Note: This story was produced as part of a partnership between KQED and The San Francisco Standard.
Selena Chu tightened up her double masks and braved the Omicron threat on a recent sunny Saturday to join a volunteer event in support of the recall of three San Francisco school board members.
“I’m here with the Chinese language voter registration form to encourage them. ‘Hey, have you signed up? If you haven't, this is your chance. I can help you,’” said Chu, a Chinese immigrant and a public school parent.
Chu, along with many Asian community activists, sees the passion ignited by the school board recall as an opportunity to fight apathy among Chinese San Franciscans who are eligible to vote but don’t.
Recall supporters are confident they have heavy support in the Chinese American community. One of the board members facing recall, Alison Collins, made comments on Twitter that appeared to be anti-Asian, and many Asian parents, including Chu, are against efforts to end merit-based admissions at the elite Lowell High School, where Asian students are the majority. The three board members are also blamed for failing to re-open schools until more than a year into the pandemic.
Yet San Francisco’s top Asian American public officials are not on the same page—and don’t much want to talk about it. Supervisors Gordon Mar and Connie Chan, along with Assemblyman Phil Ting, all called on Collins to resign after her controversial tweets were publicized. But none of them supports the recall of Collins and her two colleagues, Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga.
Ting declined to make himself available for an interview. In a text, Ting said: “I have not taken a position on the recall outside of my call to have Allison Collins resign.”
Supervisor Chan’s team, given a choice of four different days for an interview, said she was too busy on all of those days. She said in a statement that she opposed all recalls.
Supervisor Mar agreed with Chan. He said: “It was not an appropriate use of the recall process when we have these three school board members up for reelection just later this year.”
Former Assemblyman David Chiu said he’s prohibited from taking a position on the issue now that he is the city attorney. The City Charter explicitly bars the city attorney from taking positions on or raising money for ballot measures or candidate elections other than their own.
None of the four are eager to advertise their positions though: their names do not appear on the “No On Recalls of School Board Commissioners Lopez, Collins and Moliga” campaign website.
Todd David, who’s running a well-funded committee called “Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, Lopez, and Moliga” criticized elected officials who try to have it both ways, calling on Collins to resign, while declining to endorse the recall.
“Supervisor Mar and Supervisor Chan have different rules for themselves than they do for people who, you know, volunteer their time at farmers markets to go collect signatures,” Todd said. “I just find that argument bizarre.”
For her part, Collins, in an interview with KQED’s Vanessa Rancaño in November, insisted she is a victim of hate, not a perpetrator. She sees it as part of a larger right-wing plot. “All of a sudden it's on Fox News. And this is all very, very organized activity that's been happening on a national level and it's highly funded.”
San Francisco Board of Education President Gabriela López also dismissed some of the criticisms that she and her colleagues are facing in the recall campaign, including that they acted too slowly in reopening the schools.
“But this sense of just returning to return because of the pressure that people were giving us, or the fact that the city sued the school district—which I still disagree with—and trying to push these efforts to appease a voter base that honestly wasn't impacted by the pandemic in as many ways as other communities were who didn't want to return, is all political," López told KQED in October.
She also fought back on the schools renaming criticism. “The fact that people keep pointing to the renaming issue is another, for me, excuse to kind of point to that fact,” she said. “And I say that because the renaming work had begun before members were even on the board. It was passed by a previous school board a couple of years back, and work had begun on a topic that hadn't been finalized yet.”
Having raised just $6,000, the campaign opposing the recall said they’re hoping to reach voters through person-to-person contact within existing networks of parents and teachers.
“We're not able to depend on TV ads and mailers,” said Tara Ramos, a co-chair of the No campaign. “So just doing a lot of footwork, getting out there, talking to our own community at our school sites and our neighborhoods.”
Moliga has opted to run a separate campaign, raising $23,000 and relying largely on appearances at local Democratic clubs and community forums to spread his message.
“The relationships are already there,” said Moliga. “I’ve done plenty of work being on the school board with the Chinese community.”
Moliga touted a recent visit he took to Chinatown to meet with members of the Chinese Progressive Association and students who helped create the “Our Healing in Our Hands” initiative. The policy was passed by the school board in 2019 to improve wellness services, particularly for Asian-American students.
Voter outreach ahead of the recall vote, Moliga said, will rely on these existing networks of support.
“I could probably go out there and pull 5,000 votes, 5,000 people who know me just because I’m from this city,” Moliga added. “I can go to Chinatown, I can go to the Richmond district.”
City at a Turning Point
David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, sees dissatisfaction with the school board as just one of the numerous urgent issues facing the community. Standing in Portsmouth Square, “the living room of Chinatown,” Lee pointed to the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and the pandemic-flattened economy, noting the absence of people in the square just a few days from Chinese New Year celebrations.
“To see Chinatown boarded up, we're lacking in the kind of vibrancy that you would normally see at this time of year,” Lee said. “It is a true indication of the frustrations of the Asian-American community.”
For the first time ever, Lee’s organization produced a “get out the vote” video in Mandarin and Cantonese with Ting, Chan, and Chiu. “Because we feel that the city is at a turning point. The Asian American community, particularly the Chinese American community, feels that the city is headed in the wrong direction,” he said, adding that many see the Feb. 15 election as a chance to change course.
Data shows that the supporters of the school board recall are highly concentrated on the city’s west side, where plenty of the precincts have majority Asian and Chinese households.
The grassroots Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce, which formed after the recall qualified for the ballot, said it has registered 430 new Asian American voters since just mid-December, including 330 first-time voters and 100 non-citizen parents who are eligible to vote in local school board elections.
While the well-organized recall supporters are confident of victory, the future is still filled with uncertainty for many parents.
Allene Jue, a San Francisco Asian mom with two toddler-age children, is now struggling to choose between public and private kindergarten. “My kids are not even in public school, but it’s important for me to stay involved,” Jue said, adding that it’s her first time to pay extra attention to local politics, and the recall movement really “resonated” with her.
“I did graduate from Lowell,” Jue considered herself a proud public school product. But now she felt being Asian is “not welcomed” in the school district.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to identify restrictions placed on the city attorney by the City Charter.
Scott Shafer, Senior Editor of KQED’s California Politics & Government Desk, can be reached at SShafer@kqed.org.
KQED’s reporter and producer Guy Marzorati contributed to this story.