Instead of becoming the first Chinese American to serve on the Board of Regent to the University of California system, Dr. Lester Lee became the first nomination in the state's history to be denied confirmation by the state Senate. Republican Governor Pete Wilson's first regent appointment of a Chinese American was denied confirmation by the Democratic controlled Rules Committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer. The Senate had one year to act on the governor's nomination. The Rules Committee acted five days before the year was up.
On the final day, a floor fight and roll call vote supported the denial. No Democratic senator voted in favor of confirmation and no Republican senator voted against the confirmation. The lone independent senator, Quentin Kopp of San Francisco, also sided with the Democrats in denying Lee's confirmation. Senator Al Alquist, representing the San Jose area, was one of the Democratic senators who abstained from voting. Tom Campbell, Republican senator representing the northern end of Silicon Valley, was out of town and did not participate in the roll call. The final margin was 19 against Lee, 15 in favor and 6 not voting.
Senator Alquist was a supporter of Lee's confirmation. He abstained in the strict party line vote as did 4 others. To go against the Rules Committee when it is controlled by ones own party is to commit political suicide. The powerful committee is chaired by Senator Bill Lockyer, representing the east bay cities south of Oakland extending down to Milpitas. Nicholas Petris representing Oakland and Ruben Ayala from southern California make up the 3-2 Democratic majority.
On the Tuesday following the final Senate action, a press conference was held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to protest this action. Organized by Dr. John Tsu, Chairman of Asian American Political Education Foundation, over twenty Chinese or Asian American organizations turned out to show their support for Lee. A parade of representatives of these organizations stepped forward to the microphone to voice their views.
"This is an outrage and an insult to Asian Americans, that the Senate would reject such a highly qualified individual through political gamesmanship," said Dr. Tsu in his opening remarks. "All Chinese Americans and Asian Americans should hold their Senators accountable for the votes they cast against Dr. Lester Lee and the community."
Larry Lo, Presiding President of the Chinese Six Companies, said: "It is ironic that it was Democrats, who have long held themselves out as the friends of the Chinese Americans, who were the ones to kill the appointment." He concurred with Dr. Tsu by claiming that such disregard for Chinese Americans will not be forgotten in his community.
Oakland harbor commissioner, John Loh pointed out that Chinese Americans have waited for almost 100 years to have representation as a regent. "The Democratic Senators action in killing the appointment is a slap on the face of all Chinese Americans," he declared.
The San Francisco based Chinese for Affirmative Action chairman, Henry Der, a Democrat, said: "The actions of the Democratic Senators completely violated the very principles of the Democratic Party."
The reason given by the Democratic Senators was Lee's casting votes in favor of raising student fees, while serving as regent pending confirmation. In the Rules Committee letter to AAMA, Lee's rejection was because of lack of "independence essential in these times." By calling Lee a rubber stamp of the UC administration, this unprecedented action was intended to show their opposition to any further increase in student fees.
Republican Senator Ken Maddy, from Fresno, pointed out that there were no hint of any dissatisfaction with Lee's performance as a regent until the very last moment. In fact, Senator Lockyer was a member of the selection committee which in its advisory capacity had approved the confirmation of Lee only two days previous to the denial action. His conclusion was that Lee became a victim of the political struggle between the Democratic Senators and the Republican Governor.
The Democratic Senator Alquist agreed. In his letter to AAMA, he said: "The (Rules) Committee's action in refusing confirmation of Dr. Lee as a University of California Regent was a shameful political action on their part, motivated by a wish for retaliation against Governor Wilson."
Lee himself was rueful in retrospect. "What I did as regent may not always please the elected officials in Sacramento," he said, "But I deeply believed that what was good for the UC system should be my first consideration." He admitted that as this experience showed, he was a political innocent because he had no idea that the regent position was so political and that he was on the way to a political ambush.