Breaking: Josephine Zhao drops out of school board race. See end of story. 

Note: Josephine Zhao announced she was dropping out of the school board race not quite two hours after this column’s publication. The article has been altered to reflect this significant development. 

Last week, Mission Local published an article about school board candidate Josephine Zhao. Or, perhaps more accurately, she published it. Featured in the story are her own quotes, written in her own hand or spoken in her own voice.

So, that was Zhao in 2016 decrying supervisorial candidate Sandra Lee Fewer as “Chinese trash” and a “race-traitor.” That was her in 2016 recruiting hundreds of monolingual Chinese speakers for paid positions waving placards for State Senate candidate Scott Wiener while decrying his opponent, Jane Kim, as a “homewrecker.”

That was her, only last month, describing her rivals in the school board race as “two transgender candidates … fighting for the title of ‘first transgender commissioner’ … There are also three homosexuals. Their highest priority for education would be to spread ideologies.”

And that was Zhao, on her own radio program, taking a far, far more strident, proactive, and central role in organizing the 2013 repeal drive of AB 1266, California’s gender-neutral bathroom bill, than she has subsequently acknowledged and apologized for.

“This is evil legislation,” she told listeners in 2013. “We must use these signatures so we can repeal this evil legislation.”

Zhao exhorted her Chinese-language audience to sign a petition circulated by the Pacific Justice Institute, a group categorized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “an anti-LGBT hate group.” And she described AB 1266 as the product of degenerate city and state elected officials: “They are relaxing their moral views. Therefore, they cannot represent our Chinese American ideals.”

The candidate and her supporters have hurriedly concocted any number of rationales explaining away why Zhao said what she said and did what she did: There were mistranslations, blurring of nuance, even “politically motivated” altering of words and meanings.

Mission Local had up to nine — yes nine — different fluent Cantonese speakers look over not only the materials referenced in our article, but in the material referenced in a subsequent Examiner story.

We asked very specific questions about the etymology of the language involved. So, yes, Zhao did claim that AB 1266 would lead to “rape.” Yes, she did call Fewer a “race-traitor” (the expression used, “traitor to the Han,” is a nationalistic term evocative of what you’d call a collaborator during the Japanese occupation of China).

This 2016 WeChat from Josephine Zhao reads “Chinese Trash Sandy Lee Fewer really doesn’t deserve to be in politics, if she became Supervisor she is not only hurting our kids but also our families. Before passing these policies she didn’t listen to Chinese voices, after they passed she said we misunderstood. What a race-traitor. It is impossible to change these policies now. Hope everyone can pull parents of Richmond schools like George Washington, Presidio, Argonne into the group, so they can see the truth.”

So, yes, Zhao said the things she said and she did the things she did — even as recently as just a couple of weeks ago, when she decried her rivals as ideology-spreading homosexuals or used Maoist Cultural Revolution terms to denigrate the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. And it’s on her supporters to decide if it’s okay for their political ally to have behaved this way.

And continue to behave this way.

In the last week, Mission Local phoned up nearly every politician endorsing Josephine Zhao. You’re not going to believe this, but a number of them didn’t return our multiple calls and text messages. And those that did said they’re sticking with her.

(Assemblyman David Chiu, Assessor Carmen Chu, and Supervisor Katy Tang failed to return multiple calls and texts. Sheriff Vicki Hennessy pledged to investigate the matter and get back to us this week).

“I just spoke to Josephine right now. … I think she is sincere and clear about where she stands,” former supervisor and assemblywoman Fiona Ma wrote us.

Zhao described herself to Mission Local  as a naif — a new citizen who was led to an anti-AB 1266 rally and misinformed about its scope. But that’s not the truth as revealed through her own voice. She didn’t just blow into that 2013 press conference willy-nilly like Forrest Gump’s feather; she was in her mid-40s at the time, and one of four featured speakers alongside representatives of fanatically anti-LGBT groups. And she continued to push that line on her radio show, using apocalyptic metaphors to urge her listeners to sign the Pacific Justice Institute petition.  

“There seem to be politically motivated mistranslations happening,” Ma continued.

Best be careful with that accusation: Mistranslations needn’t come from only one side.

But, for us, that’s irrelevant. Mission Local, again, put this material in front of nine different translators. What’s more, we did not commingle our sources — except in instances when several worked together, they were not informed who else was scanning texts or hearing broadcasts. Finally, all of the materials referred to in this and our prior article are now readily available online via Mission Local. Cantonese is not Esperanto; you can potentially find someone on your block who can read this.  

Josephine Zhao’s WeChat message slammed Jane Kim during her state senate race vs. Scott Wiener in 2016:
“Not only is Jane Kim a home wrecker,
that doesn’t matter as much, but she is ruining
someone else’s career.
The first Asian American
judge to have high rank in our judicial system,
appointed by multiple governors, a graduate of
Stanford, Oxford, and Yale. He once taught at
Berkeley, his wife and Jane Kim were his students.
He is Goodwin Liu, 45 years old, and beucase of Jane’s involvement in his personal relationship, he ruined his career as his ex-wife is a heavyweight advisor
to Hillary Clinton. Jane not only tried to strip
Mayor Lee’s power, but with such terrible morals, is this someone whom we can trust to be our state senate? Know when to stop, don’t be fooled!”

Zhao, once more, said the things she said, and did the things she did. She even, as the Examiner revealed, told her Chinese-language supporters — in writing — she’d be sending different messages in Chinese and English,and that they should know better than to take the positions she espoused in English-language questionnaires seriously.

Beneath these Zhao text messages to supporters was a green-colored response revealed within the Ex article, but not translated. A Zhao-backer replied to the candidate with the statement: “Body is in Cho’s tent but heart is with Han.” This is a reference to a general who fought the Han dynasty. It is a euphemism for being a spy — for feigning support for one thing but really supporting another.

Zhao’s supporters understand her perfectly. She is being completely straightforward about her trickiness.

Reached for comment via her political consultant, Mayor London Breed simply replied that she has not rescinded her endorsement of Josephine Zhao. Sen. Scott Wiener — who has dutifully returned my calls going back to 2007, and always answers questions thoughtfully — also told me he is sticking with Zhao.

(The leadership of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, in which Zhao is a general member, has called on her to withdraw from her race. Other clubs or minor officials, however, even those with deep personal qualms, may look to Wiener and the mayor as their lodestars).

Wiener, too, feels there is uncertainty in the translations (sigh) and questions the political motives of those attacking Zhao once again. He used himself — a gay elected official — as the bellwether of Zhao’s progress as a San Franciscan.

“When Josephine first came to San Francisco, she was not good on our issues,” he said, alluding to LGBTQ matters. “She has gotten more involved in our community. I believe she has gone through a learning process and has evolved.” And now “When I ran for senate as a gay guy supporting cannabis and safe injection sites, she helped get a gay guy elected to the state senate.”

She helped a lot. More on that in a moment.

However far Wiener feels Zhao has come, she hasn’t come far enough. Imagine if her pejorative statement about how three of her rival candidates are “homosexuals” with the top goal “to spread ideologies” would sound if you replaced “homosexuals” with “blacks” or “Jews.”

Wiener agrees. “That’s not good. Those are shitty comments.”

But it’s not yet a dealbreaker with him. “I am not ready to give up on her. There are so few bridges between the LGBT community and the immigrant Chinese community. Josephine has the potential to play that role.”

And yet she already is playing that role. She’s a bridge between the immigrant Chinese community and the city’s moderate political establishment. Her comments about Sandy Fewer being a “race-traitor” and “Chinese trash” were made during Fewer’s 2016 supervisorial race vs. Marjan Philhour (who lost to Fewer but is now a top adviser to Mayor Breed). Zhao’s disparaging of Jane Kim as a “homewrecker,” meanwhile, was made during Kim’s 2016 state senate campaign vs. Wiener. 

Those attacks worked. Wiener won a close election and Kim’s reputation among Chinese speakers was permanently tarnished.

Wiener, altruistically, may well want to see Zhao make a personal transformation. That’s a noble goal. But there are ways to do this without elevating her to citywide elected office. There are ways to do this without giving someone with her “evolving” position on trans people and homosexuals a position of authority in a school system with plenty of such kids — or, for that matter, installing a longtime opponent of rent control and tenants’ rights onto the body overseeing a school system with an estimated 2,000-plus homeless students.

Politically, Zhao has proven to be both a useful ally and a dangerous opponent. Her compatriots are, thus far, circling the wagons for her.

But that could all change — and perhaps right soon. Allies’ support could waver, or, perhaps, Zhao may well withdraw from this race, rendering those allies’ words of support moot. 

“Trans kids are among the most marginalized and at-risk kids in existence. They need unequivocal support,” Wiener continued. “Elections are important, but these kids are more important than any of us in office. We need to be with them 100 percent, unequivocally.”

He pauses.

“Josephine clearly has more work to do where she is unequivocally supportive of these kids.”

Wiener noted that he remains “in active conversations” with Zhao about her race.

And, presumably, her candidacy.

Update, 8:17 a.m.: Via a brief Facebook announcement using language mirroring what Wiener on Sunday told us, Zhao has opted to withdraw from the Board of Education race:

Mission Local has learned that this move from Zhao came after a week of conversations and consultations with her close supporters. While most all were familiar with Zhao’s behavior in 2013, many had not seen the the material that came to light in the last week via this publication and others.

Sen. Scott Wiener released a statement of his own Monday morning.

We will update this story today as more information becomes available.

Update, 9:55 a.m.: While Josephine Zhao has indicated she is withdrawing from her school board race, technically, she can’t. At least, not unilaterally. The deadline to remove her name from the ballot passed Aug. 31. We have written to Department of Elections boss John Arntz, but it seems that, barring a judge’s order, Zhao’s name will remain on the ballot.

If this is the case, it sets up an intriguing scenario. In a 19-candidate field, it’s possible that, even if Zhao suspends her campaign, that her high name recognition and position as just one of two Chinese American candidates could result in a fascinating Nov. 6 vote tally. It remains to be seen her high-profile supporters will proactively urge people to not vote for her.

Mission Local has written to Zhao querying if she will take office should she be elected despite having “withdrawn.”

Update, 3:15 p.m. Department of Elections head John Arntz confirms that Zhao’s name will remain on the ballot and that “Any candidates whose names appear on the ballot and who obtain enough votes relative to particular contests will be elected to those offices.”

The ballot, meanwhile, is already off to the printers — making it extremely unlikely that any judge will take the extraordinary step of ordering Zhao’s name excised from it.

   The name of every candidate who has been duly and regularly nominated shall be placed on the ballot under the title of the office for which he or she is a candidate, provided that a candidate whose nomination has been completed may withdraw as a candidate by filing a signed and sworn statement of withdrawal with the Director of Elections. Statements of withdrawal by candidates for Mayor or the Board of Supervisors must be filed no later than 5:00 p.m. on the 126th day before the election. Statements of withdrawal by candidates for all other City elective offices must be filed no later than 5:00 p.m. on the 67th day before the election. No candidate may withdraw after these deadlines.
(Added by Ord. 429-97, App. 11/17/97; amended by Ord. 50-13 , File No. 120899, App. 3/28/2013, Eff. 4/27/2013)

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Good work Joe. the City should recognize you for journalism excellence. Now, how to monitor what kind of deal Wiener made with Zhau to give her a public position? No doubt it will be done very quietly. Wiener has indeed been a beneficiary of that dirty trick. Now it seems he, like Trump, is denying it while “dancing with the one that brung him”. And finally, what announcement of withdrawal is Zhau making to the Chinese language media?

    The situation of the Chinese/English language divide in SF has been largely ignored as being ameliorated by having official election material available in translations. That clearly has left a large hole for dirty tricks, that this incident has exposed. Monolingual immigrant Chinese voters have a right to align with politics they prefer. But secret messages disguised by translation shouldn’t be hidden in the information they receive. When it are, only journalists can expose it. I would hope that English and Chinese journalists could establish ties or that translated editions of media could be created to close the hole. I think a effort to raise funds for that from City residents would be very successful.

  2. Fluent Chinese speaker here, you guys did a great job on the translation, it just missed the vicious tone… such an evil-hearted person!! Nothing was misunderstood!! I understand such Chinese people very well. Terrible. Just terrible. Thank you for reporting this and let’s hope she won’t win. (But I have a bad feeling about this unless the people who endorsed her speak up! Cuz you know her supporters will continue to do so…)

  3. I totally agree with her about Sandra Lee. If you went to Lee’s meeting, she is trying to put Chinese parent has only 30 seconds to speak, and the other race, they can speak as many time as they want, and as long as they want. Did I mention that she only allow very few Chinese parents go to the stand to speak?? If you want more parents to testified, we got a lot! She also try to drag the meeting so long, that all the kids join the meeting have to go home at 9:30 pm.

    I am living in Out Mission Street. My family will register to vote. Damn, I have HUGE family. We are going to support for her! Joe, what are you supporting??? Let us know!

    1. Theresa, the way you use grammar is your comment leads me to believe it’s a smear against Sandra Lee and worse, a very nasty and demeaning racist parody.

      The point about speaking times is simply not credible. Next, most of the comment uses nonstandard grammar in a very stereotypical way. But the first sentence of the first paragraph and the second and third sentences of the last paragraph in sharp contrast use standard English. And the paragraphs themselves are divided in standard fashion.

  4. I made a public (and private) plea to Wiener, asking him to rescind his support of Zhao. I wrote to him and stated that he was “a champion of several LGBTQ bills.” Now he releases a statement supporting Zhao for stepping down because her comments have generated “a significant lack of trust whether Josephine will be a champion for LGBT children…”

    He’s the champion of the most recent LGBT bills, but he’s still supporting Josephine’s decisions, but he doesn’t see the ‘lack of trust?’ What gives? His statement is no denunciation.

    Wiener’s senate response page says someone will get back to you shortly. Don’t believe it. They don’t get back.

  5. Joe, thank you so much for your hard and thorough work on this. Without your reporting, I wouldn’t know where to start understanding the local political scene.

  6. Two political hit pieces on a candidate that has nothing to do with the Mission in a single week. Gotta pay that MEDA rent check I guess….

    1. Shaun —

      Believe it or not, but we have schools and kids in the Mission.

      At least you’ve finally acknowledged that we pay rent to MEDA and not vice-versa. This is progress.