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'Stunning Reversal of Fortune': Ann Hsu Voted Off SF School Board Following Racist Comments

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An Asian woman with short black hair and holding a microphone wears a red leather jacket, red sunglasses on top of her head, and a red, yellow and purple scarf.
Ann Hsu speaks 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, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco Unified school board commissioner Ann Hsu, who was widely condemned for racist comments she made earlier this year, has lost her seat to challenger Alida Fisher.

Though previously Hsu was in third place in the Board of Education race — for three open seats — she dropped to fourth place on Monday, and never recovered.

As of Thursday, Hsu had no viable path to win. Hsu has 17.14% of the vote, with challenger Alida Fisher surpassing her at 17.75%. Fisher is leading Hsu by 4,054 votes — an insurmountable lead considering the 800 ballots left to count by the San Francisco Department of Elections.

In a YouTube video concession speech, Hsu complained that people focused too much on the way she worded her sentiment about Black and brown families, instead of the message behind the words.

"Regarding my campaign, we had challenges from the very beginning. It is unfortunate some people chose to focus on political correctness, rather than the substance of my entire statement," Hsu said, which is that "parent involvement is critical to the success of children in school and in life."

She continued that if some parents can't help students succeed — due to culture or life circumstances — the school district needs to step in and help those students.

"That is the truth, whether politically correct or not," Hsu said.

Hsu, an immigrant and a mother of SFUSD students, was appointed to the Board of Education by Mayor London Breed in March, following the recall of three school board members.

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A few months later, Hsu faced her own calls to resign from Black and brown communities after she made racist comments in a parents' group candidate questionnaire, which she later apologized for. One Latina student speaking to KQED in August called Hsu's comments "a slap in the face."

After that controversy, however, some prominent politicians called for forgiveness and grace. Mayor London Breed asked, "How do we come together and make this a teaching moment?" Even Hsu herself said she would conduct "listening sessions and community outreach."

But did she?

Some of the most prominent groups representing Black and Latinx San Franciscans, the NAACP and San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club, said Hsu never reached out to fix the harms she had caused.

Yulanda Williams, third vice president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, said Hsu's dwindling electoral support may show that San Francisco voters didn't accept Hsu's apology.

"Actions speak louder than words," Williams said. "Hsu was lacking in cultural competency."

Watch Ann Hsu's concession speech in a YouTube video, above.

Quincy Yu, Hsu's campaign spokesperson, said it's "not true" that Hsu has done no outreach.

Instead, her outreach was out of the spotlight, Yu said.

"She has for the last three months been in the community speaking to parents, faith-based organizations and nonprofit organizations. She has not politicized any of this. She has quietly and consistently reached out," Yu said.

When asked to name those organizations, Yu said, "I am not at liberty to disclose them. They are faith-based."

Despite the intense scrutiny, early ballot returns showed Hsu as the third-place vote-getter for the San Francisco Board of Education, with three open positions. That changed Monday.

The San Francisco Department of Elections has continued to count provisional ballots turned in the day of the election, and with each passing tally, Hsu's grip on third place loosened. Monday, that grip slipped completely, and her closest competitor, Alida Fisher, a special education advocate, surpassed her into third.

Fisher now appears poised to join the Board of Education, as the pattern of ballot results has only continued in her favor.

Alida Fisher speaks into microphone at event
San Francisco Unified School District board candidate Alida Fisher speaks at an election night event at El Rio in San Francisco on Nov. 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Whoever joins the Board of Education will arrive during a time of turmoil and transition: Students are still lagging in testing after pandemic lockdowns, payroll system errors have deprived many teachers of their salaries, and there's a national concern for school safety following high-profile school shootings.

And there is more at stake than just Hsu's political career: Fisher's win would tilt the ideological majority of the Board of Education away from supporting Mayor London Breed's policies. A newly left-leaning board might, for instance, revisit the decision to make Lowell High School merit-based, long a desire of Black students who championed an open lottery system.

Hsu declined to comment for this story.

But those speaking to KQED said it's likely that, in the eye of the public, she never recovered from her comments saying Black and brown families do not value education.

By contrast, Fisher reached out to groups representing communities of color. She spoke at length to the local NAACP chapter last month and asked questions to help understand the needs of Black families attending San Francisco schools, Williams said.

Williams was so impressed with Fisher that, after the visit, she said, "I have far more hope that Fisher is more understanding and aware of Black culture."

Fisher told KQED, "I don't want to be the voice of Black families or of Latinx families or Pacific Islander families, but I sure as hell want to elevate their voices. I think that it's important to have that. It's important to have those voices represented. And if they're not members who sit on the board themselves, then whatever I can do to help elevate their experiences and their perspectives, I see that as my job."

Like the NAACP, the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club also publicly discussed their disappointment in Hsu's previous anti-Black and anti-brown comments. Bahlam Vigil, an officer of the club, said that after their public rebuke of Hsu and subsequent invitation to talk, she never responded.

"We've tried reaching out to her behind the scenes. We even asked Supervisor Gordon Mar to help. She reached out to us on Twitter, publicly, but she never followed up in private," Vigil said.

"We wanted to build coalitions that are multicultural," Vigil added. "We didn't want to make this about politics, we wanted to make it about healing. We were really worried her comments would continue this divide that has perpetuated among communities of color."

Yu, Hsu's spokesperson, said Hsu had learned much since the comments she made earlier in the year. Black and brown communities are firstly "not monolithic," she said, and there are transportation issues and other roadblocks that are contributing to truancy among Black and Latinx students that Hsu is eager to help tackle.

Despite what Yu described as quiet outreach, a lack of support from Black and brown San Francisco communities may be reflected as the remaining ballots are tallied.

David Lee, political science lecturer at San Francisco State University, said the neighborhoods that voted strongest for Hsu were ones with the most Asian voters: the Richmond District, the Excelsior, Visitacion Valley and Chinatown.

Those neighborhoods alone weren't enough to carry Hsu to victory. Her weak showing in more progressive neighborhoods on the eastern side of San Francisco was particularly notable given that Hsu was appointed to the school board, and incumbents are normally hard to topple. But Hsu also out-raised all of her opponents, Lee said.

Hsu had more than $93,000 in campaign contributions; Fisher raised roughly $30,000.

"That is a stunning reversal of fortune for this candidate who looked like she had everything going for her," Lee said.

But one place where Hsu suffered was in endorsements.

Many of them evaporated in the face of her racist comments, and that could have cost her votes.

The Mayor London Breed-backed Hsu picked up endorsements from groups that are strong allies of the mayor, like the Chinese American Democratic Club, Edwin M. Lee Asian Pacific Democratic Club, GrowSF and the United Democratic Club.

But she failed to pick up endorsements from labor groups and major Democratic clubs like the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club or Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and, perhaps most key, the teachers union and the San Francisco Democratic Party.

The San Francisco Chronicle also endorsed Breed's two other appointees but not Hsu, endorsing Fisher instead.

The teachers union, the United Educators of San Francisco, endorsed only Fisher and Lisa Weissman-Ward, a Breed appointee.

Yu said Hsu tried to spread the word on her campaign and raise funds, but she "did not go after endorsements because, frankly, those organizations had already condemned her without giving her the ability to address the larger issues. I'm sure those endorsements help a lot."

The local Democratic Party often swings with San Francisco's progressives but, for the school board, it endorsed two mayoral appointees — although notably, not Hsu.

Instead, they also endorsed Fisher. Lee said endorsements are important in school board races, which are considered low-information, "down-ballot" races, where voters depend a lot on recommendations from groups instead of on doing research.

"The local Democratic Party endorsement carries a lot of weight in down-ballot races, such as a school board election. And in this case, clearly it did because Alida Fisher was endorsed and Hsu was not," Lee said.

KQED's Julia McEvoy contributed to this report.

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