Three San Francisco School Board members were removed from their positions by voters on Tuesday, CNN projects, following a tough recall campaign that pitted Democrats against Democrats as interlocking controversies over school closings and renamings fueled a well-funded backlash.
The successful effort in one of the country’s most liberal cities is likely to embolden Republicans who have channeled parental anger over school reopenings and mask mandates into a powerful wedge issue, including last fall in Virginia. For Democrats, especially those making decisions in blue states, the vote highlighted internal divisions over how to handle the pandemic as cases decline but the threat of another surge looms.
More than 70% of voters supported the recall of School Board President Gabriela López, Vice President Faauuga Moliga and Commissioner Alison Collins as of Wednesday morning, according to preliminary results from the San Francisco Department of Elections. Their temporary replacements will be named by Mayor London Breed, a Democrat who in announcing her support for the recall last year said the city was at a “crossroads” and called the board’s priorities “severely misplaced.”
The seeds of anger that led to the recall effort were planted early in the coronavirus pandemic, when the board considered changing the names of as many as 44 public schools in a city that was still grappling with how to safely reopen them. The discussions, which became the subject of some head-scratching in national media, touched off angry confrontations between the city’s liberal establishment and movement progressives.
Though the battle lines in San Francisco were fine and the debate colored by distinctly local clashes, the successful recall campaign will be applauded by conservatives around the country, who have made “parents’ rights” a rallying cry as they seek to win over mainly suburban voters turned off by former President Donald Trump. Republicans, like new Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, have sought to translate parental frustration over Covid-era mandates into political gain, a political tactic that is also overlapping with wider right-wing campaign to sanitize or censor historical readings and teaching in schools across the country.
Following the recalls results, Moliga tweeted that it had been an honor serving on the board. López and Collins have yet to make public statements.
“The voters of this City have delivered a clear message that the School Board must focus on the essentials of delivering a well-run school system above all else,” Breed said in a statement. “San Francisco is a city that believes in the value of big ideas, but those ideas must be built on the foundation of a government that does the essentials well.”
The driving forces in the recall portend more difficult discussions among Democrats.
“During such a difficult time, the decisions we make for our children will have long term impacts,” Breed, the mayor, wrote in a Facebook post explaining her support for the recall. “Which is why it is so important to have leadership that will tackle these challenges head on, and not get distracted by unnecessary influences or political agendas.”
Opponents of the recall derided it as a power grab by big-money interests seeking to push progressive voices out of local power and pointed to elections, scheduled for just nine months from now, as a fairer way for voters to have their say.
San Francisco Berniecrats, a progressive group, recommended “no” votes on all three recall subjects. On its website, the organization compares the current battle to the ultimately unsuccessful conservative effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, last year and casts the campaign in broader national overtones.
“These two recalls have one thing in common: they are attempts to short-circuit the democratic process with big money,” the group says. “Across the country, right-wingers are attacking school boards; over half of the signatures to qualify for the ballot were gathered by people paid as much as $22 per signature, many of whom came from out of state.”
Though the recall effort had a number of big-money backers, including Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, a political action committee that is also boosting an effort to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive champion, it also secured a potentially crucial late endorsement from the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board.
In a piece published over the weekend, the Chronicle argued that López, Moliga and Collins “consistently failed to shepherd the district and its students through the gravest of times during the pandemic”– a reference to controversies over reopening schools, an admissions controversy and budget woes – and claimed that board’s cumbersome work to rename dozens of schools “made a mockery of the broader push for historical reckoning in the United States at a time of unprecedented receptivity to change.”
The recall campaign had, according to the Chronicle, collected nearly $2 million, while organized support of the endangered board members, most notably Moliga, had raised only $86,000.
López, who was elected to the board in 2018 and chosen by her colleagues to lead it in 2021, has defended her work to reopen schools and insisted the renaming process never interfered with those efforts.
But some of the school names that once appeared on the chopping block, including Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, raised eyebrows both in the city and around the country. San Francisco-based US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, too, was on the list, in connection with a decision when she was mayor, in 1984, to replace a Confederate flag damaged by protesters outside City Hall. There were also instances in which critics noted that the board had misattributed historical deeds to figures – like Paul Revere, in one instance – which fueled anger over the decision.
Bowing to pressure in April of last year, the board voted unanimously to suspend its plans. The school names all remain in place.
CNN’s Chris Boyette contributed to this report.