This story was produced as part of a partnership between KQED and The San Francisco Standard.
It’s no secret that successful political campaigns in San Francisco rely heavily on support from Chinese American voters—and at a time when the city is politically polarized, election results are often decided by razor-thin margins.
The current campaign to recall three members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board is attempting to court this vital demographic by investing in television ads in both Mandarin and Cantonese. The ads emphasize the related issues many people in the Chinese American community care about most, including a controversial tweet from one of the targeted school board members, as well as changes to the merit-based admissions policy at Lowell High School.
Tuesday’s special election board recall is the first recall in San Francisco in nearly 40 years in San Francisco—the last one was a failed attempt to recall then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1983. Chinese American parents and residents have come out in large numbers to help collect signatures to place the recall of San Francisco Board of Education commissioners Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga on Tuesday’s ballot.
Spending reports filed with the city detail the pro-recall campaign’s emphasis on reaching Chinese audiences. One campaign committee spent $42,840 to air ads on the Chinese TV station KTSF, along with $11,013 to purchase print ads in the Sing Tao Daily and World Journal newspapers. While not an enormous amount, especially given that overall donations are approaching $2 million, it does signal who the campaign has identified as a key bloc of voters.
An analysis of ads in the race by The San Francisco Standard and KQED found that the messages, while similar to ads in English, reflect the issues that seem to have driven a high level of political engagement from some segments of the city’s Chinese community: the school board’s failures to more quickly reopen schools and time spent discussing the renaming of schools.
But some content is tailor-made for Chinese audiences.
The “Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, Lopez, and Moliga” group has released a series of video ads in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.
The English versions mainly feature school parents and city leaders trying to persuade people to vote “yes,” with reasons including delays in reopening schools, the district’s budget deficit and the school renaming controversies. The Spanish version, featuring a Mexican immigrant parent, delivers a similar message.
But the Chinese-Mandarin video, featuring Chinese American immigrant and public school parent Ann Hsu, specifically mentions the controversial tweets by Alison Collins and the Lowell High School admissions policy change.
“All these are making me extremely angry!” Hsu said in the ads, with a picture of Collins and the translated racial slur that the board member tweeted in 2016—before she was elected—to describe Asian Americans’ efforts to assimilate and get ahead. The background of the ad is the iconic Chinatown gate.
Hsu, who is fluent in both English and Mandarin, also appeared in an English-language ad, but the criticism in this message focuses on the reopening and renaming of schools, not the controversial tweets or Lowell.
The Cantonese video ad is also different from the Mandarin version. Kit Lam, an outspoken public school father from Hong Kong who was caught on video trying to stop the alleged theft of recall petitions, is featured in the Cantonese ad. In the video, he expresses his anger about the pandemic closures and renaming of schools.
The official recall campaign, “Recall School Board Members Lopez, Collins & Moliga,” has released three Cantonese radio ads airing on local Chinese radio stations.
Among the three, one focuses on Lowell, one emphasizes the financial crisis faced by the school district, and the other asks eligible voters to register. The ads note they were paid for by the committee with the main sources of the funding coming from venture capitalist David Sacks and businessman Arthur Rock. The latter is a vocal supporter of charter schools.
On Jan. 18, 2022, a print ad supporting the recall appeared in the World Journal, a major Chinese-language newspaper in the Bay Area.
The ad, placed by “Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, Lopez, and Moliga,” features an upset child in front of a laptop—the reference is remote learning during the school closures. The ad also mentions Collins’ tweet, the $87 million lawsuit she filed against the school district and her board colleagues, Lowell High School and the financial crisis.
On Feb. 11, days before the election, the Chinese American Democratic Club also purchased ad space in World Journal supporting the recall. They used a photo of a “Stop Asian Hate” march in Chinatown and reminded the voters of the difference between signing the petition for the recall and actually voting for the recall.
“Silence is not gold. The ballot is power,” the ad reads.
In the same ad, they made dual endorsements of Matt Haney and Bilal Mahmood for the state Assembly District 17 race and Joaquin Torres for Assessor-Recorder.
Ads Opposing the Recall
An ad funded by the campaigns against the recall is much smaller and vastly different from the well-funded supporter side. With limited resources, the opposition has few Chinese language ads.
The door hangers against the recall, paid for by the committee of “No On Recalls of School Board Commissioners Lopez, Collins and Moliga,” are widely distributed in San Francisco and have a Chinese-language version.
“Oppose the Recall of School Board,” the title reads. The messaging focuses on the fact that the school board is comprised of teachers, parents and community organizers. And they “keep us safe” and “fight for the resources we want.” And “we need resources, not recalls.”
San Francisco Berniecrats, a political club formed in 2016, placed an ad in the Chinese-language newspaper in mid-January, opposing the recall of the three members.
Two headlines on the right column read “Oppose the Recall, Support the Democracy” and “Recall wastes public dollars, attacks public education.” The first paragraph compares the school board recall to the attempted recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021. The ad blames the school board recall on a campaign that hired signatures gatherer with good pay—as much as $22 per signature.
The second paragraph says that if the recall is successful, Mayor London Breed will appoint the replacements: “This is not real democracy!”
In the same ad, the group also endorses David Campos for the state Assembly race.
Moliga, who ran his own campaign against the recall, said his campaign has been speaking directly with Chinese and AAPI communities, without using paid ads.
“Our campaign is fortunate to have these long-standing relationships in the AAPI community that are helping us fight this attempt to recall me,” Moliga said.
Han Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org