“Thanks for everyone’s hard work. I am happy to feel that momentum is building. After the Cow Demons and Snake Spirits at Harvey Milk Dem Club’s smear and attack, I am even more well-known. Today I received the endorsement of the United Democratic Club. This club is the biggest and developing the fastest in San Francisco, 5-6 times of the size of the Cow Demons and Snake Spirits Club. Thanks for everyone’s hard work. I have confidence; let’s work hard together and sprint forward.”
Publicly, school board candidate Josephine Zhao has been contrite. Publicly, she has apologized, repeatedly, after recent mainstream, English-language news reports of how “transphobic remarks she made to Chinese newspapers” five years ago are now causing consternation among LGBTQ groups such as the Milk Club.
Zhao now describes her past denunciation of California’s gender-neutral bathroom bill, AB 1266, as a mistake — the result of being misinformed. “I was a recent citizen then. I became a citizen in 2011; the incident took place in 2013,” she says. “Someone took me to a press conference. I only knew one person there. I apologize I got sucked into it.”
She now says she supports transgender children and gender-neutral bathrooms; her daughter’s best friend, she claims, recently came out as a transgender boy, and “we gave the family big support.”
Privately, however, she is penning ebullient messages to her supporters via the Chinese language app WeChat — like the August 29 communique at the top of this article — and, notably, employing Chinese Cultural Revolution terms to denounce her detractors.
In another recent message, she describes her opponents 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.”
Zhao has raised far more money — some $78,000 as of latest reporting — than any of the other 19 school board candidates running for three openings. She has lost some political endorsements of late, but remains in the good graces of Mayor London Breed and Sen. Scott Wiener, both of whom she campaigned for fervently (Zhao recruited scads of paid staff onto Wiener’s 2016 race vs. Jane Kim; “$125/day, hold signs and you only need to know one phrase in English: “I like Scott Wiener!” she wrote to supporters).
Mission Local has obtained and had translated a number of Zhao’s WeChat messages to her backers. These are not subtle missives. In one, she refers to former Board of Education member and current Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer as “Chinese trash” and a “race-traitor.” In another, Supervisor Jane Kim is described as a “homewrecker.”
Those are harsh words, but not atypical (Zhao, in 2014, referred to David Chiu as a “traitor” — in English, and publicly viewable on Facebook — over his support of affirmative-action legislation, which Zhao felt disadvantaged Asians. Chiu is endorsing her for school board; they have, apparently, patched things up).
Zhao has produced a voluminous — and incendiary — written record of her positions on any number of issues; she also talked about them extensively on a radio show she co-hosted.
But it’s largely in Cantonese.
And, as such, most of it has been been dutifully ignored by non-Chinese-speaking San Francisco and its media establishment. (You can find archives at the public library of English-language newspapers going back to the Gold Rush era — but they toss out the Chinese-language papers every few weeks.)
It does not, however, require an archaeological expedition or the Rosetta Stone to glean what’s going on in the Chinese-language press, read social media posts penned by Zhao herself, or hear her opine on the radio.
So, with even minimal exploration, Zhao’s explanations of her troubling past behavior rapidly begin to strain credulity.
Zhao’s campaign materials and personal Facebook page state she emigrated from China some 30 years ago, when she was 19. She obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Colorado and a master’s from Colorado State. She is an exceedingly smart, highly educated, successful and well-spoken woman.
All of this makes her explanation regarding her 2013 jeremiad against the gender-neutral bathroom bill difficult to embrace.
The legislation was only one page long, and the holder of an advanced academic degree who had lived in the United States for the better part of three decades and enjoyed a successful career should have been able to read it — or, if that proved unsatisfactory, phone up its author, Tom Ammiano, and ask him to explain it.
In 2013, Zhao was already in her mid-40s. And, far from mere “remarks she made to Chinese newspapers,” or a singular “incident,” Zhao in September 2013 was a featured speaker at a press conference denouncing the bill. She was there alongside a number of speakers representing reactionary organizations, including the Pacific Justice Institute — which is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “an anti-LGBT hate group.”
At that event, Zhao was quoted in the Chinese-language press as claiming that the bill would protect the 2 percent of students who are transsexual, but would “offend and infringe on the rights and privacy of 98 percent of students,” leading to “violence” and even “rape.”
Weeks later, she repeated these claims on Chinese-language radio, urging listeners to sign a Pacific Justice Institute-organized petition to repeal the legislation. She instructed listeners to download the petition from the radio station’s website and mail it back to the station — indicating, far from being “sucked into it,” she was playing no small role in organizing and perpetuating this recall drive.
“On the surface, the legislation seems to be one thing,” she told listeners in October 2013, “but, in reality, it’s another.”
Zhao now says she was misinformed about the bill. Regardless, it’s clear she had no problem energetically misinforming her considerable group of followers about it — either intentionally or via ignorance bordering on negligence.
This legislation, she warned radio listeners, “seems to be fine” because it protects the 2 percent of students who are transgender: “They do not know whether they are a boy or a girl.”
But “this legislation has a huge loophole. It allows students to determine which gendered restroom they prefer to use” and “this identity does not need to be registered with their public record.” As such, “it opens the door for boys and girls to use the bathroom together and shower together and it becomes a hotbed for a culture of sexual assault and rape.”
Students, she said, should have to “register their identity” before using the restroom.
Zhao now says she was given bad information about all of this. She’s sorry, she says. She didn’t know what the bill was about — even though she spoke alongside a reactionary anti-LGBT hate group denouncing it and then meticulously explained to radio listeners what it was about — before exhorting them to sign the Pacific Justice Institute’s petition. “That was how I operated back then,” she says now. “I am sorry it went so far.”
But, during her radio broadcast in 2013, she took it further yet.
“This is evil legislation,” she told listeners. “We must use these signatures so we can repeal this evil legislation.”
“From our city government, up to our state government,” she continued, “our elected leaders are free to do whatever they want,” she said, employing a turn of phrase one might use to describe spoiled children. “They are relaxing their moral views. Therefore, they cannot represent our Chinese American ideals.”
It was not so long ago when she said this. In 2013, Ed Lee was the mayor of San Francisco. David Chiu was board president. Katy Tang, Eric Mar and Norman Yee were also serving on the board. These are the elected leaders who were “relaxing their moral views.” These are the elected leaders who “cannot represent our Chinese American ideals.”
So, yes, that was a hell of a thing to say.
Personal transformations happen. If Josephine Zhao says that she now supports transgender rights and supported her daughter’s friend — or marched in the Pride parade and, she claims, joined the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club — that’s great. More power to her. That’s what San Francisco is for.
Abrupt personal transformations by a candidate for office with a lengthy track record are, however, worthy of skepticism.
Zhao’s recent op-ed in the Examiner is titled “An immigrant’s path for progressive leadership.” In it, she describes herself as “A progressive leader in the immigrant community.”
As recently as 2012, however, she was personally, and via her nonprofit AsianAmericanVoters.org, urging San Franciscans to vote a straight Republican ticket — Mitt Romney for president, John Dennis for Congress — and support the San Francisco Republican Party, whose materials her nonprofit proudly translated and publicized.
Zhao, personally and via her nonprofits, has spent years denouncing rent control, championing the Ellis Act, and questioning whether city tenants have too much power. “Her whole family moved to San Francisco. She became a common small property owner. But she realized that rent-control policies in this city make landlords completely lose their property rights,” reads a 2017 profile of Zhao in the China Press.
She now says she supports Proposition 10, which would repeal the Costa Hawkins Act and allow local California jurisdictions to adopt rent-control policies.
As such, right-leaning members of the Chinese community have assailed her as two-faced. But, in an Aug. 23 World Journal article, Zhao makes a loaded statement: “She suggests to the Chinese community to see what she says later.”
After she’s elected, that is.
What Zhao is saying now, meanwhile, is that the attacks on her are tantamount to attacks on the Chinese community writ large — and her loss in November would portend nothing short of disenfranchisement for Chinese Americans, leading to out-and-out persecution:
“If Josephine Zhao, a new citizen, can be persecuted and labeled as a hater for things she said, then all of you, all immigrants, all of the outsiders who haven’t been politically educated in San Francisco, will become a plague,” she wrote to her supporters via WeChat. “Let alone election campaigns, in the future because we are politically incorrect, we would not be able to work in schools or government. We are collectively being wronged, are you going to stand by and watch, or are you going to come out and fight? It’s time to stand together with Josephine and defend our community. Please vote for Josephine Zhao on November 6th, use your votes to fight for justice!”
Perhaps in this race for school board, San Francisco voters could do worse than remembering a Maya Angelou quote many of us learned in school: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”