Alexander Mullaney: Tell me about your background.
Michael Young: I was born and raised in San Francisco. My parents were born in China and raised in Taiwan. Both their families were KMT Nationalists so after the Chinese revolution they went to Taiwan. I did four years at Lowell and went off to Berkeley and then from Berkeley went on to the Kennedy School at Harvard. After Harvard I did a number of things. The World Bank, internet start ups, and then came back to work in the Mayor’s Office for two years in the Office of Budget and Finance.
AM: Willie Brown’s office?
MY: I was in the Office of Budget and Finance where I covered departments like Municipal Transportation Agency, parking, traffic, 911. At that time, concurrently, I had also joined the Army so I signed my enlistment contract Sept. 7, 2001 and four days later we all know what happened. It was kind of a shock to me. So after the Mayor’s Office, when Willie Brown was termed out, I decided it was time to move on and I became a U.S. Diplomat and continued my army duties as a reservist. As a diplomat I served in Korea and then Afghanistan, Vietnam, Pakistan and then two years in Washington, D.C. in the Bureau of Counterterrorism. Did I send you the Washington Post article on me?
MY: OK, I’ll send that to you after this. The State Department would not allow me to serve in China but they never told me why. It’s part of being perceived as too Asian or too Chinese even though I’m 100 percent an American citizen. When you read the article you’ll see there are a lot of Chinese American diplomats who are not allowed to serve in China. So it’s a discrimination issue.
AM: Why run now?
MY: I think it was a confluence of all things. The timing has worked out for me. Now was a time that I wanted to come back, it happens to be an election year, I have roots in districts 1, 3 and 7 and ended up finding a place in District 7. I wanted to be able to offer myself to the people of San Francisco. I want to contribute and serve so this is an opportunity.
AM: So you have family in District 7?
MY: No, because I went to Lowell. I have a lot of friends here in the Sunset, but I grew up in Chinatown and Nob Hill. For me San Francisco is one city. The districts are a political creation.
AM: What do you think about participatory budgeting?
MY: I think it’s an interesting idea. I don’t know how it’s working, as a prior budget analyst I understand how complicated some of this issues can get. If people have the time and expertise to contribute to the process I think it could be positive but at the same time the people elect public officials to do the work for them. I can’t say one way or another because I don’t know how it has been working but, as I understand it, officials have been elected to do that job and I’m wondering why the people who elected him want additional say.
AM: Homelessness in the district. What have you seen and what would you do?
MY: There are no easy answers to this. People have a lot of questions about how to fix city service and fix city problems and if the problems were that easy to fix, they would have been fixed already. My approach to all of the problems is to bring my prior experience in managing public institutions and teams to addressing these problems. I think the important thing in approaching a problem like homelessness or any problem in San Francisco is to do it with San Francisco values. We have to be compassionate, we have to be open, we have to be tolerant. I don’t think that people want to be homeless. I think, given a chance, they would want to be off the streets so I don’t see this as… I don’t want to vilify homeless people. I want to figure out what we can do as a community to get them off the streets basically.
AM: So you think it’s something a municipality can solve?
MY: Absolutely not, because it’s a regional problem. Homeless, by definition don’t have a home, they probably go around to different parts of the city so we need a coordinated approach and I know New York City does that as well. It’s not just NYC, it’s the state actually that coordinates homeless services across the state. So it’s not just us in this neighborhood or on this block. It’s citywide and region wide.
AM: What would you want to do on the board of supervisors?
MY: First and foremost the job of a supervisor from District 7 is to represent the interests of the people in District 7, that’s first and foremost. To make sure that consensus gets formed in the neighborhood and that consensus gets articulated to City Hall and then that opinion gets coordinated to build a consensus citywide. I think there can be a tension sometimes between one district and another but I think the priority is to make sure that the people are heard and that they have a way to influence how they are being represented in City Hall. It’s also the job of the supervisor to come back and say: “Hey, this is what is going on in the rest of the city and let’s keep that in mind because it’s not just us. What can we do to contribute to the greater good?”
AM: How would you work with the Mayor? I mean, he’s unpopular, there is a lot of tension.
MY: There’s a lot of tension. You know, being mayor’s not an easy job in a city as diverse as San Francisco. I’m sure that he’s doing the best that he can and the policies that make sense I think we should support him on. The policies that are not implementable, that rub people the wrong way, that probably won’t benefit San Francisco on a broader scale I probably won’t support.
AM: What do you make of the Affordable Housing Bonus Program?
MY: This one’s tricky. The state has basically said that developers can get waivers from the city to build higher if they allow for more affordable housing but the state didn’t say how it was going to be carried out. They let the municipalities determine that. What’s going on now is that San Francisco is trying to respond to the state’s request to find out what that policy is going to be. If the city doesn’t articulate what that policy is going to be the developers can go straight to the city planning board and request whatever they want to request. So this is actually a way for the city as well as the people of San Francisco to define, OK what’s this policy going to look like. From my perspective, a critical part of this is looping people in.
AM: What do you think of the condition of West Portal and how do you see it in five or 10 years?
MY: I came through West Portal almost every day going to school starting in 1988 to 1991. It’s not overcrowded, it’s got a good strong neighborhood feel to me. I think it’s developed gradually over the past 25 years. I don’t see a whole lot of growth in the homeless population. I’d like to see the environment maintained. It’s quaint, it’s quiet, it’s neighborhoody. But I’d also like to see successful businesses coming and staying here. I know the La Boulange closed down and now it’s just kind of empty. I think it’s important to get small businesses in here and to keep them here and to ensure it’s a business-friendly environment.
AM: Same question, Ocean Avenue.
MY: I don’t like the vape shop. The construction that happened with Whole Foods and the new apartments there, I wasn’t here for it. It seems a little less neighborhoody to me. In the past couple of years there’s a Target that came in, there’s a CVS that came in. I’d like to see Ocean Avenue maintain the small community entities and I do also know there’s an issue with crime there. So again, it’s a question of using all the resources that we have. Police, the business approval commissions, making sure the community gets input into what’s happening there. MTA is going to have an impact there as well because there’s so much traffic that goes up and down that street. So, to get anything done you have to make sure all of those players are involved.
AM: How will you win? You’ve got three opponents so far and one is an incumbent.
MY: Yeah, one is an incumbent and it’s pretty clear that… Well, I’ve heard that City Hall might need some help on District 7… I’ve heard… how do I put this diplomatically… It’s always good in a democracy for voters to have more choice. I have never met Supervisor Yee, but I do know that City Hall could use a bit more vigor on representation from District 7. I want to be able to offer that to the voters of District 7. It’s a ranked choice election, so it’s a wide open field. Anything could happen. I think it’s great that there are four people running. It’s an opportunity for the voters to express what they want even if I lose or other people lose the outcome of the vote, how that ranked choice voting ends up playing out will provide a direct expression of what the people of District 7 want. So I think it’s a great opportunity. So how will I win? Getting out there, knocking on doors, visiting businesses, listening to people’s concerns and hoping that my background and my track record is something that they would want in City Hall.
AM: Do you have any words for your opponents?
MY: Best of luck. I look forward to meeting them on the campaign trail and I think it’s great that they’re all running.
This interview first appeared in The Light’s March 2016 edition.