Flag Controversy In San Leandro Reveals A Mayor’s Re-Election Vulnerabilities

SAN LEANDRO//FLAG FLAP/ANALYSIS | There’s reasons why residents in Oakland, San Francisco and Alameda are not up in arms about a Chinese flag being unfurled over their cities next week, while San Leandrans tears itself apart. It has little to do with geopolitical rivalries, the treatment of Tibetans or China’s awful civil rights records. In San Leandro, the issue may unwittingly have exposed a vulnerable mayor caught between raging displeasure within its growing Asian demographic and a small band of rabid progressives who encompass his likely foot soldiers and campaign volunteers for re-election next year.

In fact, the entire controversy over flying the Chinese flag over San Leandro City Hall Oct. 1 to celebrate its national day is about as organic and unlikely as you will see at any level of government. When Councilmember Benny Lee placed the issue on the Sept. 16 agenda, he simply wanted to encourage Chinese investors to set up shop in San Leandro. However, Lee may have been a bit naïve to the potential political ramifications of flying a rival economic banner over the city. In addition, he could have never foreseen the issue potentially shaping the city’s elections next year by waking a growing Asian American demographic in San Leandro already showing signs of operating aggressively and en masse.

Lee and other who supported the flag flying stress their intentions rest solely on honoring the city’s Chinese residents, not the Chinese government. However, Mayor Stephen Cassidy opposed the resolution as did San Leandro School Trustee Mike Katz, a strong Cassidy supporter and candidate for the City Council next year. Katz’s often abrasive wife Margarita Lacabe, a member of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, was also vocal in opposing the resolution. She led an online petition against it citing China’s dismal civil rights record.

The city’s Asian American populations, especially a large number of shoreline residents at Heron Bay, have been deeply critical of Cassidy and the Katz’s in the past. Over the past year, the trio strongly supported controversial approval of a commercial wind turbine just outside the Heron Bay housing development. To say certain influential members of the Asian American community have the long knives out for Cassidy and his core supporters is an understatement. While there is a lament in the East Bay among some Asian American and Indo American leaders their groups often put themselves at a political disadvantage by adhering to cultural mores promoting campaigns run with utmost honor, this is not the case in San Leandro. In fact, Asian Americans here are building the template for growing minority populations in the East Bay to grab hold of their growing power and potential.

San Leandro’s Asian American population showed last year it could organize and vote as one. When Chris Crow, another member of the Cassidy/Katz/Lacabe team, ran for the same council last year seat sought by Lee, the community rose up in ferocious anger when a report detailed comments made by him against Chinese. On a Facebook posting, Crow called Chinese Olympians “sore losers.” Knowledge of Crow’s inflammatory words travelled quickly and seemed ubiquitous within the Asian American community. Although Lee was a likely front runner for the seat, he surprised some by garnering over 60 percent of the vote in a four-person race. The victory made Lee the first-ever Asian American member of the San Leandro City Council.

There is now precedent for candidates in San Leandro to bend over backwards for the Asian American vote. The group is expanding and already encompasses the city largest demographic at nearly 30 percent. The rift between this group and Cassidy seems irreparable after the mayor last week opted to suspend the City Council’s vote to fly the Chinese flag. Adding further insult, Cassidy’s plea for a restart in the discussion is undermined by the calendar. Lee sought to hold the ceremony to coincide with the Oct. 1 Chinese holiday. However, the City Council does not meet again until Oct. 7.

Others have criticized Cassidy for not offering a compromise solution. For instance, nearby Alameda will also fly the Chinese flag next Tuesday, but it displays the banner on a smaller, temporary flag pole and not on the taller stationary poles used for the U.S., state and city flags. The ugly spectacle enflamed by Cassidy appears to have disrespected the city’s largest community, brought a “loss of face” to the Chinese counsel general in San Francisco, shown an antipathy toward the will of a majority of the City Council and possibly endangered business investment from abroad.

From Cassidy’s perspective, the calculation may have been made with serious caution, but it also highlights a mayor unpopular among city staff, many council members and Alameda County Democratic Party leaders. In Cassidy’s case there is no reason to be choosy in picking friends when you only have a few willing to help with your birthday party. In 2010, Cassidy ran on a fiscally conservative platform that demonized city workers. The memory of his words and actions still elicit either eye rolls or gnashing of teeth by party leaders. His bullying tactics as a school board members have also highlighting his tenure as mayor.

Yet, in the past year, he has become noticeably more liberal. First, supporting medical cannabis dispensaries, gay marriage and voting to limit security cameras in public places. Coincidentally, these are all issues his inner circle of friends and potential campaign workers next year vociferously support. Without this group it would appear the political engine leading his upset run for mayor in 2010 would be struggling to hum without motor oil. The battle lines have been set in San Leandro and Benny Lee could have never imagined the ramifications that could linger into next year all for simply wanting to fly a red flag over City Hall.

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