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In SF School Board Recall, Moliga Charts Separate Path — and Local Politicos Take Notice

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SF Mayor London Breed faces a man in a suit holding up his right hand.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed appoints Faauuga Moliga to the SF Board of Education on Oct. 15, 2018, on the campus of the June Jordan School for Equity. Breed has since supported the effort to recall Moliga, who is now the board's vice president. (Courtesy London Breed/Twitter)

Following months of debate over the San Francisco School Board of Education's management of city schools, voters will be asked three separate questions in a special election on Feb. 15: whether to remove Vice President Faauuga Moliga, President Gabriela López and member Alison Collins from office.

Moliga is charting his own path to defeat the attempt, and of the three has waged the most vigorous campaign to keep his job. He's garnered individual donations and endorsements, and stumped at the meetings of local political clubs.

In response, a growing number of the city's political activists are splitting their endorsements in his favor, and their stances on the recall could help drive voter opinion.

In recent weeks, the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club, the San Francisco Women's Political Committee, the San Francisco Eastern Neighborhoods Democratic Club and the Potrero Hill Democratic Club have endorsed only the recalls of López and Collins.

Members of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, after hearing from Moliga at their meeting on Dec. 9, decided to oppose his removal and take no position on the other recalls.

Political consultant Jim Ross, a veteran of campaigns for local offices and ballot measures in San Francisco, said it's a smart strategy for Moliga to actively campaign on his own.

"It's easy to get behind a slogan of 'recall the board of education' because 'the board of education' sounds like some big bureaucracy," Ross added. "But by putting a face on it, Moliga is making it tough to just say, 'Let's get rid of this faceless organization.'"

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While both Collins and López told KQED in November that voters shouldn't draw distinctions among the three imperiled board members, Moliga said he wasn't running in tandem with anyone — and has raised money through his own political action committee.

With just over a month until voting begins on Jan. 18, Moliga has been frequenting the virtual debates and meetings that inform local political club endorsements.

Getting the backing of these reliable voters is especially important heading into a special election that may catch more casual voters by surprise, said Democratic strategist Debbie Mesloh, an early adviser of Kamala Harris.

"For this particular recall, you really want to make sure that you're trying to target people who are going to care about it anyway, and that's going to be the really engaged voters, many of whom are involved in their local Democratic club," she said.

To be sure, some political groups in the city have taken the same position for all three recall questions. The recall campaign has argued that Collins, López and Moliga were aligned on issues central to the campaign — namely the process of renaming schools and resuming in-person learning.

Groups like the moderate United Democratic Club, the Chinese American Democratic Club and the Edwin M. Lee Asian Pacific Democratic Club have endorsed removing all three board members.

Likewise, groups who see the election as an unjustifiable power grab with little upside for students, such as the San Francisco Berniecrats, have supported a "no" position on all three recalls.

But to the dismay of some progressives, López and Collins have shown less interest than Moliga in hitting the traditional campaign circuit and making their case to groups that could mobilize voters.

On Tuesday night, the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, one of the city's most progressive groups, met and voted to oppose the recalls of Moliga and López, while taking no position on the recall of Collins, who has drawn additional criticism for writing derogatory tweets and filing a lawsuit against the district.

Milk Club co-president Edward Wright said he was upset that only Moliga agreed to fill out the club's campaign questionnaire.

"I am frankly a little bit offended and a little bit more than disappointed that there are people that this club has endorsed [in past elections] who, now that they’re facing a recall, want us to go out and make the case for them to the voters … but who will not go through this process to make the case to our members," Wright said.

Supporters of the board members have argued that it's unfair to ask the three to spend their spare time fighting a recall they believe has little merit, especially while the board has been working to balance the district's budget to avoid a potential state takeover.

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Commissioners also face hurdles to campaigning that don't exist for most elected officials: School board members are paid just $6,000 a year, and typically have full-time jobs outside of their board work.

"Add in the numerous end-of-year meetings and decisions we need to make on top of full-time work that also has its own end-of-year demands," López tweeted this week. "Campaigning is [full-time] and humans have their limits. Frankly, I have to choose myself, my job and my role as president to end this year strong."

Additionally, some club meetings and campaign forums have taken place on Tuesday evenings, overlapping with the board's regularly scheduled meetings.

But Joni Eisen, political action chair of the Potrero Hill Democratic Club, said Moliga arranged for a supporter to speak on his behalf at their Tuesday endorsement meeting, but she heard no reply from López and Collins.

"They're not showing up to these debates and forums and opportunities to speak," Eisen said. "So why should anyone support them if they don't even bother to reply to invitations to come?"

While both yes and no campaigns are likely to saturate voters' eyes and ears in the weeks ahead, Ross, the political consultant, said that the three board members' direct involvement on the campaign trail will go a long way toward determining their political fate.

"People always talk about direct mail or television or online, but San Francisco is a retail politics town," said Ross. "It's a town where voters want to know their elected officials — they want to know them personally."

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