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Campaign to Recall Three San Francisco School Board Members Vastly Outspending Opposition

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A woman wearing a yellow 'Recall the School Board' T-shirt hold a microphone, and stands next to a man wearing the same shirt.
Siva Raj (left) and Autumn Looijen speak during a press conference held by the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce on the steps of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The campaign to recall three San Francisco school board members in a Feb. 15 special election is vastly outspending its opponents, according to filings made public on Thursday.

With just over a week until voting ends, the financial advantage of the pro-recall campaign, which is made up of two separate committees, has enabled it to flood San Francisco mailboxes, airwaves and even streaming platforms like Hulu with arguments to remove board members Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga from office.

Through the end of last week, those two committees reported spending a total of $1.75 million, nearly half of that in January alone. Meanwhile, the two separate anti-recall campaigns (one solely fighting the removal of Moliga) collectively spent just $68,110.

Recall supporters started campaigning much earlier than their opponents, giving them a major head start in building a financial war chest. The first of the pro-recall groups, led by Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, raised cash beginning in the spring of 2021, from a mix of wealthy venture capitalists and small-dollar donors, helping them pay for an army of signature gatherers to qualify the three recall questions for the ballot.

By contrast, the two campaigns opposing the recall didn't begin raising money in earnest until November.

Sponsored

That same month, a second pro-recall campaign committee, Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, López, and Moliga, was formed with a focus on recruiting and spending big dollars.

The largest contributor to the Concerned Parents group is the political group Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, which has given $458,800. That group's largest donor is William Oberndorf, a San Francisco-based investor and advocate for school voucher systems in states across the country, in which government funds could be used to attend private schools.

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The largest individual pro-recall donor so far is venture capitalist Arthur Rock, a charter school proponent who has given nearly $400,000 to the effort.

Recall questions are listed on the ballot as "measures," a specific designation that allows unlimited fundraising and spending on their behalf. Those rules have opened the door for the pro-recall campaigns to spend far in excess of the traditionally low-dollar contributions in school board races.

To put that in perspective: The 38 candidates who ran for school board in San Francisco across four elections, from 2016 to 2020, collectively spent $1.05 million — 60% less than the $1.75 million the pro-recall campaigns have so far spent on this single election.

The biggest payout thus far has been $289,708 to Comcast, for the airing of pro-recall ads on stations including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ESPN and HGTV.

Spending files also show the pro-recall campaign's focus on spreading its message to San Francisco's Chinese-language voters. The Concerned Parents committee spent $42,840 to air ads on the TV station KTSF, along with $11,013 to purchase print ads in the Sing Tao Daily and World Journal newspapers.

The main campaign opposing the recall has received its largest donations from SEIU 1021 ($6,500), a union representing public sector workers, and the United Educators of San Francisco ($5,000), the city's teachers union. Our Revolution, a political group aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, also spent $5,000 in opposition to the recall.

Lacking the resources to put their message on the airwaves, that campaign has spent roughly $27,213 on items including door hangers, window signs and mailers.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Moliga has reported spending a total of $40,896 on his own separate campaign to save his job, largely to pay for campaign literature, mailings and printing.

The pro-recall campaign committees ended the reporting period, on Jan. 29, with a combined $162,110 on hand, compared with $11,214 for the two anti-recall campaigns.

Correction: in the initial version of this story, KTSF was described as a radio station. It is, in fact, a TV station.

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