LOS ANGELES — Forty years ago, Tom Hsieh stepped off a boat from China with a suitcase, $400, and a Chinese/English dictionary. Today, he will step to the microphone in San Francisco's Chinatown and claim a small, but significant slice of American and Chinese history. The five-year city supervisor is the first Chinese-American to run for the mayoralty of a major, mainland American city.
``We have seen blacks and Hispanics have their day in other major cities while Asians lagged behind,'' Mr. Hsieh said in a telephone interview. No Chinese- American since Hawaii Sen. Hiram Fong in the 1960s has risen beyond local, political prominence. ``Now we are ready to charge into the mainstream,'' says Hsieh. ``My candidacy speaks well for the greatness of San Francisco and the American system.''
With a string of other such Asian firsts behind him - Chamber of Commerce board member, police commissioner, public utilities commissioner, and city arts councilor - Hsieh is seen in most corners as a viable candidate.
``He has a constituency that is a sure thing,'' says John Whitehurst, a San Francisco-based political analyst, noting that the city is 30 percent Chinese. ``And with national backing, he will be able to raise far more money than his opponents.''
Besides enlisting Jerry Austin, a national Democratic operative who ran Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, the candidacy is being supported by Chinese and Asian-American groups from New York to Los Angeles and nearby San Jose. Two recent gatherings netted $100,000 each in a single night.
``It is definitely a breakthrough at the national level,'' says Daphne Kwok, executive director of the Organization of Chinese-Americans. ``Asian empowerment has come slowly, one by one, in smaller communities. [Hsieh] will be a terrific role model for others.''
On the down side, though nearly a third of the city is Chinese, only 8 percent of them are registered to vote. ``A key part of his struggle will be to register the 40,000 [potential] Chinese voters who have not done so,'' says Alicia Wang, vice chair of San Francisco's Democratic County Committee.
``San Franciso's Chinese have never voted in a bloc,'' adds Chinese historian Daniel Chu. ``But, until now, they have had no reason to.'' In Hsieh's favor, he says, is the nation's only Chinese/English ballot.
Because there are three other candidates in the November runoff - incumbent Art Agnos, Police Chief Frank Jordan, and tax assessor Richard Hongistu - Hsieh's Asian backing may be just enough to get him into a December runoff between the top two vote getters, observers say.
``Hsieh is a sensible moderate with a strong sense of fiscal responsibility - sensitive to civil rights issues - a good analyst and conciliator,'' wrote the San Francisco Examiner.
For the current campaign, Hsieh has five major platform planks: Reduce the size of local government and balance the city budget (the current deficit is $170 million); reestablish the city as a hospitable business environment outwardly seeking jobs; find more funding for AIDS research and treatment; push for stronger public/private partnerships to solve the burgeoning homeless problem, and alleviate San Francisco's traffic problems through regional management.
For 25 years an architect with his own company, Hsieh entered full-time government service five years ago. He has been an outspoken critic of Mayor Agnos, whose approval rating has hovered at a dismal 29 percent for over seven months.
``This city has gone downhill so far so fast, it's not even funny,'' says Hsieh, rattling off a complaint list that includes inadequate management of panhandlers, city filth, and inconsistent business and environmental policies. ``All this has made the city look ridiculous.''
Hsieh has earned a no-nonsense reputation in sponsoring small but practical ordinances: anti-smoking measures, asbestos removal legislation, and crackdowns on illegal parking. But his recognition factor is just 45 percent citywide, compared with 97 percent for Agnos and 70 percent each for the other candidates. With a slight Chinese accent, he is often described as an adequate but not flamboyant speaker. He also is seen as a man of integrity, with sound management skills.
Hsieh's candidacy is being seen as somewhat of a victory before it begins. ``Because of their past oppression, Chinese have felt, why even participate?'' says Chu, a past president of the Chinese American Historical Society. ``Now that a Chinese is running for the top position in the city, they are all coming alive.''