Rose Pak is Winning

rpI’ve got the cover story in December’s San Francisco magazine: a profile of Rose Pak, Chinatown activist, community leader, and power-broker extraordinaire. This was a fun one to report and write.

PAK HAS BEEN general consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce since the 1980s, but the title hardly does her justice. She is a confidante of mayors, a consumate political infighter who can get people hired or fired, and one of the leaders of a Chinatown-based political machine that has helped elect generations of local politicians. Most famously, of course, Pak and Brown engineered Lee’s ascension to the mayoralty in 2010, making him the city’s first Asian American to hold the position.

Pak’s political enemies—and they are legion—have their own loaded terms to describe her. They see her as a Chinatown “godmother,” ramming through policies that benefit her friends and punish her enemies. They say that she’s corrupt, dictatorial, an all-around nasty piece of work. Even the extent of her power is the subject of much debate in political circles. Sometimes she revels in her notoriety, but mostly she down-plays her influence. “Power,” she likes to say, “is an illusion.” If so, a lot of people can’t take their eyes off the shadow on the wall.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS after the banquet, I find myself careering down a steep fairway in a golf cart at the Olympic Club, the old-line, members-only golf course out on the city’s southwestern edge. It’s a rare bluebird day with a light breeze off the ocean—perfect for the charity tournament Pak has organized here for the last 18 years to benefit Chinese Hospital. She has already raised $25 million for the hospital’s rebuilding. Today will bring in another $720,000.

Pak is in the cart ahead with the mayor, who drives hunched over the wheel as if fleeing a bank robbery. At the wheel of my cart is David Ho, a 35-year-old community outreach manager with the CCDC and one of Pak’s closest associates. Periodically, Lee and Pak stop to chat with golfers beerily playing their way through a round. At one stop, Pak yells to a man about to tee off, “Hey, you need a mulligan? We’re selling them for 125 bucks a pop!” She laughs—ahuh-huh-huh-huh, like a muscle car backfiring—and then they’re off again.

Photo by the great Jim Hughes, who also shot the legendary “Aaron Peskin in a Speedo” photos that ran with my profile of the supervisor back in 2007.