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San Francisco's Last Elected Republican Faces Test

Fang at a recent BART meeting
Fang at a recent BART meeting
James Fang, a BART board member for 20 years, has a strong challenger this year

Out of San Francisco’s 41 elected leaders — from Mayor Gavin Newsom to the 11-member Board of Supervisors, from the school board to the city attorney to the assessor — there is but one Republican.

That is James Fang, who has served on the Bay Area Rapid Transit board for 20 years, overseeing the trains that each day carry more than 300,000 commuters over 104 miles of track. The pugnacious, well-connected son of the powerful Fang family, which once published the San Francisco Examiner and Asian Week, has been re-elected for five straight terms.

“It’s muscle memory: The Fang family is known in San Francisco, and he’s been elected a million times before,” said David Latterman, president of Fall Line Analytics, a political consulting firm in San Francisco. “Truly he is an anachronism; he’s like a dodo or dinosaur.”

San Francisco’s last Republican is now facing his biggest challenge.

In November, Fang, who is serving as BART board president for the third time, is facing Elbert Hill, an energetic Democrat and a self-described “transit geek” who has piled up several endorsements. And with recent headlines like the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white BART police officer, and a controversial plan to build a $500 million connector to Oakland International Airport, the down-ballot race is drawing more attention this year.

“I started seeing signs and hearing talk about it a lot earlier than usual,” said Jim Ross, a Bay Area political consultant.

Fang, 48, does not appear anxious about losing his position. He seems especially at home in the BART boardroom. At last Wednesday’s board meeting he joked and pretended to scuffle with Bob Franklin, another board member, as the two crossed paths behind the wooden dais.

Fang is known as a decisive leader, who can round up votes and use his political connections to push through projects. He is also known for standing by friends and family members, and for his unpopular ideas, like his failed attempt to use this year’s surplus to give a temporary 5-cent fare break ahead of the election.

“Regardless of what people say about James Fang,” he said in an interview this week, “they do have to acknowledge that at least I know transit, and that’s good for San Francisco and quote-un-quote Asian-Americans.”

Officials from San Francisco’s lonely Republican Party were more than pleased to endorse Fang for re-election.

About 10 percent of the city’s voters are registered Republican. There are rarely any serious party candidates in local races. Howard Epstein, chairman of the local party, said that moderate Democrats sometimes asked for help on their campaigns, but that most refused any public endorsement as a kiss of death.

Michael J. Antonini, a Republican who serves as an appointed official to the San Francisco County Planning Commission, added, “The thing people say a lot is that you feel like you have to be closeted.”

Fang said he was “happy and proud to be with the G.O.P.” but played down his affiliation. In a measure of his influence, Fang has the backing of the state’s most powerful Democrats, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker.

Fang’s district uniquely conforms to his political leanings. It curls around the edge of the notoriously liberal city, encompassing its most conservative voters and the largest Asian neighborhoods — the Sunset, the Richmond and Chinatown.

Fang was in Chinatown last Sunday, campaigning at his family association’s Mid-Autumn Festival celebration in a darkened second-story ballroom. As hundreds dined on soup and squab, Fang thanked his supporters. Later, he sang a Chinese ballad from the karaoke machine, to applause.

“He must be up for re-election,” said one diner, joking.

Family has always been an important part of Fang’s influence. In May, his brother, Ted, who runs the popular Asian Heritage Street Celebration, complained to the board about BART’s partnership with the event. He was upset that BART did not feature the event in its e-newsletter and said the art used in BART’s promotional poster was inappropriate.

At the meeting, James Fang demanded that BART’s general manager, Dorothy Dugger, address the matter.

Dugger responded with a memo that noted that the amount of promotion “exceeds other comparable BART partnership deals,” offering both free ad space to the board president’s brother and in-train posters that “distinguish this deal from all other BART single-day-event partnerships.”

Fang said his actions at the meeting were not about his brother. “To ignore community events like this is not in the best interest of BART,” he said. “I will give them a little bit of a break because they’re white and they probably don’t understand how important it is for Americans of Asian ancestry to be valued.”

Fang’s opponent, Hill, a former Bechtel engineer who runs a consulting firm called Bicycle Commuter Services, is mounting a direct challenge to Fang’s leadership. Hill, 62, said less money should be spent on big construction projects and more on maintenance, cleaning and connecting BART to buses and shuttles.

“They’re too suburb, they’re too parking lot; they’re too focused on automobiles,” Hill said of the BART leadership. “They need to focus the money on catching up on deferred maintenance.”

The difference between the two candidates is best summed up by the Oakland Airport Connector project, a tram that will connect the Oakland Coliseum BART station to the airport.

Fang strongly supports the project, which he lauded as creating jobs. Hill described the connector as “wasteful” and said a rapid bus line would cost less and be just as effective. Hill said the goal of such projects should be sound transit policy first, then jobs.

Fang said that Oakland had long needed the connector, but added that jobs were an important part of BART’s mission.

Fellow board members said Fang’s political connections could be a boon to BART. This month, the board was concerned about lining up financing for the Oakland Airport Connector, after the Federal Transit Administration pulled $70 million in stimulus financing because it found BART was not in compliance with civil rights laws.

Fang persuaded Senator Feinstein and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to lobby on BART’s behalf. The lobbying resulted in a letter from federal officials indicating that they may provide some money for the project.

“When you run into a snag of some sort, James Fang knows a lot of people,” said Thomas Blalock, a board member.

With the election less than two months away, local Republicans know that they are facing a pivotal moment.

Asked how he would feel if Fang were defeated, Epstein, the local Republican Party chairman, responded, “Really bad.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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