Her moniker may carry a generic John Smith quality, but JANE KIM is anything but. The civil rights attorney last November pulled off a stunning upset victory in the race for the San Francisco District 6 supervisor seat—and she did it sans major endorsements from media, labor and her own Democratic party.
At just 33, Kim, a former Board of Education president, is the first Asian American candidate to win a non-historically Asian district in San Francisco. How did this young, hip politico do it? The old-fashioned way: one conversation at a time.
Story by Bernice Yeung
Photographs by Shane Sato
Make-up by Grace Kim
LAST MONTH, after an upset victory in the November elections, San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim moved into her second-floor digs at City Hall. A civil rights attorney, and a former community and arts organizer with an impressive pedigree—Stanford University followed by law school at UC Berkeley—Kim spruced up her office by hanging edgy, graffiti-inspired paintings by a local artist on the walls.
It was classic Jane Kim, who’s an unlikely mix of wonky and cool. As the past president of the city’s school board, she’s the unabashed policy geek who conducts business in designer 4-inch heels and drives to appointments listening to old-school hip-hop. Though she has a black belt in taekwondo, Kim’s not an aggressive shouter like her predecessor on the board; she’s poised and confident, but when it’s an issue that she cares about, she can be searing and tough.
For the next four years, Kim, a 33-year-old Democrat, will oversee the political machinations of San Francisco’s District 6, which is home to a wide swath of the city’s population, including immigrant families, high-tech professionals, hipsters and low-income residents. (It is also the district where Kim currently resides.) It’s an area that some view as a political challenge because it features some of the greatest diversity and disparity of the city—from tony South Beach with its gleaming high-rise condos, to the Tenderloin, a grittier, low-income neighborhood populated by single-room occupancy hotels.
Winning the District 6 supervisor slot took a fight, and Kim was perceived as an underdog because she didn’t receive endorsements from major media or political organizations. In what has been dubbed the “Fifty-Nine Precinct Strategy” (where the campaign pledged to outreach to every distinct corner and constituency of the district), Kim borrowed from her experience as a community organizer in Chinatown, and pounded the pavement harder than her opponents. It worked.
With her campaign victory, Kim became the first Asian American candidate to win a non-historically Asian district in San Francisco at a moment when Asian American politicians are charging the halls of power. Here, the Manhattan-born Kim, who has lived in San Francisco for 11 years, talks about what motivated her to seek public office, her city’s growing Asian American political presence, and the sacrifices she’s willing to make for the job.
BERNICE: How would you describe yourself as a politician?
JANE: The reason I wanted to run for office and why I’ve enjoyed serving is that, one, I’m passionate about being part of making change that brings more equity. There are many ways to go about it. I was able to do it as an organizer, and I enjoy the challenges of doing it from a legislative and elected position.
The second reason is that I really believe in connecting public resources to constituents. I definitely come into politics with a progressive vision about how politics can provide more equity in cities.
BERNICE: Why are you interested in issues like equity?
JANE: Having grown up in a variety of neighborhoods in New York City, I was very aware of racism; it was much more in-your-face when I was growing up. The tangible experience of watching your parents get treated disrespectfully is hard to understand as a child. Then in eighth grade, I first learned about the hate crime [by Detroit autoworkers] that killed Vincent Chin, and that was when there were growing tensions between African American communities and Korean American businesses, and it moved me. The 1992 Los Angeles riots also made an impact. In high school, I got involved in community service groups, and I had teachers that picked me out and put me in leadership development programs. Then before I knew it, this kind of work was all I wanted to do.
BERNICE: You ran a campaign where you purposefully sought to have a presence in every neighborhood of your district. What are the ways that you brought something new to how campaigns are run?
JANE: Our campaign was not innovative at all. What we relied on was really old-fashioned. The basic premise of our campaign was: Out of any candidate, we were going to meet the most voters. We were going to knock more doors, be on more street corners on more days, and I, as a candidate, was going to be out that many more hours than any other campaign. Because we had nothing else. When I decided to run a year ago, I made the decision knowing that I would not get any major media endorsements, or endorsements from labor or the Democratic Party.
One of the things that inspired me before I announced my run was [New York chef] David Chang’s cookbook, Momofuku. It’s so funny that I got inspired from a cookbook. He talked about what inspired him to start Ko, that little eight-person restaurant. He was at a restaurant in France and had the most perfect meal he’d ever had. What struck him about the restaurant was that anyone can do what this restaurant did—the meals were super-simple, the service was impeccable. Anyone can do it, but it’s so hard to do. What we did was very similar, and what we did, anyone can do. But the attention to detail and the perseverance to do it well are very hard. We do see campaigns like that, but a lot of times people depend on the formula of endorsements and money. And we decided to do it without that.
BERNICE: Given the perseverance that was necessary, how did you keep people inspired and motivated?
JANE: I had an amazing campaign team [that included campaign manager Sunny Angulo, campaign consultant Enrique Pearce and campaign coordinators Viva Mogi and Jen Low]. If you bring on good people, then people will join the campaign because they trust the principles of the organizers.
Lillian Sing, a judge in San Francisco, once said in a speech to young Asian Americans to “always remember your true north.” That’s really important, but being in politics, what my true north is has been challenged a lot. And what has kept me true to my principles are the people who I surround myself with—people who share your true north because they’re the people that keep you centered and hold you accountable. And because I had so many of those people on the campaign, others were inspired. It’s not me; it’s a larger community that [the campaign] is part of. People don’t realize it, but the candidate is only one person on this team.
BERNICE: What do you think is the takeaway in terms of being able to win despite not having endorsements? How did you overcome those challenges?
JANE: It was the personal connection we were able to make. Being highly engaged with voters is important, and you can’t take for granted actually meeting somebody for five seconds. It makes me hopeful that grassroots [efforts] do work. We also did a good job of bringing on people who had never been involved in electoral politics before—seniors and young people, in particular. And nobody had the linguistic capacity that we had. We had people speaking Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish. We were the only campaign to have dedicated literature to each of these communities.
BERNICE: Describe a typical day during your campaign.
JANE: My day would usually start around 7:30 a.m. I’d pick transit stops and pedestrian corners, and would start out my morning greeting commuters. Then it’d be a mixture of meetings, campaign work and phone banking. In the evenings, we’d go back out for evening commute. At night, we’d go to events. My day would end at 11:30 p.m., and then I’d come home and respond to emails.
BERNICE: That sounds grueling. How did you personally stay motivated?
JANE: I was hyper-vigilant about taking care of myself. The campaign was pretty good about making sure I slept. They didn’t sleep, but I did! I went to a boot camp class once a week. I had to work seven days a week, and boot camp was the thing on Friday night that would reset me for Saturday so it was almost like I had a weekend.
What I love about politics is meeting people. I love the organizing aspect, and I’ve always loved the field. So in a way, not getting endorsements and not having to do the political wrangling made this the most enjoyable campaign that I’ve had. That’s what energized me—my time spent out in the field.
BERNICE: Describe your district.
JANE: It’s a district that is changing, that is very young and energetic. It has neighborhoods that didn’t exist 10 years ago, but it also has historic areas that have long been ignored or disenfranchised. It’s a very diverse district, and a very hopeful one, too. And it’s not as entrenched along political lines as other neighborhoods might be.
BERNICE: How did you connect with such a diverse constituency during the campaign?
JANE: I feel very comfortable around tenant and housing issues because that’s the work I came from as an organizer. There are a lot of immigrants and seniors and youth in the district, and low-income tenants in single-room occupancy buildings. In some of the newer neighborhoods, there are a lot of young professionals that are liberal leaning, and I went to Stanford and Berkeley. ( Laughs.) I very much identify with the breadth of District 6.
BERNICE: How has your political and arts organizing background influenced your campaign and who you will be as a supervisor?
JANE: I have tremendous respect for organizing. It is the one thing I will always support and fund in this city because [community-based] organizations can really bring about change. Helping found the Japantown arts space Locus [now merged with Kearney Street Workshop] in 2000 really taught me the importance of having spaces for people to get together and build community, and that was also a big part of the campaign. As little time as we had, we carved out time for social dinners. I never wanted to downplay the importance of social community building because it makes the team stronger. It’s important for people to truly care about one another, and that bond will outlast the stress and tension and disagreements that always occur on campaigns.
BERNICE: How important was it that you were an Asian American candidate in this election?
JANE: I’m almost amazed at what has happened in the last 10 years for Asian Americans in San Francisco. Even though we haven’t had a population increase, the flex of political power for the Asian American community has catapulted. And it’s also diverse. It’s not just one type of Asian American. You have Ed Lee, Leland Yee, Fiona Ma, David Chiu, Phil Ting. These Asian American elected officials in San Francisco represent a diversity of political perspectives that I think is healthy.
Even seven years ago when I was working on campaigns, campaigns wouldn’t go to Asian American communities, and the response was that those communities didn’t vote, so why bother? Now I doubt that there’s any campaign that doesn’t have an Asian strategy.
BERNICE: Do you think what’s happening in San Francisco in regard to the emergence of Asian American political leaders and voting presence is an indication of what will happen nationally?
JANE: I don’t see that yet. I do think it’s really exciting, and there is a sense of wariness, excitement, awe or respect for what Asian Americans are accomplishing politically in San Francisco. It’s a mix of, “This is kind of cool, but what does it mean?”
BERNICE: There was some grumblings on blogs and the internet during the campaign that you were playing the race card. Did you play the race card?
JANE: I don’t think so. I don’t think we ever thought about [using my race during the campaign]. I found that having an immigrant family experience allowed me to connect with a lot of different communities, whether it was Filipino, Vietnamese, Central American or Mexican. I do think being a daughter of immigrants [helped voters relate to me].
BERNICE: Public service holds some level of sacrifice. What have you given up in order to serve?
JANE: Politics is emotionally grueling. It’s a really tough job because being subject to public scrutiny—while an important aspect of being an elected because it holds you accountable—is wearing. And people start to forget that you’re a real person.
It’s also a huge time commitment and I haven’t seen a lot of elected officials who are successful at managing families and spouses. You don’t see a lot of young women in politics—this is a time when you might want to have kids or get married. A lot of women in politics got into politics later on, after they had kids. Carving a way for women to be in politics is important. That was definitely something I thought a lot about. I haven’t really figured out the answer to it all. But it will all work out. (Laughs.)
BERNICE: Do you think being an Asian American woman in public office has a positive impact on younger people?
JANE: I try not to overemphasize identity politics because, at the end of the day, issues matter more. I’m not for supporting a candidate just because they’re Asian, a woman or a person of color if I disagree with them. But you can’t discount identity either. I do think it matters for young people to see Asian Americans and women in office.
BERNICE: How do you deal with the demands for your attention as an elected official? Do you consider yourself an extrovert?
JANE: More than most electeds I know, I need downtime. I need to be alone, and I enjoy being alone. I do thrive off of people; I wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t also something in it for me, and I love being part of something. Most people want to feel they’re a part of something, and that’s what I learned as a youth organizer: To get young people who may feel apathetic engaged, [you need to give] them the opportunity to be a part of something larger. People crave that connection, and I definitely do, too.
BERNICE: Do you foresee a long-term career in politics?
JANE: I love it, and I would not have run if I weren’t passionate about serving and figuring out how to harness public resources to make change and create a level playing field of opportunity for all people. But there are a lot of ways to make change, and electoral politics is just one of them. It’s the path I’ve chosen for now. I’m enjoying it, and honored to be in it.
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A district supervisor is responsible for the needs of the people in his/her district. In San Francisco, which is both a city and a county, the Board of Supervisors, made up of 11 elected representatives, comprises the legislative arm of the city. To ensure a diverse body of legislators, the supervisors are directly elected by the constituents of their respective districts. As supervisor of District 6, one of the largest in San Francisco, Jane Kim oversees the budget, can pass and repeal city policies and ordinances, and manages/appoints public staff. “She’s a young supervisor, so the new feel of the district being at a crossroads in its development really vibed with her campaign,” said Sunny Angulo, Kim’s campaign manager. “It was a beautiful and diverse campaign.”
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The Campaign Trail: Jane Kim‘s Political History
2004: Ran for a seat on the S.F. Board of Education (lost).
2006: Ran again for a seat on S.F.’s Board of Education (won).
2007: Sworn in as the first Korean American elected in San Francisco, as a commissioner on the Board of Education.
2009: Graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law.
2010: Unanimously elected as the president of the San Francisco Board of Education.
2011: Sworn in as the District 6 Supervisor for San Francisco and the first Korean American Supervisor nationwide.