Paging Dr. Sumchai

Pub date September 5, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan


If mayoral candidate Ahimsa Porter Sumchai were a superhero, she’d be Rescue Girl, her petite athletic form encased in a silver jumpsuit and cape as she swooped in, using her understanding of complicated medical and scientific issues as her secret weapon, to save high-risk communities from environmental racism, economic disenfranchisement, and social displacement.

Instead, she’s the candidate who claims to be thankful her name was excluded from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Aug. 11 coverage of the mayor’s race, in which Gavin Newsom’s challengers were dissed as a peanut gallery of lunatics.

"I’m glad the Chronicle did not disrespect me in the context of ‘a chicken, a wolf, and a grasshopper’-style jokes, like the race is a big laugh," says Sumchai, 55, as I pick her up at the corner of Third Street and Palau Avenue, which lies a stone’s throw from Sumchai’s campaign headquarters in the heart of Bayview–<\d>Hunters Point and a five-minute drive from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund site at the Hunters Point Shipyard.

This intersection was the main drag for Navy operations when the shipyard was active, Sumchai explains as we pass rows of tightly packed houses and a sprinkling of churches — including Grace Tabernacle Church, which has recently become a rallying point for hundreds of residents concerned about exposure to toxic asbestos dust at Lennar Corp.’s Parcel A redevelopment work site at the shipyard.

Sumchai has made that exposure a central focus of her campaign.

"When I become mayor, Lennar will shut down at Parcel A, and I will establish a plan that includes a human safety component and testing of potentially exposed residents," says Sumchai, who also opposes what she calls "the dirty transfer of the shipyard," through which Newsom has proposed folding Candlestick Point into the shipyard so he can build a stadium for the 49ers — and Lennar can build 6,500 more condos at Candlestick.

Sumchai, whose grandparents came from St. Louis in 1939 and whose father was exposed to asbestos when he worked as a shipping clerk at the shipyard, is an academic success story, emerging from the Sunnydale housing project to graduate from UC San Francisco medical school in 1982.

But while Sumchai is incredibly bright, her eggheadedness sometimes seems to get in the way of letting her make concise, down-to-earth statements. Instead, she often comes across as if she spent too much time in the library, a trait that can leave audiences who don’t have science degrees utterly baffled and uncertain as to what point she just tried to make.

And while the odds are clearly stacked against her in the mayor’s race, Sumchai is using her candidacy to ask tough questions on behalf of a community that is beginning to rally for environmental justice after decades of exposure to pollution from two power plants, two freeways, the shipyard, and a sewage plant that impacts five percent of the city’s population with the smell of treating 80 percent of the city’s solid waste.

"To continue with activities that are harmful challenges the fundamental ethics of being a physician, says Sumchai, who practiced emergency medicine for 20 years.

It’s an experience that informs her current crusade to halt Lennar’s construction on Parcel A at the shipyard. The community’s exposure to dust adds up to "an epidemic," she says.

"It gets on their clothing. It’s airborne. And then there’s the geographic proximity to the site of exposure," Sumchai explains, gesturing to the schools, residences, and neighborhoods that lie downwind of Lennar’s site.

From Monster Park, we take the freeway, exiting at Sunnydale, where Sumchai’s family moved when she was seven.

"When we talk about ‘affordable housing,’ what we really mean is affordable to people making $80,000, while people making $12,000 to $20,000, which is the real average median income in the Bayview, have nowhere to go," Sumchai says. She argues that developers on city-owned land should be required to offer 30 percent to 45 percent of their units at prices affordable to very low-income residents.

Crime is another issue that’s important to the candidate. Sumchai, who used to take the bus from Sunnydale to the Lutheran church on Palau and still uses public transit three times a day, says the gangs she saw then had low-velocity weapons and knives, while today they potentially have access to access military assault weapons.

"The lethality of the gang activity has become enormously problematic," she says, noting that the likelihood of getting enmeshed in the criminal justice system lessens for kids involved in after-school activities more than two times a week.

Sumchai has never lived the posh, comfortable life that is often associated in the public mind with successful physicians. In fact, she’s had to be rescued herself from "critical stressors, major traumas [that] could have led me down a path that was not so productive."

In 1999, she had to surrender her medical license. As California Medical Board records tell it, a series of personal catastrophes hit, and Sumchai was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after she experienced insomnia, anxiety, emotional upwellings, and re-experienced traumatic moments "when threatened-stressed or exposed to reminders of her graphic experiences as a emergency trauma physician." These upwellings became "explosive outbursts of anger and paranoia" and contributed to Sumchai’s problems, according to her records, which indicate that she received a 116-day stint in county jail, three years’ probation, and a $200 fine for resisting arrest.

Claiming that she did not receive the medical care she needed when she was imprisoned, Sumchai says, "I have as a physician been to the mountaintop and also to the bottom of the pit in terms of my experiences of how the sick, disabled, homeless, and mentally ill are looked upon and treated."

Crediting the influences of key mentors "who had the courage to intervene and bring in resources and moral compasses," Sumchai says her medical license was reinstated in December 2005, but she has no interest or intention of returning to work in emergency or trauma operations. Today she works as a personal trainer, a sports nutrition consultant, and a fitness industry administrator in between writing for the San Francisco Bay View, meditating, doing Pilates exercises, and running for mayor.

And she’s still constantly in fights — even with her friends. Joe O’Donoghue, the fiery former head of the Residential Builders Association, hired her as a personal trainer and told her earlier this year — in confidence, he insisted to us — that former superintendent Matt Gonzalez was getting ready to enter the mayor’s race. The moment she left the gym, Sumchai called Gonzalez — and O’Donoghue promptly fired her.

For now, Sumchai is setting her sights on bringing about change by debating issues that otherwise aren’t being voiced on behalf of folks whose needs and concerns are being neglected.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story failed to note that Sumchai is a practicing physician as well as a personal trainer and nutrition consultant. She has an active medical practice in West Portal.