SAN FRANCISCO -- He was the first Asian-American speaker pro tempore of the California Assembly and a source of pride to many in the Bay Area's thriving Chinese community. After rising to the highest ranks of the state Senate, he had a good shot at becoming California's next secretary of state.
But Sen. Leland Yee's political life effectively ended Wednesday when he was allegedly caught in a sordid web of murderous gangsters, gun runners and narcotics traffickers. And the breadth of the federal charges against him left his colleagues in the Legislature almost speechless.
"He's been a leader on human services, foster care and juvenile justice issues," said Jim Beall, D-San Jose. "For me, to see this happen to someone with that record, I just can't understand it. I can't comprehend it at all."
The Democratic Party establishment, however, never really trusted the enigmatic Yee. That much became clear when Yee failed to gain a single endorsement from a top Democrat during his unsuccessful 2011 campaign for San Francisco mayor.
Born in China, Yee came to San Francisco when he was 3. He studied at UC Berkeley and received a doctorate in child psychology from the University of Hawaii. He began his political career in 1988 on the board of the San Francisco Unified School District.
In 1996, the child psychologist was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he began pushing for open government with his Sunshine Ordinance and established his independence from Mayor Willie Brown. He carried that reputation for bucking the party line to the Assembly in 2002, but his opponents claimed and his colleagues whispered that his true allegiances were to special interests and pay-to-play politics.
Mike Nevin, a former San Mateo County supervisor who ran against Yee for state Senate in 2006, echoed a common refrain in 2011 when he told the Bay Area News Group that Yee was an opportunist with no substance.
"He's a personable enough guy," said Nevin, who died in 2012. "There's just no 'there' there."
Never a charismatic presence, Yee fueled his ascent with relentless campaigning and hard work, authoring flurries of bills in the state Capitol and getting many of them passed into law. While representing parts of San Francisco and San Mateo County in the Assembly and Senate, he focused on children's rights, the environment and education. Yee railed against the University of California regents for approving executive pay hikes during times of budget cuts and tuition increases.
But Yee's advocacy for open government, which undergirded his campaign this year for secretary of state, did not always extend to so-called sponsored bills, pieces of legislation that are written by special interests and carried by legislators. A Bay Area News Group analysis in 2010 found that Yee had passed more sponsored bills from 2007 to 2008 than any other senator, taking $22,100 in campaign contributions from private bill sponsors during that time.
By 2014, the 65-year-old Yee was allegedly involved in transactions that were far more serious. But a remark he allegedly made to an undercover agent posing as a gun runner in February in San Francisco casts a strange new light on his legislative career.
"There's a part of me that wants to be like you," Yee purportedly told the agent. "You know how I'm going to be like you? Just be a free agent out there."
Long before Wednesday, the married father of four had far less serious run-ins with the law. In 1992, he was arrested for walking out of a Hawaii store with suntan lotion in his pocket. In 1999, he was stopped twice, but not arrested, on suspicion of cruising for prostitutes in San Francisco's Mission District. The first incident was a mistake, he said, and the others were cases of mistaken identity.
As a legislator, Yee had a knack for picking high-profile fights, some of which generated death threats. Last year, a Santa Clara man with a cache of guns and explosives sent him an email threatening to kill him with a sniper rifle over a proposal to tighten California's gun laws.
Three years ago, he urged a boycott of conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh, after the media titan performed a crude imitation of Chinese President Hu Jintao. That stance generated a flood of racist messages to Yee's office. He received similar threats in 2010 after criticizing Cal State Stanislaus for giving former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin a hefty speaking fee.
Though he was known for carrying sponsored bills, he also took independent stands. In 2010, he was stripped of his title of assistant president pro tempore in the Senate after he refused to vote for the state budget, citing concerns about cuts to education and the social safety net. He was the only Democrat to vote against the budget bill.
Several Peninsula Democrats said Wednesday that Yee was an elusive figure.
"I don't think anyone knew him," said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, served with Yee for several years in the Legislature but was never close to him. She said the senator is innocent until proven guilty but called the allegations against him "regrettable."
"It's always sad for all of us in the profession," Speier said, "to see individuals who lose sight of what the public trust is all about."
Staff writer Jessica Calefati contributed to this report. Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.