In Pursuit of Public Service
I first became an elected official at the age of 29. To say that it was not what I had planned is an understatement. At the time, the supervisor representing District 4 was removed from office as investigations into his possible criminal actions moved forward. Shortly after, on a typical Monday afternoon, I can remember Gavin Newsom, who was mayor at the time, taking a seat on a wooden chair right outside my office cubicle. I was not sure why he started asking about my family nor why he asked about my interest in public policy, but the next day, on September 25, 2007, I was sworn-in, answered questions at my first press conference, and took the first vote as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Even though it was an abrupt transition for a behind-the-scenes policy nerd, four successful elections later, I can say that it has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my life.
During my time with the city, and in every role I have served, whether as an analyst, deputy budget director, supervisor, or assessor, I’ve had the enormous fortune to work with smart and dedicated public servants who want to do what is best for San Francisco. I believe public service is about doing what you believe will help, even if it is hard. It is about caring about the details, how programs will work, who is served, and how we finish something we start.
Roots of My Values
My family is my inspiration to serve. When my parents moved to the United States forty years ago, they could not speak English and had no friends or family to lean on as new immigrants. With little money, my mom went to work right away in sewing factories, often taking work home at night. My dad worked long hours in the kitchens of local Chinese restaurants. And when they were not working, they pulled together enough resolve to stick with learning English at “adult school” so that they could eventually take the test to become citizens.
To this day, I am not sure they realize how brave they were to completely uproot their lives, leave their own families behind, and raise a family in a foreign place. To my parents, there was no other option but to save every penny, to take out small business loans, and risk everything in order to open up a family restaurant to support their children. They never looked back despite being robbed at gunpoint multiple times at the restaurant. They never looked back despite being victims of violence during the Los Angeles riots. I do not believe they thought anything they did was brave, because as they say to us now, it was just a matter of survival.
Although my parents have long since retired, the experiences we have shared as a family have shaped my public service. My parents taught me about sacrifice and achieving goals. I learned from them the importance of treating people with respect because I witnessed firsthand how they were mistreated for speaking with an accent.
The Challenge of Public Service
That is why I am concerned with an erosion of trust I see between community and government. Cynicism grows when we believe our government does not represent us, when we believe government does not listen to us and when we see failure of government to address some of our most basic public needs.
In 2008, we elected our first African American President, and I went to every newspaper stand I could find. I wanted to make sure I could hold on to a piece of history for a day that represented hope, possibility and progress. Last November, the pendulum swung the other way, and now I stand in resistance. I stand in resistance to the sentiment that immigrants are the source of our problems—I believe they are our strength. I stand in resistance to the normalization of intolerance and to the notion that public policies should be simplified down to what fits within 140 characters or less. Fixing our largest problems will be hard and we need varied approaches and honest and open conversation about our challenges, options and tradeoffs.
Giving up on governing is not an option. Yes, private industry has changed our lives in dramatic ways, but it is government that first sets the stage for that to happen. Government also shapes opportunities for our communities in areas that may be overlooked—the need to support public education speaks to this idea.
So, we begin to combat cynicism by acknowledging we do not have all the answers and that we can and we should do better. That self-evaluation and improvement begins with ourselves. When I became assessor, I took on a new responsibility from managing a staff of two to leading a 170-plus person organization that is responsible for $2.6 billion in annual revenues. The Great Recession hit our office hard—we struggled to resource our office to do our work, we had a backlog in assessments of over three years and taxpayers felt the consequences of years of catch-up bills suddenly arriving in the mail. My job was to turn that tide. To do that, we viewed every problem as an opportunity and met every change, every position request, every new process with questions like: Will this help the organization run better? Will this improve services? Is this sustainable? With focus, our investments are bearing fruit—we have implemented new technologies to improve our work, we have revamped our public information to provide more transparency, our assessment-appeals backlog is at the lowest we’ve seen since 2010, and we’ve cut the time to work new assessments by half.
Recruiting Public Engagement
When I speak to young people, I hope they see the value and impact of public service and government. We hire firefighters, in-home caregivers, analysts, doctors, appraisers, scientists, teachers, accountants, animal care professionals, planners and lawyers. We run a regional water delivery system, an international airport, two hospitals, health clinics, a zoo, public golf courses, a transportation system, libraries; support child care; foster arts; and promote film production on the beautiful streets of San Francisco. We ensure workers are treated fairly, we adjudicate disputes and we create plans for the city we want to see.
In my role, I am mindful that I can make a difference in people’s lives and I see that I have a responsibility to be relentless in pursuit of inclusion so that regardless of a person’s religious affiliation, gender orientation, background or ability to speak English, they feel welcome here in San Francisco. In my view, this is what government stands for.
Carmen Chu is the elected Assessor-Recorder of the City and County of San Francisco.