SAN FRANCISCO » 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-American 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 a 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 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.’"