On Tuesday, San Francisco held its first recall election in nearly four decades. Residents voted to oust three of the seven members of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education: its president Gabriela López, Alison Collins, and Faauuga Moliga.
The board members found themselves on the recall ballot for egregious incompetence. San Francisco was among the last major cities in the U.S. to reopen its public schools after the worst of the pandemic. While keeping the schools closed, the board seized the opportunity to fulfill a radical political agenda. They attempted to rename 44 schools based on historical misinformation and personal opinion, including those named after Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Louis Stevenson, and even Dianne Feinstein.
The board also purged the merit-based admissions process for Lowell High School, on the justification that the school lacked diversity (Asians comprised the majority of the student body). This beloved, academically rigorous institution obviated the need for low-income families to pay for expensive private education elsewhere. When an angry parent challenged the board’s decision on Twitter, López responded with a middle-finger emoji.
Many of the board’s resolutions concerned racial equity, even as a 2016 tweet from Alison Collins resurfaced in which she referred to Asians as “house n****s.” The statement led the board to strip Collins of her vice president status. Collins then filed an $87 million lawsuit against the board itself, claiming her colleagues and the school district had violated her free speech rights. She eventually dropped the lawsuit.
For parents who watched their children suffer from isolation and learning loss throughout the pandemic, the antics of the board were impossible to ignore. Siva Raj and Autumn Looijen, parents to five children, launched a grassroots effort to recall the three board members. The remaining four were ineligible for recall when the movement began.
The recall fight was intense, and often ugly. Recall opponents hurled false accusations of racism, classism, and right-wing conspiracies at parents and their supporters. Petitions with signatures were even stolen from volunteers.
“Politics in San Francisco is like a knife fight in a phone booth,” says Looijen, “You’ll get shredded. But when we stood up to this it was because we knew it was the right thing to do, whether we won or lost.”
The recall effort soon had more than 1,000 volunteers manning tables. They secured more than 80,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, well above the 30,000 needed to qualify. Even San Francisco mayor London Breed endorsed the movement.
Success was no sure thing, though. San Francisco has a reputation for extreme progressivism. So when the election results showed that 79 percent had voted to recall Collins, 75 percent to recall Lopez, and 72 percent to recall Moliga, the dam of emotions broke. Comments from current and past residents flooded social media platforms. On Twitter, people expressed hope and excitement. One said she was giddy. Another, who had left San Francisco because of the city’s terrible policies, said that the recall was enough for her to return.
“I think for the first time in a long time, there was a great spark of optimism about the future of San Francisco,” says Stephen Martin-Pinto, vice president of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, who volunteered for the recall effort. “This shows that, even in a liberal city with liberal voters, some shred of common sense and decency still exists here, and this was proven last night. For the first time in recent memory, the silent majority of moderates, conservatives, and even some liberals crystallized into a growing movement to take back our city, which has been growing surely and steadily more radical left for years without our realization of it.”
While the recall has bolstered public confidence, the influence of those who fought against it has clearly waned. Prominent among the recall’s opponents were the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Shamann Walton, and its supervisor, Dean Preston; the school’s union, the United Educators of San Francisco; the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America; and the SFBerniecrats.
For San Francisco, change is in the air. For most people here, it feels marvelous. The recall was essential, and not just to improve a damaged public school system that now runs a deficit so large that teachers’ jobs are at risk. Had this recall effort failed, it might have deflated enthusiasm for the next one in June for Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s calamitous district attorney.
“The DA should be very nervous,” says Martin-Pinto. “People have confidence now that recalls can succeed. I think the momentum to recall Boudin will only grow from now on.”
“People are really tired of being in a divided country,” says Looijen. “Bipartisanship is a good thing. I missed that. This recall brought the entire city together.”
Now that the battle is over, it’s worth remembering that Collins, Moliga, and López are not evil people. They surely believed that they were doing right. But the negative impact they had on San Francisco is indisputable.
There’s much more for residents to do in this crisis-ridden city. Crime, chaos, and squalor are the next targets. Many San Franciscans are suddenly more optimistic that they have the power to change their community for the better.
Photo by Stephen Lam/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images