San Francisco’s Chinese community united to recall three school board members — but appears less unified on possible replacements.
The shared allegiances that led to the toppling of Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Fauuga Moliga appear to be fraying. With Mayor London Breed on the cusp of naming a trio of new board members, some of the recall’s highest-profile Chinese-American backers now appear to be turning on each other.
And it remains a key point of contention whether the mayor should appoint leaders of the recall campaign to the Board of Education: Outsiders complain this has the whiff of a coup, while recall insiders worry about the appearance of self-serving behavior.
“I’d prefer someone that wasn’t involved in this recall. Because it would sound like a political move for them, if they were then appointed,” said Alvin Lee, a recall opponent and board member of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club.
Lee said he opposed the appointment of an advocate who is popular with certain members of the Chinese community. “There’s been talk of potentially appointing someone that might be transphobic or have a history of making transphobic comments. I am totally against that.”
Lee didn’t name names. But he didn’t have to.
“I’m very honored that people think about me and notice what I’ve done,” said Josephine Zhao, a supporter of the recall whose company, Prosperb Media, has received at least $111,202 from the recall campaign for circulating petitions. In 2018, Zhao’s bid for the school board collapsed after English-language news outlets reported on transphobic actions she had taken in 2013.
When Mission Local asked Zhao on Tuesday if she was interested in filling one of the school board vacancies, her response was non-committal.
“I’m not seeking a nomination; it’s up to the people,” she said. “I’ve always put myself out there. If my community wants me to go to fire, I will. I’m not seeking a nomination. And I haven’t put my name in the hat.”
Instead, Zhao listed four other Chinese people who she thought were “exceptionally impressive” in the recall campaign: Ann Hsu, Laurance Lee, Bayard Fong and Kit Lam.
Zhao called Hsu an “amazing leader” and “a superstar.” A recent New York Times article described Hsu as “crucial to the organizing efforts.”
Hsu did not rule out running for election in the fall if Mayor Breed doesn’t tap her.
“I did not join the recall effort in order to be on the school board. I did it because I believe those people do not belong on the board,” she said. “If the mayor appoints competent people, it does not have to be me. If they do not do a good job? I may consider running in November.”
Hsu said that, for the most part, personal political ambitions were not a factor for the coalition the Chinese community created to oust the three school board members.
“If you talk about the Chinese community, we did not work on the recall because any one of us wanted to be on the school board, maybe with the exception of one,” said Hsu. “I’m talking about Lawrence Lee. He wanted to be on the school board.”
Lee was taken aback by Hsu’s accusation. After taking a few moments to collect himself, he said, “It’s just the nature of the way things work. It’s clearly a track record where people can see that my motivation is not selfish. It’s about the care and the proper running of the school board.”
Zhao described Lee as “a research-oriented person.” Since July, Lee has been publishing a weekly newsletter titled “Eyes on SF Board of Education.”
Fong, the president of the Chinese American Democratic Club, would not say whether he wanted to be considered for a school board seat.
“Right now, I can’t respond to these things. I’m gonna wait ’til next week, when I can confer with you,” he said.
Lam did not respond to Mission Local’s request for comments. He inadvertently found himself in the media spotlight last year, when a man stole his recall petitions; in a previous interview with Mission Local, he joked that, as a result of that incident, some friends referred to him as the “Chinese face of the recall.”
Shurrin Zeng, president of the Chinese Parents Advisory Council, said, “There is no consensus among the Chinese on who should be chosen. Destroying is easy; building is the hardest. We were relatively unanimous in opposing the school board, but not in discussing which of us should be on the board.”
Zeng worries that none of the recall activists could win election in November, when the three replacement board members must run for office. “If that person doesn’t perform well, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said.
In spite of their close cooperation in the recall campaign, Zeng now considers Zhao unfit to serve on the school board, owing to Zhao’s controversial behavior, including grabbing the microphone away from other speakers at an event in 2019. “Unbelievable,” Zeng said in a text message sent to Mission Local.
“Her public suppression of free speech and the snatching of old people’s microphones are unacceptable. The recalled school board members lost support because they didn’t listen to the public,” Zeng said.
Sarah Shang, a Chinese American supporter of the recall, attributes the conflict to a generational gap. “There’s always new talent coming up. That’s why opinions will be divided inside.”
Whatever their differences, the Chinese recall leaders agree that at least one of the mayor’s three picks should be from the city’s Chinese community.
Zhao said, “At least one of them should be Chinese, maybe even two or three.”
Hsu offered, “I think all of us expect that the mayor will appoint at least one Chinese person. I think if she doesn’t, there will be an uproar.”
Ed Ho, a recall supporter, said, “We’re about a third of the district, if not more, and so we should have a third of the seats on the board.”
Mayor London Breed has purportedly begun interviewing replacement candidates.
“I don’t know any of the recall activists very well. So I just don’t know enough about their background to say how they would perform on the board, but they will be under a microscope,” said Henry Der, former director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “There’s going to be very high expectations, because the recall supporters will likely expect perfection. And perfection may not be possible.”
“It is so hard to make decisions,” Der said. “Someone is not going to be happy.”