It was hard to imagine San Francisco politics becoming even more dysfunctional and toxic and petty and comically dramatized, but here we are. The mayor in 2021 is urging We the People to recall her 2018 appointee — so she can name more appointees. So, check that one off your list: That Rubicon has been crossed.
The recalls of three Board of Education members have qualified for the ballot, as has the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. On top of that, we’ll be voting an ungodly number of times in the next year: It’ll be four separate votes for David Chiu’s former Assembly seat alone.
So, these recall elections are going to occur in a dysfunctional and toxic and petty and comically dramatized context, with San Francisco’s overburdened voters overburdened in a manner even we may never have been overburdened before.
As such, it’s hard to know what mindset voters will be in by the time the February, 2022, recall election of the school board rolls around, let alone the June, 2022, recall election for the DA.
Regardless, it’s extremely difficult to foresee School Board members Alison Collins, Gabriela López and (mayoral appointee) Faauuga Moliga keeping their posts.
The Board of Education performed ineptly with regard to school reopening; it demonstrated a political tin ear in pushing through a misbegotten school renaming program and other peripheral endeavors while schools were closed and public school students were languishing in front of screens; it — rightly or wrongly — riled up an extremely motivated Asian American voter base by altering the Lowell admission policies; and, finally, Collins behaved like a comic book villain.
She refused to apologize for tweets about Asians that, if not racist, definitely played into anti-Asian tropes, leading to nigh-unanimous calls for her resignation from a battalion of current and former San Francisco elected officials. Instead of resigning, she blasted her colleagues and the cash-strapped district with an $87 million lawsuit that was stupefying in its awfulness.
The liberal and progressive city officials calling for Collins’ resignation predicted this day: She became the living French Laundry moment helping to enable this recall — and, if it succeeds, enabling Mayor London Breed to make three appointments and de facto control the School Board.
Now, it may or may not be politically wise for Breed to, essentially, assume responsibility for the School Board on the cusp of her own re-election campaign. The board’s role is actually rather circumscribed. There’s also a legion of underperforming district leaders, and you can’t recall them. So, anyone expecting a miraculous turnaround is likely in for a rude awakening. And then they go vote.
So, voters hoping for school conditions to improve may not be charitably disposed toward Breed, even if the state does indeed take over the flailing district and the hands of Breed and other local officials are tied. But, again, here we are.
As for Boudin, within days of his assuming office in January, 2020, San Francisco elected officials were telling their disgruntled constituents that they only had to wait six months to begin signature-gathering for a recall; the emails were already circulating.
Boudin’s position was precarious then, and it’s even more so now: That’s the nature of ranked-choice elections in which candidates like Boudin can triumph with 36 percent of first-place votes.
So if June’s up-or-down recall is a referendum on Boudin, he will lose. It remains to be seen if he can convince voters to give a damn that VCs and shadowy conduits for big money are contributing heavily to this recall campaign (most of the money thus far backing the recall has come from Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, which has served as a repository for big donations from ultra-rich givers such as William Oberndorf and Steven Merrill).
City politicos, meanwhile, expect double or triple the $1.6 million-odd dollars that’s already been raised to oust Boudin to flood in as June approaches; the symbolism of toppling a reform DA in “progressive” San Francisco would be rich.
It would certainly help Boudin’s cause if he could articulate a vision in which San Franciscans needn’t trade safety to achieve justice. It’s hard to say he’s adequately done that yet.
So that, in a nutshell, is what’s on tap. There are many months left to pore over the nuances of these individual races. But the larger question is, is this a one-off borne by the pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and other factors that, God willing, we won’t see again? Or is this a dress rehearsal for our new normal?
Joshua Spivak has been maintaining a blog focusing solely on recall elections since 2011. He is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” This is his time.
But the statistics Spivak has been meticulously collecting for a decade don’t show what you’d think they’d show. Just as crime statistics in San Francisco don’t match the anecdotal accounts of “Assault on Precinct 13”-like behavior and the emotionally driven opprobrium that fueled the Boudin recall effort, the stats regarding recalls do not match the overarching feeling that recalls have crashed onto ballots nationwide.
To wit, in California there were six recalls that reached the ballot in the year 2021. You probably remember Governor Newsom easily spurning a recall attempt after spending enough cash to buy a fighter jet and lucking into a troglodyte opponent who scared Democrats out of complacency. But you probably didn’t know that the majority of recall elections in California this year, four of them, took place in the Southern California industrial hamlet of Vernon, population 200 or so.
Spivak notes that, between 2011 and 2020, there were 116 recalls on the ballot in California, meaning the six in 2021 is actually below average.
With regards to attempting recalls, particularly of school boards, yes, there has been an “explosion” of activity, Spivak says. But it has been an augmentation of the usual 50 to 70 yearly school board members targeted by attempted recalls to 200 and change in 2021. There are some 14,000 public school districts in the United States. “Recalls,” Spivak says, “are still unusual.”
And, so far, they’ve been dubiously successful. While the pandemic has birthed an orgy of recall saber-rattling, only a single-digit percentage of these recalls actually made it to the ballot — fewer, total, than in recent years, when far fewer recall attempts were initiated. So far in 2021, only one public school board member in Colorado has been removed from office via recall.
What’s different now is the more uniting similarities driving recalls. Most recalls are still driven by unique, and even persnickety, jurisdictional issues. But the pandemic introduced a more top-down rationale: Stuff like mask mandates, or lack thereof, became a driver. Spivak notes that some of the conservatives who were unable to gain traction with Covid-19-related school board recalls are now attempting to rally the troops with Critical Race Theory-type issues.
It remains to be seen if this will succeed in ousting school board members — plural — where masking and more salient issues failed.
San Francisco, with its comparatively low bar to qualify a recall — and gaudy donation totals — was actually an outlier; all of the recalls actually qualified for the ballot here.
Is this a harbinger of things to come? Your humble narrator spoke with more than half a dozen political consultants and operatives who’ve done work on the local, state and federal level. Most of them did not necessarily foresee recalls becoming a go-to for any deep-pocketed power broker who wanted to undo a San Francisco election.
If the attempt is too ham-handed and singularly donor-driven, voters won’t buy it. And, should recalls grow too prevalent, politicos predicted potential recall fatigue.
But not every political observer felt this way. You can’t, after all, backtrack once you’ve crossed the Rubicon. And, once certain formalities are discarded, there’s no going back.
In this city, and in this nation, even the most dubiously ethical political knee-cappers and rat-fuckers used to at least pay lip service to respecting the sanctity of an election. That clearly is no longer sacrosanct.
“If you give people the idea they can use their power and influence to overturn the result of a free and fair election, then that’s normalized,” says one longtime city political player. “It’s social contagion. A political virus. Pouring millions into a recall and choosing your electorate like court shopping? This will end badly.”
That remains to be seen. But it’s certainly beginning badly.