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Ed Jew's Dilemma: When A House Is Not a Home

Ben Fong-Torres

Supervisor Ed Jew gets into trouble; our Ben Fong-Torres gets into People magazine.

One of the biggest political stories in San Francisco is also one of the saddest especially for Asian Americans.

The subject is Ed Jew , who was elected late last year to the city's Board of Supervisors and is its lone Asian American member. He beat out two strong fellow Asian Americans in the district election, and represents the Sunset District, which includes, among other mini-communities, the so-called Second Chinatown, centered on Clement Street.

The problem is, Jew, who is also one of the Board's most conservative members, is required to live in the district he represents, and, it appears, he does not. And if he doesn't, then he's not qualified to have run for his office, or to occupy it. Investigations by the City Attorney and the District Attorney have resulted in reports that Jew has failed to provide proof that he lives in a house, owned by his father, in the district. Jew's wife and children live out of town, in the suburb of Burlingame, and Jew operates a flower shop in Chinatown. Investigators, checking utility bills and talking with neighbors and mail carriers, believe that he has been living in Burlingame since 2003. (However, they say, Jew used that address for voting in recent years, and stated that he lived there when he filed his candidacy papers last year. That would be a violation of election laws.) Jew has claimed that he splits his time among all three locations. And when a look at water bills for the Sunset residence showed almost no usage, he claimed that he showered at his flower shop. Responding to reports that numerous neighbors said they hadn't seen him at the house in years, he said that he was often out attending to his supervisorial duties.

Like his story about showering in his flower shop, it doesn't wash. But that's not even Jew's main problem. The questions about his residence began with an FBI investigation into a $40,000 payment Jew took in early May, at his flower shop, from businessmen representing Quickly tapioca drink shops in his district. The feds raided Jew's Chinatown shop, his Burlingame home, and the Sunset District house, looking for the money and possible evidence of extortion.

According to numerous press reports, it all began when the tapioca company heard from Jew that it might be facing permit problems, and that he could help for a price. Jew claims that the company came to him, saying it needed help, that he suggested a political consultant friend of his, Robert Chan , whose services would cost $20,000. Jew has said he suggested another $20,000 payment to himself, and claimed that he planned to donate it to a playground rebuilding project in the Sunset district.

Problem is, the people at the playground heard nothing about such a windfall until after the FBI raids on Jew's properties. The donation, a park representative said, would be the largest the fund has received, by far. In other words, it's the kind of contribution you would think a supervisor would have announced and delivered before thousands of dollars in cash were seized in a raid.

Also, as the tapioca shop owners wondered, if they were asked to help with a contribution, why would they have given Jew cash, rather than a check made out to the fund?

It doesn't add up. And, with all the lousy math, the press have had field days, every day, with the story, and constant updates: The DA filed nine felony charges against Jew for felony perjury and election law violations; he surrendered to police in Burlingame on June 12 and was released on bail. Fellow Supervisors began saying that it was time for Jew to step down. And the City attorney has requested permission from former California governor Jerry Brown , now the state's Attorney General, to sue and to force his ouster from the Board. Mayor Gavin Newsom , who's been careful not to jump to conclusions, has called the evidence against him 'very damning,' and asked Jew to provide evidence that he has not broken laws. 'Prove it,' he urged. Throughout, Jew has maintained his innocence, and refused to resign from the Board.

Which brings us to the sadness. After a week or so of pounding from the media, supporters of Jew surfaced, staging a rally in front of City Hall and hoisting signs urging Jew not to resign, and saying that he was the victim of racism. Said a former president of the influential Chinese Six Companies: 'It's because he's Chinese. It's racial there's no question in my mind.'

That's a load of horse dung. There are plentiful instances of Asian Americans being mistreated because of their race, but Jew is not one of them. Any objective person reading the stories about him, and tracing his own explanations or lack thereof and reading the various affidavits about the case (available via www.sfgate.com) can conclude only one thing: He brought all of this onto himself. If his assertions are true, he hasn't done a very good job of stating his case. On advice from his attorney, he ignored a second (and final) deadline from the City Attorney to provide documentation of his residence at the Sunset house and to agree to an interview, citing the overlapping investigations into his actions. (He has spoken to the press - on his own, sometimes weird terms. He invited a Chronicle reporter to look at the shower in his flower shop, where he'd claimed that he sometimes showered, away from his Sunset house. Then he reneged on the invite. He also extended an interview to newspapers- but only Chinese-language publications. Is that racism? Or was he just being, say, choosy?)

Bottom line: Jew faces not only the loss of the elected office he prized for so many years, but also his personal freedom.

If and when those dispiriting moments come to pass, no one will be happy. But no one should try and play the blame game, either. Especially with the race card.

ON THE FLIP SIDE: Congrats to Jerry Yang , back in the CEO saddle at Yahoo!, which he helped found, back in 1994. He replaces Terry Semel , the former Time Warner bigwig. Congrats, too, to Duffy Wang , who won a Northern California Emmy for "Sketching the Silk Road," a documentary film that examines the allure of ancient Chinese Buddhist artwork. It was Wang's first nomination. He thanked his old SF State University profs for their help, and told SF State magazine that he was "still in a state of disbelief." And Gwen Chan , who served as interim Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District this past year, and was the first Asian American ever to oversee the school system, is retiring after a four-decade career in education. Among her departing gifts: induction into the SF State Alumni Hall of Fame, and a Flame award, for her contributions to social justice, from the Chinese for Affirmative Action. I was the MC at both events, and found Chan to be a delight. At each event, she had tables of supporters, cheering her on and attesting to her popularity. And I'm sure those were only two of many awards and honors. Good going, Gwen.

I'M A PEOPLE PERSON: What a long, strange life I've had. Latest proof: Look at the People magazine "Wedding Extra" issue now on the newsstands. It's devoted to interesting and odd stories about weddings; pictorials of weddings with numerous bridesmaids, or dogs as part of the ceremony. Look at Page 52, and there I am, in Elvis drag, officiating a costume wedding. Another photo shows Amy Tan with her husband Lou and with her buddy, the groom's mother, Kathi Kamen Goldmark. They are all identified. I am not. Instead, in the short text box, I'm called 'an Elvis impersonator.' What an insult! I merely borrowed a sequined cape from Louis Chan , former owner of Yet Wah (where Kathi introduced me to its karaoke bar a dozen or so years ago), along with a pair of Elvis shades with sideburns pasted on.

Kathi was upset with my name not getting in there especially since I gave People the idea for the piece. But I don't care. I get plenty of mentions on AsianConnections.com, and it was reward enough to give Louis a copy of the magazine and see his response. He went around the Yet Wah bar, showing it off. 'Look! My cape's in People magazine!' he said, again and again. At moments like that, life is good.