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What Really Happened In San Francisco's Recall Election?

Updated: Feb 22, 2022

Who paid for the smear campaign? That's billionaire hedge-fund manager William Oberndorf next to Betsy DeVos

-by Denise Sullivan

“…It should really alarm people that a few tech billionaires can remove democratically-elected public officials from office,” was the take that said it all Wednesday morning following Tuesday’s recall of three school board officials in San Francisco.

Other than that great synopsis, there wasn’t much real talk locally or otherwise about how the national fervor for recalls hit so hard, so close to home. Instead, there were all kinds of misguided perspectives from here and afar, particularly this one in the New York Times.

For anyone seeking actual answers as to how San Francisco was played in the outcome of its particularly San Franciscan recall, educational policy expert Kevin Kumashiro, author of Teaching Toward Democracy, offered a streamlined and clear explanation to Ian Masters on Thursday’s Background Briefing.

Kumashiro has been following the nationwide dismantling of school boards in the wake of pandemic closures and the concurrent CRT debates, and breaks down how specifically GOP strategies, money and other forces came to bear on San Francisco’s maligned school board.

“This was about some people feeling the school board was putting too much of its time into ‘equity issues’ [renaming schools and admission policies], and not enough attention on reopening,” said Kumashiro. He further notes San Francisco reopened last fall like many other school districts, but the emphasis was placed on the slow action and competence of its three now-recalled board members who are, as you might’ve guessed, Black, Asian-Pacific Islander and Latina.

Kumashiro describes what happened in San Francisco as part of a larger plan to prey on national race anxieties that will ultimately be used to strike down affirmative action in the Supreme Court. Anyone alarmed yet?

“The media portrayed the recall as Asian Americans being its most vocal supporters,” explained Kumashiro. “But there were a lot of Asian American educators in San Francisco pushing against the recall, explaining this is not a democratic recall, there’s a misunderstanding and there is a lot of scapegoating going on.”

In post-election coverage, local and national media proclaimed the win for the recall a referendum on reform and a landslide against liberalism. In truth, Allison Collins, Faauuga Moliga and Gabriela López were voted out of office by just about an eighth of the city’s electorate. All were up for reelection later this year, and are scheduled to be replaced by appointees, chosen by Mayor London Breed. Extending the mayor’s power was but one of the concerns on the "No" side of the recall argument, as was wasteful spending and erosion of the democratic process. But even the wider revelations and understanding that the majority of the funding for the "Yes" side was coming from the usual suspects, still didn’t forestall a recall.

“Though you won’t find billionaire hedge-fund manager William Oberndorf’s name on the city’s campaign finance dashboard, he’s the largest single contributor to multiple pro-recall committees-- including the Neighbors PAC, which received $602,722 from him in 2021. He has donated to campaigns supporting Sen. Mitch McConnell and various Republicans in Congress, most recently in 2020 and 2021... Oberndorf is a huge supporter of charter schools and government-funded vouchers for private schools, backing candidates who vow to advance the efforts,” reported Ida Mojadad for the San Francisco Standard.

Confusion reigned throughout the campaign, dividing even the fiercest freethinkers of the left. Public defender Matt Gonzalez came out in favor of the recall, as did former mayor Art Agnos and former California Democratic Party chair, John Burton. Gonzalez, a former president of the board of supervisors and mayoral candidate who lost to Gavin Newsom by a slim margin in 2003 and was Ralph Nader’s Green Party running mate in 2008 spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle a couple of weeks before the election about his decision to endorse a Yes vote.

He called his decision to back the recall “easy” and said there’s nothing contradictory about progressives with true San Francisco values supporting the recall.
He added he’d rather see these particular board members recalled and voters pay more attention to candidates in the future than the alternate idea of turning permanent control of the board over to the mayor.

Gonzalez had more to say about the ins and outs of recalls: He spoke to why he didn’t support replacing Newsom and the fact he does not support the upcoming proposed recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin (who in all likelihood will hold on to his position). But Gonzalez’s hope the public will use this recent situation to further educate themselves on school board candidates seems a bit unlikely.

“Far fewer people participate in recall elections and the people who are voted in are replaced with far fewer votes,” explained Kumashiro. “In this instance, the people who replace the recalled will be appointed by the mayor-- they aren’t even voted in. We need to insist on strengthening our democratic institutions, not move away from things like the vote from the public.” But that’s what we just did. Good luck to us from here.

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