Councilmember Benny Lee, second from left,
is a byproduct of the new found strength in
San Leandro’s Asian American populace.

SAN LEANDRO | MAYOR | It would have been unthinkable a generation ago that any demographic in San Leandro other than Caucasians would be the voting bloc determining the makeup of its city officials.

The U.S. Census in 1970 infamously reported San Leandro was nearly 100 percent white—give or take a few black families that somehow infiltrated the city’s notorious redlining of homes from outsiders. Today, San Leandro’s largest demographic is not white or black, but Asian Americans, who incidentally, have recently shown a willingness to stand and be heard at City Hall.

Two years ago, Benny Lee became the city’s first Asian American council member, but his election underlined a series of seemingly innocuous events that showed the demographic had become not only more vocal than other groups in the city, but better organized. First, came a proposal by a local businessman to erect a wind turbine on his property near the predominately Asian Heron Bay housing development.

Councilmember Pauline Cutter

Residents turned out in droves to protest the wind turbine, but ultimately the City Council and mayor sided with business interests. The permit to raise the turbine is currently mired in litigation, but anger toward the Mayor Stephen Cassidy, who is not running for re-election, later spilled over again following his unilateral decision to reverse a council vote that would have allowed the Chinese flag to be raised over City Hall in honor of its national day.

The decision further raised a furor within the Asian Americans in San Leandro who viewed the flag-raising not as a symbol of Chinese oppression, as critics had argued, but as a celebration of their culture.

Councilmember Diana Souza

Despite the rancor, Cassidy did little to mend the rift within the city and that decision may go far in deciding who will be the next mayor. Councilmembers Pauline Cutter and Diana Souza are both seeking the office, as is local theater owner Dan Dillman.

Although Cutter attempted to act a mediator on the council during the Chinese flag fiasco, it may not matter to Asian groups in the city who tend to firmly stand against anybody viewed as too closely aligned to Cassidy. Dillman, a dark horse candidate who could greatly benefit in the ranked choice voting race with just three candidates, also leveled strong criticism against the flag-raising last year. At one point, he asserted having foreign flag flown over City Hall amounts to a military occupation.

Meanwhile, it is Souza, the two-term council member, who has steadily courted the growing Asian American demographic over the past few years. While her consistent opposition of cannabis dispensaries in San Leandro may not jibe with the entire city, it does with Asian American groups, who tend to be more socially conservative. In addition, Souza has a strong working relationship with Lee and supported the Chinese flag resolution.

And here’s another sign both Cutter and Souza see the Asian Americans as the key to victory: each requested their ballot statements include their names in Chinese characters.