S.F.’s Asian American voters were crucial in the school board recall. Here’s why

When the pandemic sent more than 50,000 San Francisco public school students home, parents like Ann Hsu saw the disparities of remote learning firsthand.

One of her twin boys was managing, but “the other one was a disaster,” spending 10 hours a day talking online with friends, watching YouTube and neglecting his schoolwork. Hsu helped him for hours and began learning more about the school district. What she saw alarmed her. The board was focused on renaming schools and facing a huge deficit while children fell further behind during remote learning.

“The more I saw, the more I learned, the more pissed off I got,” she said. “They didn’t care about the students.”

In the past year, Hsu, president of Galileo Academy’s Parent Teacher Association, became one of the key leaders of an Asian American community that powered the landslide recall of three board members.

She founded the Chinese/Asian Pacific Islander Voter Outreach Task Force, which registered 560 mostly monolingual Chinese voters for the election between mid-December and the end of January. That included 418 first-time citizen voters and 142 noncitizen voters who can participate in school board elections.

As of Wednesday, 266 noncitizen voters had registered and 166 voted in the election, according to city data. That’s more than the 36 registered noncitizen voters in the November 2020 election and the 65 registered noncitizen voters in the November 2018 election, when the three ousted school members won their seats.

Empowered voters and a collective rage over a reopening that was slower than other major cities’ and the end of merit-based admission at Lowell High School were crucial factors in the election, organizers and political experts said. The anti-Asian tweets by now-recalled board member Alison Collins incensed San Franciscans who had never paid attention to the school board.

But it’s unclear whether the energy surrounding an unprecedented election will sustain itself and whether the same voters will turn out for the June 7 recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin or beyond. Some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders passionately supported the recalled members and also oppose Boudin’s recall.

According to U.S. census population estimates, 36% of San Franciscans identify as Asian, compared with 40% as white. More than half of them are Chinese, but Hsu said, historically, the community has been less engaged than other groups.

“Chinese culture does not encourage citizen engagement,” she said, referencing China’s lack of democracy. “You expect that the rulers are benevolent and do the things that are good for the people. People don’t get involved.”

Economic survival also takes priority. “You have to learn about the new environment you’re in, you have to make money, you have to raise your kids. There’s no time for you to care about politics,” she said.

Hsu, who worked in tech for two decades, approached registering voters like starting a business. The outreach group would target Chinese speakers who weren’t being reached by other recall groups and didn’t realize they could vote — despite all San Francisco election materials being translated to Chinese. Hsu helped educate people on how to fill out a ballot and organized transportation to the polls.

The topic of education resonated with people more than a typical political race, said Hsu, who came to the Bay Area in 1989 to study electrical engineering at UC Berkeley.

The Lakeshore and Parkmerced areas surrounding Lowell High School had some of the highest support for the recall, with more than 90% of voters supporting the recall of Collins as of Thursday’s count.

“A lot of new immigrant families come here for a better education for their children and a better future for the next generation,” said Wilson Chu, former president of the Chinese American Democratic Club and member of the outreach task force. “It’s almost like a religion in some families.”

The 100-member club was formed in 1958 and sued the school district in the early 1990s to remove racial quotas and later helped open a middle school in the Richmond. It endorsed the recall of all three board members.

The Asian American Civic Engagement Super PAC also formed during the recall election and could influence future races.

The impact on the Boudin recall remains to be seen. The Chinese American Democratic Club hasn’t decided on a position, and many political groups are also figuring out their stances now that the recall dust is settling, Chu said.

“My hope is that this coalition will continue,” Chu said. “I think this has added more momentum for their desire to be involved in the democratic process.”

On Tuesday, the outreach task force will meet to decide whether to disband or become an official entity.

Asian and Pacific Islander voters don’t typically vote on racial identity alone, said David Ho, a political consultant.

“‘Asian American’ is an invention,” Ho said. “Most Asian (ethnicities) do not particularly identify as being Asian. It’s really a political coining of a class of voters. There really is no pan-Asian agenda, particularly from an immigrant perspective.”

A “perfect storm” of a dozen controversies made the recall succeed, on top of a rise in violence against Asian Americans and challenges facing Asian American business owners during the pandemic, Ho said.

Siva Raj and Autumn Looijen, who started the recall effort, said Chinese American parents emerged as some of the most passionate supporters.

About one-third of the 80,000 signatures collected came from Asian Americans, Raj said. The volunteer effort used Chinese language media including Sing Tao Daily and World Journal to reach its audience, along with WeChat for Chinese voters and WhatsApp to reach the Indian American population.

The campaign included Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese speakers, canvassing the Sunset and Richmond districts.

The recall effort was largely backed by older generations, such as alumni of public schools and those with grandchildren currently enrolled. Although younger Asian Americans may be more civically engaged, they appear to be less connected to the city, Raj said.

“I think (Asian Americans) were treated as secondary, even though we should get equal treatment,” Raj said. “People are saying, ‘I matter. San Francisco needs to care about me too.’”

The recall was the first campaign volunteer work for Lowell alumnus Laurence Lee since 2011, when he supported his college friend David Chiu, now city attorney, in the mayoral race.

Lowell wasn’t the main issue for him, but rather the “overt racism” of Collins’ 2016 tweet comparing Asians to a racial slur against Black people after she said they weren’t standing up against then-President-elect Donald Trump. She deleted the tweet after being reported, but reposted in a screenshot in December 2021.

“It’s completely performative, outrageous crap,” Lee said. “We used to have support and allies. Now we’re the easy scapegoat.”

Collins also said in 2016 that many Asian American students, teachers and parents “use white supremacist thinking to assimilate ‘get ahead.’”

A few days before the election, she doubled down.

“So when I have said in the past that SOME members of the AAPI community have aligned themselves with whiteness, it’s a historical fact, not an opinion. It’s surprising to me that some folks still find this idea so controversial,” she wrote in a tweet. “And let me add, this is true of ALL GROUPS including Black folks.”

For some supporters of now ousted board member Faauuga Moliga, the city’s first Pacific Islander elected official, the recall result was a return to inequity.

Gaynor Siataga, who canvassed alongside Moliga on Tuesday, said she received more than 50 anguished phone calls about the outcome of the election from local families and even residents of the Pacific Islands who wanted to understand what happened.

“They didn’t even start caring about us, 100 years in the city, until we finally got representation,” said Siataga, director of a new Pacific Islander Community Hub, known as the Hut, in the Bayview. She credits Moliga for helping create it and said he was scapegoated for the actions of Collins. “I feel like it was unjust. They just threw all of them into the pot,” she said.

Siataga said she believes the Lowell admissions change and renaming of schools were justified. The rise in omicron cases in the district vindicated a more cautious reopening approach and showed safety measures weren’t adequate, she said.

Siataga sees particular cruelty in Mayor London Breed’s endorsement of the recall, after she previously appointed Moliga to a vacant board seat. “Politicians who supported this have no concern for true equity,” she said. “Basically she’s saying we don’t count.”

Siataga, Collins and other recall opponents have cited the recall campaign’s $1.9 million in funding as evidence of the corrupting power of wealthy conservative donors. Silicon Valley billionaire Arthur Rock, the biggest individual donor, is a supporter of charter schools.

But Hsu said wealthy donors had nothing to do with her efforts and suggesting they manipulated parents and voters is a distortion. “Nobody paid me. Nobody paid any of the people that I worked with. It’s disrespectful to us,” she said.

Dan Phung, a volunteer with the no campaign and husband of campaign co-chair Julie Roberts-Phung, said it was difficult to compete against the yes campaign’s financial advantage and voter apathy. When he canvassed in the Bayview, people didn’t seem to be aware of the campaign.

Though he doesn’t agree with Collins’ use of the racial slur or her failed $87 million lawsuit against the district, he said her tweets were accurately calling out racism.

“Asian Americans can benefit from a different prejudice in society,” said Phung, who would support the recalled board members if they ran again and hopes their policies continue.

“All these changes benefited working class and Black and brown people,” he said.

Kurtis Wu, a board member of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, has volunteered on a half-dozen progressive campaigns since 2018. But this time, he felt burned out and didn’t participate, despite opposing the recall.

“There is a section of San Francisco Chinese voters who have historically voted in the, my opinion, moderate and conservative side,” he said. “The recall campaign did a good job of activating that side.”

“What I have issue with this is painting it as a monolith,” he said. “It was a low turnout election, there are other diverse views.”

Wu plans to campaign again in the regular school board election in November. He also expects recall voters to stay energized.

“Winning builds momentum, and it builds energy,” he said.

Roland Li and Gwendolyn Wu are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: roland.li@sfchronicle.com, gwendolyn.wu@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @rolandlisf, @gwendolynawu