Kelly Hsiao/Daily Journal
Newly elected state Sen. Leland Yee looks to make inroads in San Mateo County as he takes over for the irrepressible Jackie Speier.
The quiet, empty rooms at state Sen. Leland Yee’s San Mateo district office provide a stark contrast to the firecrackers and parade celebrating his arrival earlier this week as the first Chinese-American elected to the state Senate.
Yee, a former state assemblyman and San Francisco supervisor, was elected in November to succeed San Mateo County native Jackie Speier in state Senate District 8. He is well-known in Sacramento, but he is still settling into San Mateo County. Sitting amid a few boxes, empty desks and scattered chairs in his local office Wednesday, Yee said he is ready to make his mark on the county and in the state Capitol.
"My hallmark is going to be about families, children and seniors,” Yee said. "A slightly different audience” from Speier, who often focused on consumer rights.
Yee’s first order of business is a bill that would increase social services and improve mental health to students. The lack of well-organized mental health resources at schools is a "gaping hole” in the system. The bill could be the catalyst for a sea change in society’s attitude toward school success and mental health, Yee said.
The bill has previously stalled in the appropriations committee. This time it stands a better chance of passing because four-year Senate terms allows a larger window to fine-tune the bill before re-election. It is also easier to stump for support among 39 other senators instead of 79 assemblymembers, Yee said.
The bill speaks volumes about Yee and his background.
Yee immigrated to the United States from China at age 3. He attended San Francisco public schools. He received a bachelor’s degree at the University California at Berkeley, a master’s degree from San Francisco State University and a Ph.D. in child psychology from the University of Hawaii. He always assumed he’d retire as a child psychologist and by "happenstance” ended up making history by being the first Chinese-American elected to the state Senate.
As a psychologist in both the San Francisco School District and Oakland, Yee was active in professional committees. He and his wife, Maxine, raised four children and educated them in the San Francisco public school system. Someone suggested Yee run for school board after he spent years "pushing the envelope” to improve their children’s education.
He spent eight years on the board before being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, representing the Sunset District. He was elected to the state Assembly in 2002, spending two terms representing the western edge of San Francisco, Daly City, Colma and Broadmoor.
Yee ran a large campaign against former San Mateo County Supervisor Mike Nevin and former Assemblyman Lou Papan during this year’s Democratic primary. Both opponents battled for San Mateo County votes while Yee battled for name recognition outside of San Francisco.
Yee admits he’s learned a lot about San Mateo County during his bid for Senate including how important housing and transportation is to the community. He has even asked to be on a Senate committee focused on transportation. The county’s push for smart growth — high density housing near transit hubs — could have serious consequences if the community doesn’t address traffic a whole, including people’s continued reliance on cars, he said.
"It’s not simply about smart growth,” Yee said. "We are hoping, praying people aren’t going to drive, but they will. We have to figure out the congestion on 101.”
Yee wants to see a better bus system that will move residents east and west through the county, he said.
Although Yee was elected as one of San Mateo County’s new representatives, his relationship hasn’t always been smooth.
Yee was at odds earlier this year with the San Mateo City Council, which was upset over a proposal that would increase gambling at Bay Meadows with the implementation of "instant horseracing.” The proposal would allow patrons to bet on a randomly selected video of a historical race. A person is presented with handicap information, but doesn’t know the date of the exact race until after a bet is placed.
The bill died in committee, but nothing is ever dead in politics, Yee said.
Yee expects to be part of a conversation next month with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger regarding ways to help save horse racing. Race tracks across the state are struggling with dwindling purse sizes, smaller crowds and stiff competition from Indian casinos. Instant horseracing, however, is not expected to make a comeback. The next Indian gaming compacts drafted are expected to specifically prohibit instant horse racing, Yee said.
Yee is headed to China for three weeks with his family before the new session picks up in January.
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