Meet the S.F. grandma who led the Boudin recall. She’s been a political powerhouse for decades

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Mary Jung was ready for a nail-biter.

As chair of the recall campaign against San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, she spent the past 14 months helping to flood the city with attacks on his record and mobilizing volunteers to canvass the streets.

As election day arrived on June 7, Jung braced for what she feared could be a close contest and days of vote counting. But less than an hour after polls closed, it was clear Boudin was defeated. Initial returns showed more than 60% of voters supported the recall, which dropped to 55% with most ballots counted.

“San Francisco can now move forward with new leadership that will chart a better and safer path for our city,” Jung said at a party in Del Mar bar. She wore a “Yes on H” sticker, the recall’s proposition letter, and another with an illustrated portrait of 84-year-old Thai grandfather Vicha Ratanapakdee. He was killed in January 2021, one of the victims of anti-Asian American violence that fueled Jung’s decision to start a recall.

“Asians have stood up and said we’re not taking it anymore,” Jung said in an interview.

The high-profile triumph for Jung capped 50 years of campaign experience. The debate over public safety and progressive criminal justice reform resonated far beyond San Francisco, and Jung’s organizing put her at the apex of her influence in local politics.

Jung, 67, threw herself into the recall with the same energy that associates say has animated her across three decades in San Francisco politics. An activist with roots in women’s labor and the anti-Vietnam War movements and a Chinese American woman with no college degree, Jung has become one of the most powerful Democrats in the city and chaired the local San Francisco party for four years.

But it could be the twilight of her career. Jung has been considering retirement since before the pandemic and becoming a grandmother last year. She wants to be remembered in a simple way: “I did something meaningful” to help others, Jung said.

Jung’s victories and nine-year career as government affairs and community relations director at the San Francisco Association of Realtors have made her the nemesis of the city’s progressive faction. San Francisco Democrats agree on virtually all hot-button national issues like supporting abortion, LGBTQ rights, undocumented immigrants and gun control. But moderates like Jung and progressives are often at war over corporate regulation and taxation and whether to restrict market-rate housing and other development. In the Boudin recall, public safety became another battleground.

For Jung, growth is good. “You can’t have social services without a healthy tax base,” she said, adding that she supports more housing at all income levels.

Recall campaign chair Mary Jung and Supervisor Catherine Stefani at Del Mar where people celebrate the initial results of Prop. H on June 7 in San Francisco. The event was supporting the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

Recall campaign chair Mary Jung and Supervisor Catherine Stefani at Del Mar where people celebrate the initial results of Prop. H on June 7 in San Francisco. The event was supporting the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Her progressive rivals say she is a corporate Democrat who represents big business and the wealthy — who donated most of the Boudin recall’s $7.2 million — at the expense of the poor.

“What I have seen over the years is this transformation into this corporate vessel who is basically looking out for the interests of developers, real estate and corporate interests,” said David Campos, who was Boudin’s chief of staff and lost an Assembly Race this year amid attacks from the California Association of Realtors. “Mary has never been for anything that goes after the financial interests of big money.

Jung said her enemies don’t know who she truly is. To understand her, you have to start at the beginning.


Jung wasn’t born into politics.

Her mother was a Chinese immigrant who grew up near the southern city of Taishan and came to the U.S. through the 1945 War Brides Act after an arranged marriage to her father, a soldier stationed in China.

The family had a flower farm at a time when Silicon Valley was known for its produce rather than its tech exports. Jung, born in 1954 around Palo Alto, remembers her mother cooking three meals a day, raising her children, sewing clothing and working the fields.

When Jung was 6, her parents divorced and her mother remarried and relocated the family to Cleveland — where the city’s Chinatown was only a quarter of a block, with two restaurants and two stores.

As one of only a few Asian American students in a high school class of around 600, Jung would hear slurs like “ching chong” and watched classmates press their fingers to slant their eyes in her presence.

Initially, Jung thought she was “unlovable” and not understanding social cues. It wasn’t until she was 23 that she read a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on anti-Asian discrimination. “Oh, some people are just racist,” she realized. Before, “it didn’t occur to me. I didn’t understand the word ‘racism’ or the word ‘discrimination.’ I just knew I was hurt.”

After graduating, Jung took a bus to register for local college classes and arrived at a stop next to the Cleveland campaign office of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. She started talking to staff and was energized by McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War and advocacy for universal health care.

“This is just so much more interesting than what I’m about to do,” Jung recalls thinking. She never went to college and became a full-time volunteer at age 18.

McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide, but Jung was hooked and kept volunteering on local campaigns. Her mom, not thrilled about her daughter’s decision to skip college, encouraged Jung to instead become a secretary, get married and have kids. Jung started with the first — doing clerical work at a management consultant firm, in an era when women were expected to get coffee and pick up dry cleaning for their male bosses.

Mary Jung, the former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, is a Bay Area native who got into political organizing while living in Cleveland.

Mary Jung, the former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, is a Bay Area native who got into political organizing while living in Cleveland.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

That workplace inequality sparked another path of activism as Jung joined Cleveland Women Working, a labor group that fought for better pay and benefits.

“I could see a world where women were treated for the merit of their work,” Jung said.


Jung has lived in the same three-bedroom house in Balboa Terrace since 1988, after marrying her husband, who moved them to San Francisco for his new job. The marriage didn’t work out, and Jung had to look for a new career.

She ended up returning to her activism roots after meeting Caryl Ito, who would serve on multiple city commissions. Ito encouraged Jung to work in field organizing on the 1995 mayoral campaign of then-State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

“I’ve seen her just flourish, doing the hard work in the campaign, without a lot of accolades,” Ito said of Jung.

Even in liberal San Francisco, Jung experienced racism while campaigning, with people calling her “Gook girl.” During Brown’s reelection campaign in 1999, rival campaign supporters would yell, “go back to where you came from,” a nativist insult that confused Jung, who was born in America.

After Brown’s win, Jung worked for the city as an office manager, followed by six years at PG&E on government energy efficiency programs, until she lost her job due to budget cuts. She was approached by the new CEO of the San Francisco Association of Realtors, a key power center for the city’s moderate Democrats. Working on the social issue of housing was appealing to her and she joined in 2013.

But almost immediately, a brutal housing crisis ushered in a new front for political warfare.

As soaring rents and massive tech job growth led to evictions and displacement, realtors and landlords became the city’s villains. With each new eviction, a narrative formed, despite Jung trying to find new homes for some displaced tenants: “Mary Jung is trying to throw them onto the street,” as she describes it.

“Imagine my surprise that I was now considered the devil,” Jung said.

Amid “the hyper-partisan nature of San Francisco politics, all nuance bled away,” said Jay Cheng, her deputy at the Realtors.

Cheng believes Jung’s reputation as a moderate boogeywoman distorts her. “It’s not about ideology,” Cheng said.

What motivates Jung, he said, is “real world impact.”

An example is Jung’s Welcome Home Project, which she started through the Realtors Foundation in 2015. Donors including Google, Facebook, Airbnb and the Golden State Warriors help pay for bedding, kitchenware and small appliances for formerly homeless people moving into affordable housing.

Jung does the shopping herself and is thrilled to find deals at Kohl’s to buy as many furnishings as possible.

Still, Supervisor Aaron Peskin noticed a shift after Jung and current CEO Walt Baczkowski joined the Realtors in 2013. Unlike previous leadership, Peskin can’t recall her coming to engage with him.

“Realtors are not there to work stuff out,” said Peskin, calling their approach under Jung inflexible and doctrinaire.

Jung said that many of the housing bills at the board don’t directly deal with residential sales, so they fell outside her lobbying territory. But the Realtors would act to oppose ballot measures, such as 2015’s moratorium on new market-rate housing in the Mission, which it helped defeat. At the state level, Realtors have killed proposed changes to the controversial Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants if they exit the rental business.

“There is no negotiation once it’s set for the ballot,” Jung said. “I am not shy about my pro-housing views and it’s unfortunate that many proposals and decisions by Peskin and the Board of Supervisors seek to stop new housing or make it so expensive that it’s impossible to build. Many of our problems in this city stem from this stalemate on housing.”

Though adept at promoting others on the campaign trail — she secured San Francisco campaign offices for presidential candidates Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — Jung was a reluctant candidate herself.

“Deep down, she is shy,” said her longtime friend Ito. People have asked Jung to run for District 7 supervisor in the past, but it didn’t appeal to her. Ito said Jung “would rather not be out in public and all over media, but she’s learned in order to enhance her effectiveness.”

In 2000, the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee had a vacancy and Jung was offered an appointment. The party’s governing body decides crucial endorsements for local elections and registers new voters.

It took a friend to convince her to take the seat, which would place her name on the ballot for the first time in the next election. She won, and would win for the next 20 years.


One of Jung’s consistent advantages in politics is money. The Boudin recall and its allies’s war chest of $7.2 million was one of the largest sums ever for a city ballot measure and dwarfing Boudin supporters’ $3.3 million.

Two thirds of the recall’s money, a total of $4.8 million, came from the Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Political Action Committee, an opaque group with no contribution limits that Jung has direct ties to. The same PAC also gave $483,800 to February’s successful school board recall, a quarter of that recall’s $1.9 million war chest.

In a 2020 Medium post, Jung wrote that she was the volunteer director of the Neighbors PAC, and she told The Chronicle that she only led the group during the 2020 fall campaign cycle. She said she couldn’t remember who created the PAC and described it as “long-time San Francisco residents who are concerned about the direction of our city.” Donors include Democrats such as Brandon Shorenstein, head of landlord Shorenstein Realty, the recall’s biggest contributor.

In a March 2021 filing, the PAC’s principal officer was listed as Jung’s deputy government affairs director at the Realtors, Cheng, who didn’t respond to a request for comment about his relationship with the PAC. Two nonprofit affiliates are headed by some of the PAC’s major donors, who predominantly work in real estate, finance and tech: Billionaire William Oberndorf is CEO of one nonprofit, while housing developer Nick Podell is listed as CEO of the other.

Oberndorf gave $602,000 to the recall through the Neighbors PAC and has given around $6.5 million to Republican causes and candidates, including over $4 million to Mitch McConnell’s Republican Senate Leadership Fund since 2016.

His presence sparked accusations that Jung was a puppet of conservatives, even before the recall. As head of the DCCC, Campos condemned the PAC in 2020 in a resolution for its “Republican Billionaire’s Attacks on Democratic Party-Endorsed Candidates,” a prequel of the “right-wing recall” allegations that Boudin would use.

Two California Association of Realtors committees also gave a total of $450,000 to the Boudin recall. The real estate industry cares about public safety and San Francisco’s neighborhoods, Jung said.

Jung believes the influence of big money is overstated, and sees the anger and passion of activists as the driving force of the recall. “I’d much rather Bill Oberndorf give to the recall than Mitch McConnell,” Jung said.


With Boudin vanquished, Jung hopes to spend more time with her new granddaughter and do some baking — she has won awards for cookie decorations.

If Jung does step back from politics, her allies would lose not only a power broker, but also a matriarch.

“She’s like a mother to me,” said Cheng of Jung. “There for my first marriage, divorce and second marriage. She’s godmother to my child.”

Both Ito and Cheng credit Jung for mentoring a new generation of political leaders, many of them veterans of the watershed 2011 Ed Lee mayoral election, which won a full term for the city’s first Asian American leader.

Campaign and mayoral staffers from that administration continue to be active in politics, including Jason Chan, who is director of external affairs at AT&T, and Selina Sun, who is now an aide for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Ally Medina, who is now vice mayor of Emeryville, was 23 when Jung hired her to be executive director of the DCCC in 2012, giving her experience that led to public office.

Medina credits Jung for bolstering the group’s core mission of voter registration, going to scores of events including almost all the naturalization ceremonies over four years. Almost 30,000 new Democrats signed up over four years, she said.

“If you look at the body of Mary’s work over the last couple decades — hours of unpaid labor to promote the progressive agenda — she’s not made to rest,” Medina said.

And November is coming, and another campaign is always beckoning.

Roland Li is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: roland.li@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @rolandlisf





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