When you're running against a politician as entrenched, powerful, and seemingly unbeatable as Boston Mayor Tom Menino, it's hard to get your supporters to proudly tout their allegiance. But Sam Yoon has done it. Stroll down Dorchester Avenue — the main drag in Boston's biggest neighborhood, and the heart of the city's Vietnamese-American community — and SAM YOON FOR MAYOR signs are everywhere: Lucky Cafe, Lan Beauty Salon, Nails Bay Supply . . . the list goes on. Clearly, this is Yoon Country.
Or is it? The problem, for those inclined to read the political tea leaves, is that the sundry businesses that seem to be in Yoon's corner also appear to be backing Menino. Take King Do, home of perhaps the best banh mi in Boston: the restaurant has one Yoon sign, but five(!) green-and-white MAYOR MENINO signs. And — just to make things even more confusing — the dueling Yoon-Menino placards have recently been joined by two more signs, in transliterated Vietnamese, touting the mayoral candidacy of Michael Flaherty, Yoon's fellow at-large Boston city councilor.
So what gives? Can Yoon — who's Korean-American, grew up in Pennsylvania, and used to live in Arlington — count on a measure of pan-Asian solidarity when city voters winnow the mayoral field down to two candidates this September? Or does Dot Ave's streetscape suggest that — Yoon's national-fundraising success with Asian-Americans notwithstanding — Boston's Asians see him as just another candidate?
Jim Spencer, Yoon's chief strategist, prefers the former perspective. "Sam's going to get great support, obviously, in the Asian community," Spencer tells the Phoenix. "As far as the signs go, Sam went down to Dorchester Ave with the head of the Vietnamese Business Association and got those signs up. And as soon as he did, Menino's Vietnamese liaison" — Diane Huynh — "called up every one of those businesses and basically threatened them."
Not true, insists Menino campaign director Emily Nowlin. "Ms. Huynh is a wonderful person who has worked tirelessly on behalf of her community, and she is a recognized leader within the Vietnamese community," Nowlin says via e-mail. "To portray her as anything but an enthusiastic supporter is a ridiculous and meritless charge." (Spencer's claim of intimidation, Nowlin adds, is "divisive and unsubstantiated.")
Over in Chinatown, meanwhile, the portents for Yoon are less ambiguous than flat-out grim. In that community — Boston's oldest Asian-American enclave — allegiance to Menino is, if not ubiquitous, fairly visible (e.g., Trans-Pacific Travel, Peach Farm Seafood, Great Taste Bakery and Restaurant). But even though Yoon worked at Chinatown's Asian Community Development Corporation before becoming a city councilor, your correspondent couldn't find a single Yoon-for-mayor sign during a recent stroll.
The good news for Yoon — such as it is — is that, if he really wants to regain the campaign-sign lead on Dot Ave, he can probably pull it off. "We're for everyone who wants to put a sign up," a young stylist at the T&T Hair Salon told me, mid-cut, earlier this week. "Just go ahead and do it!"