With the unexpected death of Mayor Ed Lee, the first Asian-American and Chinese-American to hold mayoral office in San Francisco, there is now a special election to elect a new mayor this June 2018 before the end of the term in 2019. One of the candidates running is Jane Kim, a current member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. If elected, she would be “the city’s first female Asian-American mayor.” I had the chance to sit down and interview her about her experience as an Asian-American in politics, and her upcoming race for mayor.
I’m Nadya, a 19-year-old and sophomore at Harvard College, and I ran for office last year. Although I didn’t win, it was a terrifying, exhausting, unforgettable, and extremely meaningful journey, and I am celebrating that my campaign team and I made historic waves with student and youth turnout in the election. While I was running, I looked up to Jane Kim as inspiration for another woman who looked like me and ran her first race for local office when she was 26-years-old.
One of the unexpected lessons that I took away from the campaign was learning how to embrace my identity as and Asian-American. Jane Kim grew up feeling differently about her own racial identity, she says, “I have always strongly identified as an Asian-American, I had to as a young person growing up in a city where I wasn’t allowed to forget who I was — both as a young woman and an Asian-American.”
Asian-Americans are the “fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S.,” but are some of the most underrepresented in both media and politics. Candidates like Jane Kim are trying to change that:
Is there a moment, in your experience in politics, that made you feel proud to be an Asian-American elected official?
“When I first got on the board of supervisors, a young Asian-American woman came up to me. She was a high school student. She said, ‘It is nice to finally meet you, my mom and I see you on the TV all the time, and my mom said I could grow up and be like you.’ I was so touched by that because when I was growing up, my parents pushed me to be a doctor or lawyer because that is what they viewed as success. And that was a successful path for an Asian-American to pursue. It is really cool to see that times have changed. Now, we’re expanding the number of professions that Asian-Americans can be successful in.”
Why is it important to have Asian-American representation in politics?
“We bring a different perspective to policy and decision making. It is incredibly important to have Asian-American representation — not more important than having representation for any other group, but diversity is important. We are legislators. We develop and author laws — and shouldn’t a diverse group of people be a part of that decision-making process together? We have understanding and experiences that help shape our perspectives, and all our perspectives should be considered.
“It is important to me that as an Asian-American, I can represent so many different people. When I was door knocking when I first ran, I would get questions from Latino immigrants who would ask ‘why would you represent me as an Asian-American?’ That is an opportunity for me to talk about my experience and what I believe our shared experiences are — to talk about my work on the school board, that didn’t necessarily support Asian-American students, but diversity overall.
“I am often surprised and shocked by how much people bring up my gender and race when they disagree with me. When I see people disagree or criticize my white male colleagues, they’ll just disagree. When they disagree with me, they see it valid to bring up my race and gender. When I take a position that people disagree with, they will use my race and gender to denigrate me.”
What sort of pushback do you receive with you race and gender and how do you cope with or push through it?
“I often get comments like ‘hey (insert denigrating word you can think of for women), go back to China!’ Occasionally, when they are more sophisticated and they know I am Korean, they will write that they wished my parents had died in the Korean War. People can be threatening, especially as a woman when they say things like ‘I know where you live’.
“I’m not going to say it isn’t hurtful, because it is. As someone who has run for office as a young woman and woman of color, I think that it is important for me to tell other women and women of color what this experience is going to be like. No one told me what it was going to be like. I was 26-years-old when I ran for the school board the first time — and I cried almost every day on the campaign trail, but it was an amazing experience as well. I try to be honest with women who are considering a run. It is important to know what you are getting into and I wish that I had that mentorship.
“I love what I do. I think that this is such an incredible opportunity and job. I get paid to serve the people! And I know that sounds lofty, but this is what I do. I get to serve my community. Every day I go to work with incredible awe of what I get to work on. Whether I am making community college free in San Francisco, making San Francisco the only city in the nation to do that, pushing for more affordable and middle-income housing in my district, or writing legislation I really care about — I’m so grateful to do this work. I am currently working on introducing legislation to make childcare more affordable.
“I have learned a lot of resilience in my career thus far. One lesson that I believe very strongly in that I learned early on, is that losing is a really important part of winning. I lost my first race for school board, but I came back two years later, and came in first place of the fifteen candidates who ran from across the city. Losing, is really part of the process of winning. I think that part of what has made me successful is that I am not scared of losing. It is really hard to win big if you are not willing to lose. In many ways, this is still something I am always learning, because it is of course, still hard to lose today — but you go for it.”
How did your racial identity play a role in your decision to run for office?
“It absolutely played a role in my decision. I had never thought I would run for office in high school or college. I never saw politics as a role for me. As a student activist, I had very little faith in electoral politics. I thought that voting was a sort of disempowering situation, picking through the lesser of two evils. I have always been political working with Asian-American youth in Chinatown in my career. My work was centered around providing young people the tools and resources and training in their community.
“When I first got asked to run for school board, I didn’t seriously consider it but, the demographics of where I was going to run was over 50% Asian-American, over 70% immigrant, and 90% students of color. I looked at the school board and I didn’t think it reflected the constituents. So, a big impetus in my running was that I felt that I could be a voice for students and families who didn’t really have that yet.”
How are you feeling about the mayoral race? What inspired you to run for mayor in this special election?
“I think that the mayoral race is an incredibly exciting opportunity — to run to be executive in a majority city in the country. San Francisco is a major city that plays an important role in the country as a progressive and wealthy city. We have an opportunity to enact policies that many municipalities cannot even fathom. At a time of Trump and seeing an administration that is talking about divesting from the community and divesting from people — whether it is health care or meals for seniors, or funding for our public schools. It is more important now than ever that San Francisco be a beacon for the nation.
“My work drafting legislation in 2016 — on real estate taxes for properties five million and above, and free college for residents, just part of my work to reinvest in people and community here — demonstrates what can happen when we choose to invest in our people. I’m excited to run for a role where I can be an executive of the city that is leading this sort of reinvestment and meaningful change. We are here to show what it really means to make America great again. Not many cities can have the financial resources to do that, so we’re lucky to have this opportunity.”
What makes you unique from all other candidates running for mayor in San Francisco this year?
“Over my last ten years serving, I have shown that I am willing to be bold and courageous. I have been doing this work and winning. Of course, I lost too, and I have lost a lot, but I also have not only set the highest level of affordable and middle-income housing in a private development once, but three times. I have extensive experience working on legislation, and have drafted and passed the most progressive minimum wage in the country — making it possible for all the workers to make a minimum of fifteen dollars. We are the only city to also make community college free again for all residents. I have been committed to investing in our residents and fighting hard for our reality and our city.
“When it comes to the mayoral race, I’m excited, I’m scared, all of the feeling candidates feel when they launch a race. Even though this is my sixth campaign, it is still exciting and very scary. I never thought in my life that I would ever experience anything like this — I was someone who never aspired to run for office. I focus on the work — the work I get accomplished for this city, and the work that makes this job worth it. When I meet students, who tell me they’re going back to college because I made city college free, that makes my job worth it. I stay focused because this job is incredibly difficult and there are times that I am totally miserable, but I still love what I do. I am keeping my eyes on the prize and keeping focused not hew work, and the difference that I am able to make.”
How can people both in and out of San Francisco support your run for mayor?
“We certainly would love support from voters in San Francisco, of course. Whether this is through posting on social media or contributing small amounts to the campaign. A vast majority of donors are under $100 and it makes a difference, all of it. If folks want to come, we’d love to have you come volunteer with us.”
Do you think you’ll ever run for higher office past your current run for San Francisco mayor?
“At the moment, no. I really believe in local politics. I have always been inspired by local politics. I love that I get to serve in the community that I live and grew up in. I love serving in local office. Running for mayor has been a dream for me for a while now.”
Anything you want to tell readers?
“To all the young women out there, run. I hope that we see more young women putting themselves out there. It is an incredible honor to be able to serve.”