As San Francisco’s new city administrator, Carmen Chu is building on an unflappable career in public service.
Most public officials have a calling card — think Barack Obama’s soaring oratory or Gavin Newsom’s command of statistics. Since entering San Francisco politics in her 20s, Carmen Chu has leaned on something specific — integrity — and it’s led to a long list of firsts.
Over the course of nearly two decades in local government, Chu’s attributes have been consistently praised — “high standards” … “dedicated” … “kind” — as has her reputation as a model public servant. She was the only Asian American assessor elected in California and the first Asian American woman to occupy the position of city administrator, a role she stepped into two months ago. She was an early advocate for same-sex marriage, a proponent of tenant protections for domestic violence victims and a staunch supporter of small businesses. She’s also the only female co-chairing the Economic Recovery Task Force, created to help the City bounce back in the aftermath of the pandemic.
But before Chu made a name for herself in politics, a historic event left a personal mark. “My parents had a restaurant in South Central Los Angeles during the [Rodney King] riots,” Chu quietly tells me over Zoom as her toddler daughter, Kaley, naps nearby. “I was in middle school, and on the first day of the riots, my parents were held up at gunpoint on their way home from work. Eventually they made it home — their car had been stolen but they were able to get a ride.” During those precarious times, the family feared their business — and only source of livelihood — would be burned down.
At the same time, Chu began to pay close attention to conversations around her. “In school, our teachers started talking about the failures of government and institutional barriers where we were failing to create opportunities for people of different races and how we could correct for that,” she says. “It was a direct result of the riots that I was able to get a scholarship to Occidental College that brought in kids from the inner city to pursue public policy. It really informed me at a young age that if we get it right in government, we can truly make a difference in people’s lives.”
The Southern California–born daughter of Hong Kong immigrants moved to the Bay Area in 2001 to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at UC Berkeley. After graduation, she joined San Francisco Mayor Newsom’s administration as deputy director of the office of public policy and finance. But a 2007 political scandal would propel her into a new direction: Following the alleged misconduct and suspension of District 4 Supervisor Ed Jew, Newsom immediately appointed Chu to fill the vacant seat. When that term expired the following year, Sunset and Parkside voters elected Chu as their supervisor, and went on to reelect her to represent the district through 2013.
“At the forefront of her decisions is always how something will help improve the lives of the people she’s serving,” says Katy Tang, who worked alongside Chu for six years and later became her successor as D4 supervisor. “She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty — her first month in office, she painted a public bathroom and helped plant trees. And she never just showed up at the beginning of events to say a few words and leave — she always stayed the whole time to get to know the neighbors.”
She feels strongly that when you’re in a position to help, and in a role where you have the tools to change the system, you’re obligated to do so. Katy Tang, former supervisor
While Chu’s early political ascent may have seemed effortless, she says she struggled with racism in the wake of Jew’s transgression — an issue that is back in the news as a surge of anti-Asian violence has erupted in the Bay Area.
“Race and how we exist in this country is still very much oriented around how we look,” Chu says. “When I first ran for supervisor, I faced a lot of stereotypes about Asian electeds because of the corruption issues that existed. The challenge was how to step beyond that. You can say, ‘I’m not that way, that’s not me,’ but some people don’t want to hear that, and that wouldn’t change their minds anyway. The best thing to do is … demonstrate who you are as an elected and start to paint a different narrative of what it means to be in public service.”
Tang says she relates to Chu’s upbringing as the daughter of immigrants and how it influenced her friend’s professional path. “When you feel the system can’t work appropriately to help people that might not speak English perfectly, it becomes ingrained in you to want government services — and especially taxpayer dollars — to work for them. … [Chu] would answer every phone call and respond to every email herself and talk to people directly. She feels strongly that when you’re in a position to help, and in a role where you have the tools to change the system, you’re obligated to do so.”
Supervisor Aaron Peskin has witnessed firsthand Chu’s commitment to the public, and how it sets her apart from other politicians. “We were not always on the same side of issues, but when we did disagree, she had the maturity to disagree as a matter of public policy — it’s never personal,” he says. “She’s kind, caring, whip-smart. You call her, she calls you back in 10 minutes; you send her an email, she responds in the same day. I had an email from a constituent a few weeks ago who needed a document recorded having to do with the death of a parent. I put him in touch with her directly and she personally dealt with it in an hour.”
After two terms on the Board of Supervisors, Chu was appointed, then elected, city assessor, generating over $3 billion in annual revenues for vital services and public education. But her course changed again in January of this year, when Mayor London Breed nominated Chu to serve as city administrator, the highest-ranking nonelected position in San Francisco government, just two days after then-City Administrator Naomi Kelly announced her resignation following allegations that her husband, former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager Harlan Kelly, accepted bribes from a contractor.
When asked how she deals with the pressure of taking on a role shrouded in past controversy, Chu, who was sworn in on February 2, stays positive: “The vast majority of people working in government believe in public service and are doing the right thing every single day — we need to remember that,” she says. “There will always be folks who are tempted to concentrate on the negative, and that’s OK — let’s find out all of our weaknesses. I’m not the kind of person who wants to sweep things under the rug; I want to understand what our challenges are and be transparent about how we address them.”
Political consultant Maggie Muir, who managed a number of Chu’s campaigns, notes, “Carmen is someone who is unique in that she encompasses different parallel attributes. She’s an incredibly hard worker but she also has a good political sense — even in an office that’s not elected, you need to understand the politics that go on and understand the players and the impact your work has on people and communities outside of City Hall, and she has a really good sense of that.”
Muir believes Chu’s down-to-earth warmth is integral to her appeal. “She’s just very kind and generous and a very funny person — I’m not sure people know that about her,” Muir says. “She loves a good time and a good joke, and she’s really just a pleasure to be around. And I hope I’m not revealing a big secret, but I always found it funny that she had a candy closet — it was kind of like walking into Willy Wonka’s closet.”
Chu’s political savvy and seemingly universal approval has some speculating as to whether she plans to one day vie for the City’s most powerful position. “I know that a few years ago, when there was an open mayor seat, she definitely considered it,” Peskin says. “But I bet if you asked if she had any thoughts about running, she would say — and sincerely so — that she is laser-focused on being the city administrator and that’s all she’s thinking about.”
Muir agrees that Chu prioritizes the tasks at hand rather than plotting a political trajectory. “Some people get frustrated because they like their politicians to be definitive and quicker about their own future plans,” she says. “She’s someone who, to her credit, isn’t moved by that — she’s very thoughtful about the actions in front of her.”
As Chu prepares for the challenges ahead, which include the COVID vaccination rollout and rehabilitation of downtown and the City’s hard-hit tourism industry, she’s reflective on the journey that’s led her here. “If you ask my parents, they would be incredibly surprised I’m in this role because when I was a little girl, I was incredibly shy — a total introvert,” Chu says. “One of the things they taught me is: This might be scary, this might be a very public role you never saw [yourself] in, but if you can do the next right thing and take that next right step — even if there’s criticism coming at you — then you can feel good about where you are.”