One does not often emerge from San Francisco politics smelling like a rose. It is a city of intensely parochial loyalties, where success is earned by building coalitions of voters from the city’s patchwork of diverse neighborhoods. The currency is sweat, tears and favors — the raw ingredients of the hustle.
Out of this environment of back-room dealmaking, Leland Yee emerged as a champion of transparency and accountability. First as an assemblyman, and then a state senator, here was one San Francisco politician who stood for something different. Was it too good to be true?
Was it ever.
Yee first came to our attention in about 2009, when he decided to take on executive compensation at the University of California and California State University systems. We would later learn that the almost-daily barrage of press releases was typical of his approach; once he got his teeth into an issue, he did everything he could to raise awareness and bring pressure on those he saw as obstacles to change.
At the height of the financial crisis, as public universities piled on fees and cut classes, Yee was unrelenting in his criticism of the ever-increasing salaries that university officials received. There wasn’t a hire or a promotion in either system that didn’t draw a scathing response from his office.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi was a favorite target. When UC hired her from the University of Illinois, Yee insisted on a fuller accounting of an admissions scandal that had rocked that institution. When Katehi clarified that the scandal had nothing to do with her, Yee was unmoved: “It’s interesting that she says, ‘It’s above my pay grade,’ and that’s that,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle. “Is she going to continue this ‘see no evil, hear no evil,’ approach, and just cover up what may be going on?”
Later, after the infamous pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis, he publicly slammed her response to the crisis. The hustle had come to academia.
As the improving economy made the situation on campus less dire, he turned his focus elsewhere. Open government became his focus, and he won praise for his efforts to improve open-meeting laws. Then, setting his sights on California secretary of state job, he began pushing for improved gun control, as well as more restrictions on violent video games.
So it was a shock when the news came down that state Sen. Leland Yee had been arrested in an FBI sting on political corruption and gun-running charges. The open-government and anti-gun advocate was accused of taking bribes and setting up arms-smuggling deals.
The documents in the case paint a lurid picture, straight out of a pulp detective novel: a mysterious “reformed” gangster named Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow; Chinatown social clubs that may or may not be fronts for organized crime; Eastern European arms dealers; and Philippine rebel groups.
The Leland Yee that emerges is the complete antithesis of his public persona; an unprincipled opportunist ready and willing to do anything for a price. It was the ultimate hustle.
But now it’s all gone. His campaign for secretary of state is over, and his fellow state senators suspended him from the Legislature. Instead of his once-glittering career, now he faces years in prison and disgrace. And we, the voters, are left with nothing but one more lesson in politicians who are too good to be true.