What’s The Fire About Senator Leland Yee?

SPECIAL TO KABARI NEWS, the monthly magazine for the Indonesian community

It was an unusually spring-like Saturday afternoon in early February 2007 when Senator Leland Yee visited one of his former campaign offices that had been a mega-center of activity for his bid to win a seat at the California State Assembly in 2002. Dr. Yee’s choice of the Kabari News’s venue for the interview almost seemed symbolic since this was where his state legislative campaign had ripened to reality.

A MAN OF ACTION

Little did Leland Yee realize, at the age of three, that his immigration to San Francisco, California from China would lead to a political career. His academic credentials included a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a master’s degree from San Francisco State University. A doctorate in Child Psychology at the University of Hawaii opened the doors of service at various school and mental health organizations. Dr. Yee spent eight years on the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education where, according to the biographical information culled from the his State Senate’s website, “he fought to streamline bureaucracy, direct funds towards higher standards in core curriculum, update educational materials, reduce class sizes, and increase public access to school services.”

In 1996, Leland Yee was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. His achievements in San Francisco served as “ground zero” for real changes in local government. As the chairperson of the Finance Committee, he championed fiscal responsibility and accountability. For example, he established the largest “Rainy Day” budget reserve in San Francisco’s history. Dr. Yee also helped to pass the “Sunshine Ordinance,” which allows the public to obtain access to the real goings-on at City Hall.

Many Asian Americans in San Francisco recall meeting Leland Yee at many of their events and celebrations. A Kabari News contributing writer remembers being introduced to then-Supervisor Yee at an Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center fundraising affair.

“You could see that ‘by just showing up,’ Leland Yee cared about the empowerment of Asian Americans. He led by example,” she commented.

After his successful 2002 bid for the State Assembly, Dr. Yee continued full speed ahead in his trailblazing path of achievements. He became the first Asian Pacific American to be appointed Speaker pro Tempore, the number two position in the California State Assembly. Leland Yee was also elected and still remains the President of the National Asian Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators.

Since 2003, Yee’s relentless determination for getting things done — at an almost-Guinness World Record speed — resulted in one of the best track records for getting his bills passed and signed into law. He has successfully passed 64 pieces of legislation, of which 48 have been chaptered into law.

After serving four years at the California State Assembly, “Leland” was now known as Senator Leland Yee. Dr. Yee was elected to the State Senate in November 2006, garnering over 78 percent of the vote — the largest percentage for any Democratic candidate with a Republican challenger. Representing District 8, which includes San Francisco and San Mateo County, Leland Yee is the first Chinese American ever elected to the California State Senate and the first Asian American elected to the Legislature’s upper house in 40 years. Dr. Yee is also a member of the Senate Democratic Leadership as the Assistant President pro Tem.

Senator Yee’s multiple responsibilities involve memberships in the Standing Committees on Appropriations, Business Professions and Economic Development, Governmental Organization, Health, Human Services, and the Commission for Economic Development. He was recently named chairperson of the Senate Select Committee on Bay Area Sustainable Development and Economic Progress as well as the Select Committee on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs.

One of the recently introduced legislation that Senator Yee is pushing for in Congress is the Filipino Veterans Equity Act, which would reinstitute benefits stripped from Filipino World War II veterans 61 years ago as a result of the 1946 Rescission Act. The benefit, which includes healthcare, disability pensions, and burial expenses, is much needed for many of the 24,000 surviving Filipino veterans and their families.

This man of action knows how to draw the line between his public persona and his private life. Nowadays, commuting to Sacramento for work is done during the week days while his weekends are devoted to being with his wife and four children in San Francisco.

ONE-ON-ONE WITH SENATOR LELAND YEE

Kabari News: First, let’s talk about your relationship with the Indonesian community. This is “The Year of the Pig.” There is a saying floating around in cyber-space that “Pigs love life and even know how to make flowers in the desert.” What message do you have for the Indonesian community during this auspicious year?

Leland Yee: In all of our “busy-ness,” many of the Indonesians have immigrated to the United States and are always alert about how to make ends meet. We’ve got make sure that we find a job, open a business, and attend to our profession. What is also important for us Indonesians is to take some time to do some things with the family and to be supportive of our children, giving them the kind of support that they need so they can grow healthy, physically and emotionally. Let’s use this celebration of Chinese New Year as a time for our families to get re-engaged and to work together as one unit.

Kabari News: What are your thoughts about the role of Indonesians in the United States today?

Leland Yee: For those who are here for the very first time from Indonesia, many of them are probably a little uncertain. They need to know that they are truly welcome here. This is a place where they can, in fact, grow a family-owned business and grow a future for themselves. I have developed a rather close relationship with many members of the Indonesian community. They are now professionals, they now have jobs, they have careers, and they’re buying their own homes. So, the future is bright for them here.

The challenge for all of us here in the United States is to feel that — not only can we grow a family and grow a business — but also to feel that we can participate in the political process where we can control our political future as well as our personal and economic future. It is the freedom that we enjoy here that allows us to exercise that participation.

The Indonesian community is part of the Asian family. To that extent, there are many things that bind us together rather than separate us.

I want to do whatever I can to be of help to the Indonesian community. I am extremely interested in fostering better relationships between California and Indonesia.

Part of my job now in the Senate is to look at the advancement of trade between California and many of the Asian countries. I went back to China this time. I went to the Philippines. I’ll be going to Taiwan to begin looking at how we can increase its trade relationships with California.

There’s nothing to prevent California from having a greater involvement with Indonesia — and I now look forward to that particular opportunity.

The Indonesian community is not all that different from any other community. All of us want a better life for our children, a place to grow our business, or a place to live in peace with some sense of protection.

The California State Senate is an important local structure to help with these goals. We are responsible for the education of the State of California, we are responsible for the public safety, and we have a tremendous health care system here in California. These issues are extremely important to the Indonesian community. To the extent that they are in need of help, we want to be there for them. We are prepared to work with the Indonesian community, to be supportive, and to help them be engaged in the political process.

Kabari News: After four years at the State Assembly, what similarities and differences do you see between the State Assembly and the State Senate?

Leland Yee: I enjoy the Senate. It gives you a lot more time to be reflective and thoughtful of issues rather than constantly running. You have four years. There’s a longer period of time to research issues and at the end of the day, to come up with better public policy. There are 40 of us. That is a tremendous difference from the State Assembly which has 80 members. Since there are fewer of us, the power of the Senate is extremely concentrated on a small number of individuals.

Kabari News: Is your learning curve right now pretty smooth for you?

Leland Yee: I was in the State Assembly for four years. The Senate is like a continuation. There are new rules and procedures — but it’s an easier learning curve. It wasn’t that big of a problem. The thing that you do have to give it justice is that it has a slower pace. Things don’t move as quickly. The Senator is not as concerned about getting bills out because we have four years in which accomplish that whereas the Assembly member has two years. You have time to think about things, and to study and analyze issues rather than to react to them quickly. It gives us a lot of time to be reflective and to be thoughtful about the bills we want to push through.

Kabari News: Are you working on any particular issues right now which you can talk about that would impact Asian Americans?

Leland Yee: One of the major issues we’ve been working on is how to provide our children with a better education. For years and years, we have been struggling to improve the curriculum, teacher training, textbooks, facilities, you name it — and yet, a lot of Asian American students are not making it. Part of the reason why that’s happening — I believe — is that many of them have a lot of social and emotional issues that we are not addressing. What I’ve been doing for the last several years is to find ways in increasing the funding for our children in public schools relative to their socio-emotional needs. It’s a major initiative that we have and we’ll continue to work on it.

In the next several months, one of the other issues that we are working on is universal health care. Many individuals in the State of California are either not insured or underinsured. We’ve got to find a way to help increase their insurance coverage so they don’t become so ill that they end up going to emergency rooms.

Finally, here is something that directly relates to the Asian American community. Recently, I was appointed to the State Commission on Economic Development. Part of our charge is to figure out what we are going to do with the economy here in California. One area that is extremely important is the area of biotechnology. The San Francisco Bay Area and the San Diego area have a tremendous biotechnology industry. We are sitting down with the biotech community, figuring out ways how we can protect these jobs. Recently, in my visit to Asia, we heard rumblings about biotech companies looking at Asian countries to do research development and manufacturing. That is not a good sign for California. We cannot lose those biotechnology jobs. We’ve got to stay competitive with all the different Asian countries on that particular matter.

Finally, California had 22 trade offices four years ago. We closed them all. We’re now in the process of reviewing that particular plan. And so my recent visit to the Asian countries and my further visits to other Asian countries in the coming months will help me decide in terms of what California trade offices should in fact be opened in those countries in Asia.

About the writer: Lorna Lardizabal Dietz is a community relations practitioner and a profile writer in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Asian American community. She can be reached at [email protected] and through her website, www.RadiantView.com.

© Lorna Dietz, February 2007. Published in Kabari News magazine’s maiden edition.

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