The beleaguered Bayview District is a hotbed of grassroots organizers, including Supervisorial candidate Asale Chandler. Seemingly worlds apart, City Hall has made it harder for her voice to be heard.
Asale-Haquekyah Chandler doesn’t celebrate the Fourth of July. “You understand,” she says. I nod; I think I do.
As a Black Hebrew living in the Bayview District, community organizer Asale Chandler (it’s pronounced “SAH-lah”) won’t celebrate a country founded on the enslavement and disenfranchisement of her ancestors. But as a candidate for District 10 Supervisor, she’s running in part to honor the too-brief life of her late son Yalani Chinyamurindi, a victim of the gun violence she says is endemic in her community. And she’s running to make her voice known in a City that has shunted that community into a distant corner, far from the halls of power, rife with toxic soil and other health hazards.
Worst of all, she says that the city’s campaign finance laws championed as anti-corruption measures only serve to make grassroots campaigns like hers nearly impossible to run.
“It is absolutely too confusing,” she says of the various filing forms and deadlines. “The system is set up so people like me, who work with the community every day, can’t figure it out.” Her campaign, run entirely by volunteers in her neighborhood, struggled in vain to navigate the regulations to access much-coveted public financing.
When fellow District 10 candidate Tony Kelly called her to apprise her of a training session at the Ethics Commission that day, she hightailed it to City Hall. She found herself in a windowless room, bombarded by jargon, helpless and cornered.
“I don’t understand why they treat us like we’re getting ready to commit a crime, but at the same time, our campaign should just be raising money. I’ve been organizing in my community for over thirty years, and this doesn’t make any sense to me,” Chandler says. Her previous campaign for Supervisor, she explains, only raised $500 to pay for the filing fee to put her name on the ballot. “I realized it was just to get used to the idea of running, and to get my name out here.”
But in 2015, her political purpose was renewed under tragic circumstances. On January 9th, her son Yalani was shot and killed in Hayes Valley while on his way to cash his paycheck from the Benihana restaurant in Japantown. He had accepted a ride from a friend, not knowing he was hopping into a stolen car, and was one of four passengers murdered that day. The 19 year-old had just graduated high school with high marks and was preparing to attend City College.
Quite plainly, Chandler says, she’s running because her community is dying. With every question, she rolls out each point with a calm precision before her voice rises, and her drive fully manifests in a rhetorical blitzkrieg.
“I am here to speak the truth,” she declares. (Her name, she says, means truth-teller.) “Our political system is completely broken, and people are killing each other because they have nothing to live here. And I’m not here just to reform it, I’m here to abolish it—do you understand? Abolish.”
Beyond the byzantine election laws, some of her targets are specific, pernicious blights on the body politic. Behested payments, Chandler says, are the primary culprit in citywide corruption, and she’s outraged that they’re still legal. Behested payments, in which elected officials encourage public donations to local nonprofits, have been criticized as a legal form of bribery by political transparency advocates, because the donations are unlimited and technically don’t benefit politicians, but may be doled out to well-connected allies.
Much like campaign finance laws, behested payments were recently restricted by new legislation from the Ethics Commission, but only by expanding the definition to hamstring grassroots fundraising—not to curb unlimited quid pro quo deals.
More broadly, Chandler also calls to abolish the prevailing paradigm of dysfunctional representative democracy in City Hall. Rather than a hub for city services and constituent outreach, to her it has become an inaccessible ivory tower. What she proposes instead would outrage every political insider in San Francisco.
“First of all, people should have longer than two minutes to give public comment to the Board of Supervisors. I want them to have five,” Chandler says. Seeing the eyes bulging on this author’s wearied face, she continues: “I know people will say it slows down meetings, that it will make them longer—but City Hall should be a place where people can go to get the help they need. You should be able to walk in and be connected to services. People are out there having mental breakdowns on the street, and where do they go?”
Conversely, Candler argues that the Board of Supervisors should not primarily meet in City Hall in the first place.
“Our elected representatives should come to us, and talk to the people. They should have to come to the neighborhoods where they never go—come to each district and hear from the people what they really need.” Her slogan, “Common Ground,” is emblazoned on several paintings throughout her apartment, and she means it more literally than most: she wants Supervisors to literally find common ground with their constituents by meeting them where they are.
Chandler adds that if neighborhoods can host the Board of Supervisors, then City Hall can be an effective center for accessing health services, job training, and other necessities. It clear from her campaign style that she believes a more disperse, locally-focused approach could rebuild political trust.
Rather than everyone having to go downtown to voice their grievances, City Hall should come to them; rather than raising money, she knocks on doors.
Chandler cites former Supervisor Sophie Maxwell as a mentor who taught her the ins and outs of community organizing. Like her, she says, Maxwell’s campaign office was her home.
Though the entrance to her apartment is adorned with posters and newspaper clippings promoting newly-elected Mayor London Breed, a symbol of San Francisco’s dwindling African-American population, Chandler says she can’t comment on any expectations for the new leader.
“I can’t say if London Breed will do what she’s set out to do. That’s on her, and it’ll take much more than the Mayor’s office,” she explains. “I can’t promise you that I could get it done either—all I can do is speak for the people, and play my part.” And to her, speaking her truth is the first step in healing San Francisco’s malaise. Echoing the national mood historians record in the late 1970s, she speaks not just of poverty, inequality, and suffering, but a general degradation of the spirit.
“People are walking around like living corpses. We’re dead inside—each and every one of us is responsible,” Chandler declares, indicting the City’s entire zeitgeist in one fell swoop. “We don’t have spirituality in our lives. That’s what’s hurting us. I’m not talking about religion, I’m talking about spirituality. If you don’t live for something outside of yourself, then what are you living for?”
For Chandler, the Herculean effort of advocating for the Bayview is redeemed by the smallest details. Neighbors putting her campaign fliers up on their doors. An old man recognizing her face from her signs.
“He came out of his car, pointed to the flier on his windshield, and he said, ‘I recognized you from your smile. It made my day.’ And that made my day, too,” she reminisces.
After our interview, she brings her guest to the foyer where, nestled prominently before the display of Mayor London Breed’s campaign signs, is a large photo of Yalani in ceremonial garb. Admiring the grace in his pose, this author suggests that her son would be proud of her hard work today.
“His teachers told me I was his hero,” Chandler says, beaming. She picks up an elaborate stamped certificate from the table, an award Yalani received for academic excellence just months before his death.
Some questions are best left unanswered, but one has to wonder: who is the hero for whom?
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