Chicago and New York might be the gold standard when it comes to political corruption, but they’ve got nothing on San Francisco. Scratch the interlocking recall campaigns to unseat San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, and three members of the school board, and you’ll find a hornet’s nest of backscratching and backstabbing going back to the Ed Lee administration. Of course, we could go further back than that. We could go to the Willie Brown administration – remember Chris Daly? Remember the boxes of ballots found in the Bay after Brown creamed the insurgent Tom Ammiano in his reelection bid? But we won’t go there because things are confusing enough already.
In January 2012, Ross Mirikarimi, the elected sheriff of San Francisco, was charged with domestic violence after a neighbor secretly taped his wife, Eliana Lopez, telling her that Mirikarimi had violently grabbed her arm. Mayor Ed Lee demanded that Mirikarimi resign, and when he didn’t, suspended him and appointed a replacement. Lee was at that time in his first elected term. He had been appointed to replace Gavin Newsom (more on him later) who had become lieutenant governor of california. Lee was trying to put his political team together, and Mirikarimi was not an ally. As a city Supervisor, Mirikarimi had voted against the “Sit-Lie” law and other anti-homeless, anti-poor legislation favored by Lee and his friend, then-district attorney George Gascón (now rebranded as the “progressive prosecutor” of LA County). As sheriff, Mirikarimi wanted to focus on alternatives to incarceration and programs that would help combat recidivism and reduce the jail population. As a city supervisor, he had proposed an ordinance to provide reparations to residents who had been displaced by the demolition of the Fillmore, two-thirds of whom were African American.
Mirikarimi won a legal challenge to the suspension and in October the board of supervisors voted to let him keep his job. In early November, a series of attack ads targeted supervisor Christina Olague for her vote in support of Mirikarimi. Olague, the city’s first openly bisexual supervisor, was a long-time civil rights activist from a farmworker family, whom I first met when she was a student organizer opposing u.s. intervention in Central America in the 1980s. She went on to work with the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and the queer youth organization, LYRIC. The late-formed committee to defeat Olague was funded by tech billionaire Ron Conway, a major supporter of Ed Lee, and led by a political strategist named Andrea Shorter. Shorter, who had previously been the director of Marriage for All and had worked for Larkin Street Youth Center, Equality California, served on the Commission on the Status of Women and recruited “domestic violence advocates” (don’t blame me – that’s what CBS called them) to attack Olague for her vote. Olague lost the seat to London Breed, who became a close ally of Lee’s and was appointed to succeed him as mayor when he died suddenly in 2017.
Shorter was then investigated by the Ethics Commission for failing to disclose information about her employers while she served on the Commission for the Status of Women. She was eventually fined $800. Who made the complaint? The articles don’t say, but SFGATE does mention that “The dustup comes after a period of fresh tension between the progressive and moderate factions of the local Democratic Party – including the unsuccessful effort to oust progressive Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and the defeat in November of progressive supervisor Olague. Shorter played an active role for the moderates in both and has been involved in exploring a recall of Mirkarimi…”
Andrea Shorter contemplating a recall. Put a pin in that.
Breed was reelected mayor in 2018, defeating the more progressive supervisor Jane Kim, with major support from – drumroll please – Ron Conway. According to investigative journalist Tim Redmond, Conway wrote emails “tell[ing] donors how to get around campaign finance rules to support Breed. He also urged them to give to SF YIMBY Action, the faux affordable housing organization that agitates for building building building on the theory that more luxury housing will “trickle down” to somehow create affordable housing in gentrifying cities. YIMBY is kind of neoliberalism in a bottle. Calling itself “a network of people who advocate for abundant, affordable housing and inclusive, sustainable communities across the United States,” it uses progressive language like “equity” and “climate crisis,” and accuses its opponents of being “privileged.” The YIMBYs’ best friend in Sacramento is gay former SF supervisor, now state senator, Scott Wiener.
This brings us to today, when London Breed and Scott Wiener are the highest profile supporters of a campaign to recall three of the seven members of the San Francisco school board. The other four board members would be facing recall too, except they hadn’t been in office long enough when the petition was filed – you get a six month grace period before you can be recalled. Call it a fighting chance. The recall was launched by a couple, Autumn Looijen and Silva Raj, and has gotten big funding from six local venture capitalists as well as, sadly, the Chinese American Democratic Club. The Alice B. Toklas LGBT Demo Club is also supporting the recall of two of the three members.
The ostensible reason for the recall is that the school board didn’t do enough to get students back into in-person learning fast enough. Some say the reason they didn’t was because they couldn’t do anything to improve the ventilation in buildings that have been in terrible shape for years, and the teacher’s union was legitimately refusing to go back until it was safe. That would make the recall part of the ongoing efforts to undermine teachers’ unions and privatize education. Like the YIMBYs, the recall promoters couch their arguments in terms of “equity,” saying on their website, “Our most disadvantaged kids fell farthest behind.” They are upset that the board spent a great deal of time deciding to rename 44 schools named for colonizers or other racist figures (including u.s. presidents). They harken back to the debate over how to deal with a mural at Washington (soon to be renamed London Breed High?) high school, that was painted in the 1930s by a white leftist artist in an attempt to depict the racist history of the school’s namesake. Some students wanted the mural removed, while some artists and activists felt that it should be put in more context. All of this is framed by the decision, in the middle of the pandemic and as other school districts were looking at similar issues, to open the elite Lowell High School to all students by lottery. Currently, Lowell (on the list to be renamed) is 57% Asian, 18% white, 11.5% Latinx, 10.8% mixed race and only 1.8% African American.
The SF recall is one of more than 200 aimed at California school board members since 2020, part of a nationwide avalanche of recall campaigns. (By contrast, in 2011 17 school board members were recalled nationwide.) Most of the recent recalls were opposing COVID safety measures (masks, vaccinations, closures) and any effort to redress or teach about racism. According to u.s. news and world report, “Recall efforts – nearly two-thirds of which were rooted in pandemic-related issues – were started this year in a wide swath of states…The Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas [in July] hosted a panel discussion entitled ‘Activism Applied: How to Save Your School Board.’ The panelists decried critical race theory, which one of the group, Chinese-born Virginia parent Xi Van Fleet, compared to the Maoist Cultural Revolution.… ‘We’re going to take our army of “Minute Moms,” and we’re going to go across the country and fight these battles,’ Ian Prior, founder of the group Fight for Schools, said.” According to someone who studies recall elections, a school board recall that makes it to the ballot is 75-80% likely to succeed. Polls so far show 69% of SF parents saying they’re in favor of the recall.
Chesa Boudin, whose father, David Gilbert, has just been released from prison after 40 years, had been district attorney of San Francisco for just over a year when the first of two recall petitions against him was filed. That effort was led by republikkkan former mayoral candidate Richie Greenberg, who was also promoting the recall of governor Gavin Newsom, allegedly because of draconian COVID measures and going to a party at the French Laundry. Greenberg’s campaign against Chesa received major funding from David Sacks, former COO of PayPal, who is now one of the largest donors so far to the school board recall. The first recall campaign fell just short of the required 51,000 signatures needed to proceed, but by then a second campaign was already underway. This one was organized by Mary Jung and – wait for it — Andrea Shorter, operating under a group called San Franciscans for Public Safety.
Mary Jung is also a member of the Commission on the Status of Women (oh, bourgeois feminism, what has happened to you?), and a former chair of the SF “Democratic Party.” And she’s a lobbyist for the real estate industry.
Shorter and Jung and Co. easily got all the signatures they needed to get the recall on ballot for February, and by August, had assembled a war chest of over $720,000, about half of it from trump-affiliated republikkkan sources. But some of the donors are prominent demokrats, who actually contributed significantly to defeat the Newsom recall. And incidentally, one of the groups that got money donated for the recall is the Edwin Lee Asian Pacific Democratic Club.
The first “Recall Chesa” TV ad was released a few weeks ago. It features six people, at least four of whom are BIPOC. Among them are Shorter and Jung. Shorter is identified as a spokesperson for “Safer SF Without Boudin.” Jung says that “Chesa’s failure has resulted in an increase in crime against Asian Americans.” Problem: neither of them is identified as working for the recall campaign. Shorter is, apparently, being paid $16,000 a month as a spokesperson for the campaign while Jung is its treasurer. Under federal campaign law, says the website 48hills, that’s supposed to be disclosed. Remember that $800 fine Andrea Shorter paid for failing to discloser her employers? Apparently it wasn’t a deterrent. Maybe Chesa should have imposed harsher penalties for corruption. Yes, I realize that was in 2013. Which is kinda the point.
Chesa has been held responsible for any uptick in crime in the city since he announced his candidacy. A month before the election in 2019, the SF Examiner reported that the SF Police Officers’ Association (POA) had spent about $638,000 on ads attacking Boudin. “The SFPOA is now the biggest outside spender in a race that has become the most expensive contest of its kind in San Francisco history, according to political consultant Jon Golinger.” Using his record as a public defender and his opposition to “gang enhancements,” increased sentences based on affiliations, the POA called him the “best choice for gang members and criminals.” No one was surprised when they started making huge noise about any crime that happened on his watch.
The Real Crime Is Capitalism
The Recall Chesa advocates say, predictably, that crime rates, especially violent crimes, have exploded under Boudin, that he’s given free reign to murderers and rapists by eliminating cash bail and undercharging. In fact, data found by reporters for that famously radical rag, the SF Chronicle and other news outlets indicates that overall crime has stayed about the same since 2019, ticking up in predictable ways, given the social upheaval caused by the pandemic. Homicides went up at the end of 2020 (as they did nationally) but have leveled out again. And in fact, the increase in homicides in San Francisco was significantly lower than those in New York, Atlanta, Seattle and Minneapolis – none of which have progressive prosecutors.
Burglaries in San Francisco are sky-high, especially auto and commercial burglaries, and no one knows exactly why, but it’s not because of Boudin: only about 13% of commercial burglaries and less than 2% of car burglaries are “solved” by the cops. He charges about 80% of the ones that come to him. Overall, 48hills and the Chronicle found that his office is charging as many or more cases as Nancy O’Malley, the decidedly-not-progressive D.A. in Alameda County (where Oakland and Berkeley are located) and roughly equal to his predecessor’s rate. Sexual assault prosecutions are up by 25% since he took office – what about that, Status of Women commissioners? The uproar over car break-ins is kind of hilarious to me, because ten years ago, when my car was broken into two days in a row in Oakland, I discovered that the OPD won’t even take a report on car break-ins – there’s an online form you can fill out for your insurance company.
Ultimately, it’s never been about crime, but about who “feels” safe or unsafe, and who we think has the right to be safe. And you don’t need me to tell you who that is. Ironically, one of the biggest successful recall campaigns prior to the last two years was in 1959, when a group called STOP organized to recall three segregationist members of the Little Rock, Arkansas school board, who had spearheaded a purge of 44 teachers who supported integration. That may have been the last time a recall went for the anti-racist side. These days, recall is the latest weapon in the arsenal of those who want to maintain white supremacy and patriarchy through minority rule.
The Loooooong Story
The New York Times recently ran a series of articles about right-wing moves to take over school boards, using Critical Race Theory to stoke fear and build furor among the trump-minded. While the Times called this a brand new tactic born of the pandemic, it’s actually a continuation of a strategy cooked up in the late 1970s by the Christian Right, based on the work of someone named R. J. Rushdoony, who “called for the establishment of a theocracy within the United States based on biblical law.” Enflamed by the Roe v. Wade decision establishing the right to abortion, and the increase in gay visibility after Stonewall, the Christian fundamentalists developed a theory they called, disturbingly, “Christian Reconstruction.” One of the top political tactics was taking over school boards, called by researcher Frederick Clarkson, “the stealth strategy.” Groups like the Christian Coalition and the Citizens for Excellence in Education gave workshops and funded candidates to take over local school boards in order to prevent sex education or positive teaching about homosexuality and to promote school prayer. The “stealth” part was that they didn’t talk about those issues in their campaigns, but rather were encouraged to “run on vague platforms, such as teaching ‘the basics’ and restoring student discipline.” They were extremely successful.
One part of the strategy was for school boards and other activists to attack textbook content guidelines as too left-wing (they weren’t). In 1979, Texas activists managed to persuade the State Board of Education to adopt guidelines which specified: “Textbooks shall present positive aspects of America and its heritage; they shall not contain material which serves to undermine authority; the amount of violent content should be limited; content shall not present lifestyles deviating from generally accepted standards of society.” The textbook companies didn’t want to, or felt they couldn’t afford to, produce one set of books for Texas and another for the rest of the country, so Texas activists got to control the books for all public school kids in the nation, and that’s been true since 1977.
Back to 2021, the newly formed 1776 Project PAC, a direct response to the groundbreaking historical work of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, is “dedicated to electing school board members nationwide who want to reform our public education system by promoting patriotism and pride in American history.” When you go to its website, the first thing you see is a popup asking you to “Report a School Promoting Critical Race Theory.”
The right wing knows that they are not the majority. But they do have, or have access to, the majority of the money, and with that, they can buy opportunities to control elections. One of the ways they do that is by controlling the timing of elections, and recalls are a great way to do that. Both the San Francisco recalls will be special elections, and most of the ballots cast will be mail-ins. The lower the turnout, the more it favors the energized base. In San Francisco, recall petitions must be signed by at least “15% or 20%” of the registered voters in the city or district (depending if it’s a city-wide position or representing a specific district) – I couldn’t find anything explaining when it’s 15% and when it’s 20%, but at least it’s a significant percentage. In some states, the requirement is 15% of those who actually voted for the position in the last election. A low-turnout election thus begets an even lower-threshold recall.
Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant, the first socialist elected to a major city council in close to a century (and the first Seattle socialist elected to a city-wide position since Anna Louise Strong won a school board seat in 1916), seems to have narrowly survived a recall vote last week (as of this writing, she leads by just 200 votes out of a total of over 40,500). Assuming that she would be more likely to win if the recall were on the regular November ballot, Sawant made the unusual move of offering to gather recall signatures herself. The county said she could but that the petitions she and her supporters collected had to be turned over to the recall campaign for verification.
Recalls are just like redistricting, which is now being done in frenzied state houses all over the country, and the voter suppression legislation that has been enacted in 19 states in the last year. They’re like the January insurrection and the attempts to get the election decertified by congress. They’re also like the continued lawsuits against Rabab Abdulhadi and the Arab & Muslim Identities in Diaspora Studies program at San Francisco State – every time one gets throw out, they just file a new one. If you don’t like the outcome, you get a do-over. Keep people fighting all the time just to stay afloat.
It’s all part of the drive for the few – the right, the rich, the white – to maintain power over the many. But it’s not a done deal. The Brennan Center for Justice points out that while the onslaught of anti-democratic (that’s a small “d”, in case you’re wondering) legislation is “unprecedented,” 25 states have passed laws expanding voting rights, through longer early voting periods, increased access to mail in ballots, language accessibility, improved disabled access and more. It’s as usual up to us to do the work. Fight for every vote. Don’t give up. If you believe that elections are a waste of time and we need a revolution, hurry up and make it already!