Arrest of civic figure Keith Jackson in Yee case a surprise to many

He disappeared from public prominence years ago after a troubled tenure on the board and for well over a decade earned a comfortable if unassuming living as a niche player in local politics, representing candidates and corporate interests before San Francisco’s hard-pressed African American community.

His reemergence this week came in spectacular fashion, at the center of a corruption case involving state Sen. Leland Yee, a felon known as “Shrimp Boy” and allegations of drug-dealing, gun-running and murder for hire.

Few professed surprise at the charges against Yee. But Jackson’s arrest was stunning to many who knew him as a relatively honest and straightforward broker, a man genuinely dedicated to the betterment of his community and the sort who would not just make promises, like a lot of people with their palm out, but deliver on his word.

“It’s almost Walter White-esque,” said Jim Ross, a campaign strategist who worked with Jackson on several occasions, referring to the anti-hero of TV’s “Breaking Bad,” a high school chemistry teacher-turned-crystal meth manufacturer. “It’s like he had a whole secret life no one in the political world knew about.”

According to a lengthy FBI affidavit, Jackson, 49, was not only a fundraiser for Yee but also a consultant for the Ghee Kung Tong, a Chinatown organization run by Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who has a long criminal past. It was Chow, the affidavit said, who introduced Jackson to an undercover agent posing as an Italian gangster from New Jersey.

Jackson and Yee, according to the affidavit, sold political favors and discussed brokering an illegal gun deal in return for thousands of dollars to cover Yee’s debts from a failed 2011 mayoral bid and help launch a run for California secretary of state. In one of the more stunning allegations made by the FBI, Jackson, his 28-year-old son and another man were accused of plotting to kill someone in return for cash; the agent offered $25,000 but Jackson said he could do it for less.

To the extent he was known — many in San Francisco’s intimate political world said it has been years since they last heard Jackson’s name — it was as a go-between for office-seekers and developers seeking to cultivate support in the African American community. Like many cities, San Francisco has long fostered a pay-to-play culture, where money is traded, implicitly and within certain legal parameters, for access and consideration at City Hall. If someone needed to sit down with a group of black ministers or address a community forum, Jackson could arrange the meeting.

His roots in the African American community were deep. Although he grew up in the Western Addition, living for a time in public housing, he was also active in Bayview-Hunters Point, long the city’s poorest, most overlooked neighborhood.

His activism was a springboard to a successful 1994 run for the school board, where he overlapped for a time with Yee. Although a political unknown, Jackson won the backing of then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and other black leaders eager to promote an up-and-comer at a time when African American power was waning.

Describing his qualifications in the year’s voter guide, Jackson cited, among other things, his “housing project childhood.”

“I believe in public education,” he wrote. “Too many children from my background are written off prematurely, with disastrous consequences for them, their families and society…. I understand the disruption, irresponsibility, violence and despair I’ve seen around me since childhood.”

Two years after being elected, Jackson became board president at age 32. His first brush with controversy came when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Jackson had failed to pay child support for his two young sons and the courts had garnished his wages. In addition, it was reported that Jackson had accumulated several tax liens.

The next year Jackson drew widespread ridicule for a proposal that would have required students to read a certain number of books each year by nonwhite authors. The board eventually softened the proposal and backed a resolution requiring that authors of diverse race, ethnicity and sexual orientation be taught, but without a quota.

Jackson quit the board in 1998, after Brown became San Francisco mayor, and took a job at City Hall in the solid-waste management program. He remained active in the black community and organizations including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club and the Black Chamber of Commerce.

When he left city government, Jackson parlayed his connections into a consulting business for clients including the Lennar Corp., which spent years fighting to develop a housing project at the site of the former Hunters Point naval shipyard. “Like many people, we were completely shocked to learn of the allegations concerning Keith Jackson,” a Lennar spokesman said in a statement emailed Friday.

In a 1997 interview with the Chronicle, Jackson spoke proudly of his journey from the projects to the school board presidency. “I’ve never been accused of robbery,” he said. “I’ve never been in jail. And as an African American, to be 32, that’s a big accomplishment.”

Jackson was in custody Friday pending a bail hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

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Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Sacramento contributed to this report.