw Yee as the man who would, at last, ease the city's byzantine building restrictions. They were burned when he did the exact opposite, throwing more roadblocks into the process as a way to ingratiate himself with slow-growth NIMBYs.

But that was Yee's political calculus: Once San Francisco shifted from citywide to district supervisor seats, he conveniently adopted a more parochial, neighborhoody worldview. Yee decamped from the Latino-heavy Mission to the conservative, largely Asian Sunset, where his newfound sensibilities would resonate.

That was one of so many instances of Yee identifying fissures between San Francisco political movements and leaping, expertly, between them.

Fellow members of the Jesse Jackson-inspired Rainbow Coalitions that kickstarted Yee's public life were dispirited when Supervisor Yee voted against transgender health benefits in an unabashed ploy for future races in the conservative Westside. Allies dating from Yee's tenure on the school board were aghast when he proposed splitting the city's school districts into eastern and western zones for the exact same reason.

The Chinatown denizens who gave Yee his political launch were enraged when he blocked a City College branch in the neighborhood. But that's how it added up for Yee: He subsequently pocketed at least $10,000 from interests tied to the Hilton Hotel, which opposed the new campus.

"The Chinese community created him, but eventually he found financial support elsewhere," says Ling-chi Wang, a UC Berkeley professor who taught Yee in 1969. "He's taken on new supporters and new friends.

"The real Leland Yee is always waiting to be discovered."

When it suited him, Leland Yee distanced himself from Willie Brown. And of late, Willie Brown has certainly distanced himself from the suddenly radioactive Leland Yee. Neither would care to admit that Brown backed Yee's nascent political career in the '80s, or that, during the 1995 mayoral race, Yee was Brown's driver, ferrying Da Once and Future Mayor about town.

By 2000, however, the city's political winds had shifted and Yee's allegiances had, predictably, done the same. The 1990s version of progressivism — a handpicked, racially diverse, mixed-gender, gay and straight slate of people obeisant to Willie Brown — had turned over. In its place rose a cadre of largely straight white men united by their disdain of Brown.

Yee has acute political antennae, and he quickly adapted to this new prevailing ethos. In San Francisco, a politician will be rewarded for being against something even if he stands for nothing; so, being against the embattled Brown was Yee's lifeline. During the late '90s, Yee joined forces with progressives Tom Ammiano and Sue Bierman to form an anti-Brown bloc on the Board of Supervisors. When progressives subsequently wrested control of the board, Yee positioned himself against Brown and Ammiano, earning the nickname "Dr. No."

Da Mayor was displeased. A Brown-backed independent expenditure committee took aim at Yee in his 2000 campaign for District 4 supervisor, leaking a mugshot from one of Yee's earlier escapades: pilfering a tube of sunscreen in Hawaii.

Yee's response to the media perfectly encapsulated his talent for making his opponents the issue. Instead of addressing the matter at hand, he simply parried: "Willie Brown is a major ass, and you can quote me on that. And instead of spending $500,000 trying to smear me, I hope he spends a million dollars because he's wasting his goddamn money."

Problem solved. Yee handily won re-election to the board.

But that was just one of his many personae. He was for Willie Brown before he was against Willie Brown, and later, he'd support Brown again. The only consistent element of Leland Yee was his ascent.

Yee started out, like so many of his future constituents, as an immigrant from southern China. He entered San Francisco politics at a time when a Chinese-American representative was a rarity. And he always knew how to play to his base: As a school board member, he railed against busing and advocated for Lowell High School admission policies more amenable to Asians. Twenty years later, as a state senator, he helped abort University of California affirmative action policies that figured to impact Asian enrollment. (Yee craftily managed to vote for this year's affirmative action measure before successfully interceding to quash it).

In the two ensuing decades, he returned many times to the well of identity politics. He denounced restrictions on shark fin soup, fought health regulations requiring the refrigeration of rice noodles, and lobbied for inclusion of feng shui practices in the state's building codes ("The structure of a building can affect a person's mood, which can influence a person's behavior, which, in turn, can determine the success of a person's personal and professional relationships...").

Yee's genius for neighborhood politics, however, transcended any single neighborhood. He knew what people wanted. He won over family-values voters with a fervent state Senate crusade against violent video games, which the courts deemed unconstitutional. Perhaps his signature campaign at the citywide level was to side with off-leash dog zealots in their feud with native plant activists. The resultant hearing Yee convened was, in the recollection of several former colleagues, the most well-attended in years. "Not homeless policy, not tax policy, not public safety: dogs on-leash or off-leash," one grumbles.

But, again, Yee knew what people wanted ­— and what it would bring him in return. Those dog activists became his ardent supporters and fundraisers, helping propel him into the Assembly. One of Yee's most useful talents was to cherry-pick issues that won him swaths of new, devoted supporters. But, chuckle Yee's erstwhile colleagues, he rarely delivered with regards to the actual issues: "Leland didn't concern himself with actual policy implementation," one colleague says. "Just was it good or bad policy for him."

Upon reflection, Yee's principles may be ever-shifting and his policies may be decorative, but he found a way around this: by being omnipresent.

He knew the name of every neighborhood stalwart from every neighborhood club; he cleaned hundreds of plates at hundreds of Chinatown banquets; he sat through countless community meetings, gathering hundreds of converts at a time: "In local politics," says one longtime player, "a cup of coffee and a handshake can win you a friend for life."

Yee showed up at your kid's bar mitzvah or high school graduation; he showed up at your community gathering; he showed up at your neighborhood bazaar — in short, he showed up. His staff returned your phone call. And he read your letters: A former associate says Yee never failed to leave the office at the end of a long day toting a thick stack of mail that he made a point of poring through. In insider jargon, this is known as "retail politics." Few worked harder or did it better.

The Chinese community — particularly in the avenues, where Yee's real money was — was Yee's base. But he got lots of votes from lots of people. So, through the years, he became ever more of a contradiction. He continued to tack expediently, sloughing off one interest group in favor of another. But, on an individual level, he was intensely devoted to the desires of his constituents.

In the end, that's what mattered. Yee kept winning newer, bigger races, with ever expanding pools of voters.

"What Leland did — and you got to hand it to the guy to a certain extent — he created his own operation," says former Supervisor Chris Daly, a board contemporary of Yee's. "He tried to grab the mantle of the independent."

That gambit worked for Yee on multiple levels. He spent a lifetime in the periphery of everyone else's group photographs. He traveled among many political movements, but was never really part of one. He was, politically, a free agent.

A politician unencumbered by a rooted political ideology can pick and choose where he stands on each issue. You could never predict how Yee would vote tomorrow, next week, next year. He was, in the words of a longtime backer, "a fucking knuckleball."

But if Yee's contemporaries didn't trust him or think he stood for much, they weren't above doing business with him, either.

You've got to count to six on the board. You've got to count to 21 in the state Senate and 41 in the Assembly to get anything passed. Counting on Yee, as Chan learned, could be perilous. But, then, she was only offering the opportunity to keep toxins out of baby bottles.

Yee's voting record in both the Assembly and Senate is exactly what you'd expect from someone who took thousands from petrochemical companies, oil interests, casinos, health insurance corporations, and battalions of lobbyists. At the state level, he was "one of the few transactional Democrats you could count on — provided you supported him," according to a longtime city politico. If you had a pet issue, and money, Yee was listening. "Leland has been very flexible when it comes to corporate interests."

Yee has now been removed from the equation. But the system is unchanged; his benefactors will simply be forced to look elsewhere.

San Francisco progressives take pains — especially now — to point out that Yee was never one of theirs. But they were thrilled to count his vote for the "clean slate" of progressive candidates that took control of the local Democratic Party in 2008; Yee backed Aaron Peskin in his subsequent ouster of Scott Wiener as party chair (it was an 18-16 vote). And so, San Franciscans were treated to the bizarrely mixed message of a politician long known for groveling to the city's landlords and gorging himself at the corporate trough — any corporate trough — receiving glowing commendations from the progressive paper of record. Yee's advocacy for transparency and ethics reform was jarring, even at the time, for those familiar with his record. But it scored with city lefties and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

In 2010, Yee basked in the support of open government activists and people who detest Sarah Palin when he pressured CSU Stanislaus to disclose her speakers' fee (it turned out to be $75,000, with $18,000 toward transport and accommodations — and her contract stipulated that bendy straws would be provided). In 2011, the Guardian awarded Yee an endorsement for mayor.

With that, Yee exposed the manichean worldview of the city's left. His cachet was that he simply wasn't Willie or Gavin or Ed Lee. Who he wasn't was more important than who he was.

In June of last year, Yee and his auxiliary, local political consultant Keith Jackson, met with undercover agents in a San Francisco hotel room to discuss medical marijuana policy. One of the agents was posing as a marijuana impresario bestowing largesse in exchange for favorable legislation. During their conversation, he unsubtly dropped an envelope with $11,000 cash on the table, and said his contributions were "not coming in the form of checks."

The envelope sat, untouched, throughout the meeting. But it was not unnoticed; when Jackson stood up without pocketing the wad, Yee purportedly walked over to him, tapped him on the back, and said "Take that."

In the context of the criminal complaint, it seemed like another pulp movie scenario. In Yee's more quotidian life, though, many people within his immigrant base wouldn't take issue with handing over fistfuls of cash to a politician.

"I've been to fundraisers where some very well-meaning people give me cash donations," Chan says. Many Asian immigrants hail from countries that "aren't democracies," she explains — it's de rigueur to offer cash to influential politicians. People who come to San Francisco from countries with an overt tradition of graft won't necessarily understand U.S. politics. Here, the system has been designed to subtly accommodate a legalized form of bribery.

The distinction between pay-to-play and a lawful contribution to a like-minded California legislator is opaque. If getting around prohibitions against fundraising in your office is as easy as moseying across the street, eluding pay-to-play restrictions is even more effortless — provided you don't say "I'm doing this because you're paying me" into a recording device or put it in writing.

It takes scads of federal agents wearing wires and carrying out years-long investigations at tremendous costs to nail down even the measliest bribe.

And, even then, it's easier to ensnare a politician in a maniacal scheme to run guns to the MILFs than establish culpability for a simple quid-pro-quo political transaction.

San Franciscans, presumably, are opposed to their elected leaders orchestrating international arms deals. But Yee's 28-year run suggests we aren't as critical of transactional politics.

Soft corruption is just how San Francisco rolls.

San Franciscans have grown inured to it. Our residents' reputation for tolerance turns out to be a double-edged sword. When Mayor Gavin Newsom trysted with his appointments secretary, then sent her into rehab with a five-figure payout from a fund earmarked for catastrophic health emergencies — established in response to the AIDS crisis — there were no repercussions.

When Newsom set in motion the so-called "Twitter Tax Break," it enriched the anchor tenant of a mid-Market structure owned by his longtime benefactor Doug Shorenstein — who, for what it's worth, allowed Gavin rent-free office space in that building, which subsequently ballooned in value. Everyone was a winner: Mid-Market land barons continue to count their money. Voters sent Newsom to higher office.

When supporters of appointed Mayor Ed Lee's 2011 campaign were caught on video, in broad daylight, filling out and collecting others' ballots, a great deal of hand-wringing ensued — but, again, no repercussions. "If there isn't a law against this, there should be," Bob Stern, the longtime former head of the Center for Governmental Studies, told SF Weekly at the time. It turns out it's hard to say whether there's a law against this, and it's even harder when no local or state authorities deign to prosecute. What's worth noting is that people felt comfortable doing it on a busy city street. And why not? Lee, of course, was easily elected mayor.

The city looks out for its own. San Francisco's government is run like a cartel. Whatever faults Yee had, he built his own apparatus, answering only to those of his choosing. His machinations among underworld figures mirrored his general political style. A campaign donation is a campaign donation, whether it emanates from Shrimp Boy, the corner grocer, or Dow Chemical.

Yee wasn't a part of the City Family, or any political family. He was on his own.

And he'll be the one facing federal corruption charges.

Earlier this month, Leland Yee was barely discernible amid the throng of attorneys packing Judge Joseph Spero's 17th-floor courtroom, each representing one of the 29 defendants on the federal indictment. Wearing a dark suit and a beleaguered expression, Yee shambled toward the bench with lawyer No. 2, James Lassart, in tow.

Spero mumbled the charges just loudly enough for observers to parse such terms as "maximum 20-year sentence" and "$250,000 fine." Yee pleaded not guilty to the lot: not guilty of betraying the public trust; not guilty of bribery and corruption; and certainly not guilty of masterminding a weapons deal to aid the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in its quest to supplant the Filipino government.

The immaculately coiffed Yee appeared to have wandered into the courtroom from one of his campaign posters; he took in the proceedings from a pew among fellow well-dressed spectators. Shrimp Boy, accused of money-laundering and conspiracy to traffic stolen goods, sat in the dock, clad in a yellow prison jumpsuit.

On that morning, the gap separating the senator and the gangster couldn't have appeared greater. But Yee was accustomed to forming improbable, often fleeting alliances. The only uniting factor among Yee's far-flung constituents was often Leland Yee. That was his defining political strategy for decades.

Of late, though, the magic wasn't there. Yee's trouncing at the hands of Mayor Ed Lee set him reeling; he compensated by taking uncharacteristic risks.

If the feds' excruciatingly documented charges are true, two scenarios present themselves — and both are unsettling. Perhaps Yee and his motley band — a sickly suburban dentist; a former school board president — really did have ties to international arms smugglers and the Islamic radicals plotting to take down the Filipino government from their jungle hideaways (the "purported arms dealer" is real, per the criminal complaint — not just the product of law enforcement fictions or Yee's own imagination).

Or, Yee was doing what his longtime friends and foes alike accuse him of: selling someone a dinosaur. Offering a discount ticket to Mars. Typical of Yee's MO, no shoulder-fired missiles or other exotic weaponry ever materialized; Yee's mysterious arms dealer and the faux-mafiosis would never meet.

So, assuming Yee was bluffing — bluffing men who presented themselves as gangsters intent on amassing an arsenal and unleashing a bloody military uprising — his behavior transcends desperation.

If the government's case is solid, it prompts the question of what Yee wouldn't do to hold onto power. Because, undoubtedly, he saw what was coming. The window is closing on Leland Yee and the Leland Yees of the political world. His specialty, retail politics, is losing ground to the young man's game of social media. Sure, there's still an opportunity for elderly politicians to gallivant about town glad-handing elderly voters — but it's also become obligatory for candidates to score likes on their Facebook walls and tweet 140-character colloquies. No one has land lines to call. Immigrants who — unhesitatingly — fork out red envelopes stuffed with cash are a dying breed. On the phone or in person, Yee was a fundraising tornado. On the Internet, he's another 65-year-old with a Twitter account.

Yee found himself in dire circumstances. He took his chances.

Leland Yee's colleagues voted to suspend him from the Senate two days after his arrest became international news. Calls to Yee's longtime cell number reveal it has been disconnected. Without warning, his page vanished from the Senate website, along with those of two other suspended Democratic colleagues. They'd effectively been disappeared by their own party.

Former allies rushed to renounce their ties; Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg adopted the tones of an exorcist: "Leave! Don't burden your colleagues and this great institution with your troubles. Leave!"

But the senator hasn't left. Not quite yet. The real Leland Yee is still waiting to be discovered.

About The Authors

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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.
Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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