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Political Ads in SF School Board Recall Election Target Chinese-Speaking Voters

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Political ads in favor of and against candidates running in the San Francisco recall election.

It’s no secret that successful political campaigns in San Francisco rely heavily on support from Chinese American voters — and at a time when the city is politically polarized, election results are often decided by razor-thin margins.

A current campaign to recall three members of the San Francisco Unified School District board is courting this vital demographic by investing in television ads in Mandarin and Cantonese. The ads emphasize issues many people in the Chinese American community care about most: a controversial tweet from one of the targeted school board members, as well as changes to the merit-based admissions policy at Lowell High School.

Tuesday’s special election board recall is the first recall in San Francisco in nearly 40 years; the last one was a failed attempt to recall then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1983. Chinese American parents and residents have come out in large numbers to help collect signatures to place the recall of San Francisco Board of Education commissioners Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga on Tuesday’s ballot.

Spending reports filed with the city detail the pro-recall campaign’s emphasis on reaching Chinese audiences. One campaign committee spent $42,840 to air ads on the Chinese TV station KTSF, along with $11,013 to purchase print ads in the Sing Tao Daily and World Journal newspapers. While not an enormous amount, especially given that their overall donations are approaching $2 million, it does signal who the campaign has identified as a key bloc of voters.

An analysis of ads in the race by KQED and The San Francisco Standard found that the messages, while similar to ads in English, reflect the issues that seem to have driven a high level of political engagement from some segments of the city’s Chinese community: the school board’s failures to more quickly reopen schools, and time spent discussing the renaming of schools.

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But some content is tailor-made for Chinese audiences.

Ads in favor of the recall

TV ads

The Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, López, and Moliga group has released a series of video ads in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.

The English versions mainly feature school parents and city leaders trying to persuade people to vote yes, with reasons including delays in reopening schools, the district’s budget deficit and the school renaming controversies. The Spanish version, featuring a Mexican immigrant parent, delivers a similar message.

But the Mandarin video, featuring Chinese American immigrant and public school parent Ann Hsu, specifically mentions the controversial tweets by Alison Collins and the Lowell High School admissions policy change.

Screen grab of School Board member Alison Collins in pro-recall ad
Screen grab from pro-recall ad.

The ad cited an SF Gate article dated March 2021: “Alison Collins’s tweet refers to Asians as Black house slaves,” which is a translation they used for “house N-word.”

Hsu, who is fluent in both English and Mandarin, also appeared in an English-language ad, but the criticism in this message focuses on the reopening and renaming of schools, not the controversial tweets or Lowell. The Cantonese video ad is also different from the Mandarin version.

Kit Lam, an outspoken public school father from Hong Kong who was caught on video trying to stop the alleged theft of recall petitions, is featured in the Cantonese ad. In the video, he expresses his anger about the pandemic closures and renaming of schools.

Screen grab of Kit Lam from a pro-recall video ad
Screen grab of Kit Lam in pro-recall ad.

Radio ads

The official recall campaign, Recall School Board Members López, Collins & Moliga, has released three Cantonese radio ads airing on local Chinese radio stations.

Among the three, one focuses on Lowell, one emphasizes the financial crisis faced by the school district and the other asks eligible voters to register. The ads note they were paid for by the committee with the main sources of funding coming from venture capitalist David Sacks and businessperson Arthur Rock. The latter is a vocal supporter of charter schools.

Newspaper ads

On Jan. 18, 2022, a print ad supporting the recall appeared in The World Journal, a major Chinese-language newspaper in the Bay Area.

Chinese language ad in support of recalling SFUSD board members
Newspaper ad by Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, López, and Moliga in favor of the recall.

The ad, placed by Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, López, and Moliga, features an upset child in front of a laptop — the reference is to remote learning during the pandemic-related school building closures. The ad also mentions Collins’s tweet, Lowell High School, the financial crisis and the $87 million lawsuit she filed against the school district and her board colleagues.

Ads opposing the recall

An ad funded by the campaigns against the recall is much smaller and vastly different from the well-funded supporter side. With limited resources, the opposition has few Chinese-language ads.

Door hanger

Door hanger against the recall
Door hanger ad opposed to the recall. (Courtesy of SF Standard)

The door hangers against the recall, paid for by the committee No On Recalls of School Board Commissioners López, Collins and Moliga, are widely distributed in San Francisco and have a Chinese-language version.

“Oppose the Recall of School Board,” the title reads. The messaging focuses on the school board as comprising teachers, parents and community organizers; say they “keep us safe” and “fight for the resources we want”; and say “we need resources, not recalls.”

Newspaper ad

San Francisco Berniecrats, a political club formed in 2016, placed an ad in a Chinese-language newspaper in mid-January, opposing the recall of the three members.

Anti-school board recall ad targeting Chinese American voters
Newspaper ad against the recall by SF Berniecrats.

Two headlines on the right column read “Oppose the Recall, Support the Democracy” and “Recall wastes public dollars, attacks public education.” The first paragraph compares the school board recall to the attempted recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021. The ad blames the school board recall on a campaign that hired signature gatherers with good pay — as much as $22 per signature.

The second paragraph says that if the recall is successful, Mayor London Breed will appoint the replacements: “This is not real democracy!”

In the same ad, the group also endorses David Campos for the state Assembly race.

Moliga, who is running his own campaign against the recall, said his campaign has been speaking directly with Chinese and AAPI communities, without using paid ads.

“Our campaign is fortunate to have these long-standing relationships in the AAPI community that are helping us fight this attempt to recall me,” Moliga said.

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Note: This story is part of a collaboration between KQED and Han Li of The San Francisco Standard to cover the school board recall election. Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com or on Twitter @lihanlihan.

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