“If people want to think I am stupid,” says the board president, “then fine. I will outmaneuver them because they think I am stupid.”
Like his fellow Galileo High alum across the hall, Mayor London Breed, Supervisor Norman Yee has come an awfully long way without coming very far at all.
He was born in Chinatown, not quite two miles from City Hall and, starting at around age six, went to work in his family’s grocery store at 15th and Noe. He also worked alongside his father in a side gig as a janitor at a nightclub on Broadway (as an adult, Yee’s educational nonprofit actually bought this building and ran a daycare out of it. Upon walking in, he instinctively wandered over to the urinals he used to clean out as a child).
Yee struggled with a speech impediment and was quick to his fists when teased about it. He learned to keep quiet (he’s still quiet). He was a marginal-at-best student who, admittedly, read his first book in high school. Colleagues and authority figures alike pegged him as inarticulate and none-too-bright — a man with limited horizons. Even his own family didn’t understand why he’d pursue a diploma.
Just do your job. Just go to work.
Yee blossomed at City College. He earned admission to the University of California at Berkeley and completed a Master’s at San Francisco State. As executive director of Wu Yee Children’s Services, he expanded revenue by a factor of 50. He was elected to the Board of Education. He was elected president of that body. He was elected to the Board of Supervisors. And, now, he has been elected president of that body.
Norman Yee currently occupies the plum second-floor corner office at City Hall. He has come a long way. But he also hasn’t come very far at all: Colleagues and authority figures still peg him as inarticulate and none-too-bright.
Yee smiles. He’s 69, a grandfather. He doesn’t punch detractors in the face anymore.
Let them do that to themselves.
“If people want to think I am stupid,” he says, “then fine. I will outmaneuver them because they think I am stupid. If they want to think I am weak, that is part of the strength I have.”
(When asked if portrayals of him as weak, passive, and inept played into Chinese stereotypes, Yee answered a rapid and unambiguous “yes.”)
For much of his life, people have treated Yee a bit like he’s Chauncey Gardiner, the Peter Sellers character in Being There, a feeble-minded, inarticulate man who somehow bumbles upwards into ever-greater positions of power and influence.
But the more apt comparison may be Detective Columbo — a man whose appearance and demeanor led rivals to underestimate him.
“You let people lead themselves in a certain direction of how they’ll work with you and treat you,” Yee explains. “They assume things and assume there are things you are probably not capable of doing.”
Yee glances around his corner office, which is cluttered with half-unpacked boxes containing ephemera from his long history of being underestimated.
“And, all of a sudden, I’ve got it done.”
He asked his colleagues to vote for him. They did.
Whisperings that Yee cut deals in exchange for votes seemed especially implausible after his committee assignments came out last week. Yee straightforwardly created the most progressive-leaning board committees since 2010, with assignments in part weighted by seniority.
Yee also placed erstwhile presidential challenger Hillary Ronen atop the Rules Committee and, additionally, as a member of the Budget Committee. Among his progressive colleagues, the latter assignment was seen as not only an olive branch but a good personnel move. “She was a legislative aide before she was a supervisor; she knows what she’s doing,” said one. “This reflects Norman’s ability to respect her abilities and use her experience.”
Said another, “Hillary is probably the strongest voice for shifting wealth in this city. She will tip the Budget Committee to be stronger in shifting money and wealth.”
And yet, Yee is also amenable to shifting the wealth, i.e. taxing the wealthy to aid the less fortunate (“I think we have not pushed the limits yet,” he says, regarding revenue measures). He was a driving force behind June’s Proposition C, which boosted taxes on commercial property to fund early childhood education and wages for childcare workers.
For Yee to observe the field from the periphery while others more vociferously push for shared goals fits a decades-long pattern of subtle, counterintuitive leadership.
“We were in the room with a bunch of people and he’d say remarkably little,” recalled a colleague who worked on childhood education issues with Yee nearly 20 years ago. “But he worked behind the scenes. He had good instincts. He was the head of the whole coalition and he brought it together.”
Yee is the guy at the party who skulks along the perimeter, doesn’t say much, and takes in the whole scene. He isn’t trying to impress anyone with his smarts or policy chops (or his speechifying). His prerogative as a leader is to attempt to keep things on track rather than to drive the train; he sees himself as a human cooling rod who can prevent a meltdown when things threaten to bubble out of control. “I wait for an opportune time to be useful,” he explains.
That time may be coming shortly. The board and mayor must decide how to dole out some $185 million in “windfall” dollars, an embarrassment of riches that could devolve into an acrimonious political standoff. Or not: “It won’t be a huge mess,” Yee promises. “Because I am involved. We can probably get to an agreement even without me. And that’s okay. But if I need to step in, I will step in. And it becomes a victory for everybody.”
And, by the time the city’s next budget is sealed in June, nearly every union contract must be negotiated. Also, of note, Breed is running for re-election in November. It would certainly behoove the mayor for the former situation to go smoothly, perhaps ensuring the latter does, too.
Counterintuitively, Yee might be a more problematic board president for the mayor’s office than a more traditional, labor-friendly “progressive” legislator.
“Norman is not in the back pocket of labor,” notes a longtime collaborator. Yee won his spot on the Board of Supervisors by, in fact, defeating labor leader F.X. Crowley; he noted to me regarding another matter that “labor did not support me — like always.” Yee also expressed a desire to “challenge labor” to see past merely doing right by well-compensated public sector workers but also focusing on “childcare workers … the system does not protect them. They are earning minimum wage but they are supposed to be professionals.”
“If I were the mayor, I’d be nervous about getting a budget through this guy,” notes a veteran City Hall observer. “Norman could make for a very interesting dynamic. He’s not going to go along to get along. He’s the guy who’ll ask what’s the point of having all these well-paid public employees if we don’t have enough money left for child care and senior care?”
A longtime former colleague describes Yee — not unflatteringly — as “not an ideas guy, besides pedestrian safety and child care.” Yee would probably sign onto that. “I do not have to be the smartest person in terms of having the best idea,” he says. “My role [as board president] is to get everybody else to have the best ideas. My role is to unstick things when they’re stuck and move everything along.”
Just do your job. Just go to work.
“I don’t ask for something I don’t really want. And I don’t ask for something I don’t think I can do,” he says of the board presidency. Come back to him in a year. See if he was right.
And if he wasn’t? Yee smiles again. “Impeach me.”