Controversial school board candidate withdraws from race

School board hopeful Josephine Zhao withdrew from the race Monday morning.

The announcement came via a Facebook post after mounting controversy around Zhao’s stance on the rights of transgender students.

“While I strongly believe that my positions on a variety of issues have been twisted, misrepresented and used to tear me down personally, I also believe that there are more important issues at play,” wrote Zhao.

SEE RELATED: School board candidate under fire for past transphobic statements

Less than a month ago, Zhao publicly apologized for the first time in the San Francisco Examiner for remarks she made in the Chinese press in 2013 about legislation that allows transgender students to use bathrooms and lockers that align with their gender identity, among other things. In those remarks, she said the legislation could lead to “rape,” among other issues.

The controversy caused her to lose at least some endorsements, and pressure was mounting for her other backers to follow suit.

SEE RELATED: School board candidate loses endorsements over transgender comments

But that apology was undermined after Zhao appeared to send mixed messages to the English-language and Chinese -language communities. As the San Francisco Examiner reported, Zhao admitted in text messages written in Chinese on a chat group that she does not in fact support the transgender restroom policy, but was only claiming to do so.

SEE RELATED: Candidate tells Chinese supporters she still opposes transgender restroom policy, gives different message in English

On Monday, Zhao appears to have made a final attempt to set the record straight, claiming that there “can be no mixed messages when it comes to transgender rights in our schools.”

“I strongly believe that the issue of transgender rights and dignity is larger than any single person’s candidacy for office, including my own,” she wrote. “Therefore I would rather step aside and work for the greater good than allow my candidacy to be a tool of division.”

While Zhao may stop campaigning for the November 6 election, her name will remain on the ballot — meaning that she could still be elected to the position.

Per the San Francisco Municipal Elections Code, statements of withdrawals must be filed by candidates 67 prior to an election. For the upcoming election, that deadline passed on August 31.

Department of Elections director John Arntz said that ballots for the election are “currently in production,” and that a request would have to be filed with the Superior Court for issuance of “a writ to compel the department to halt printing, reformat ballot cards, and restart production.”

“Any candidate on the November ballot who receives a sufficient number of votes for a particular contest will be considered elected to the respective offices,” he said, adding that the department has “no discretion” over who is elected to an office.

Zhao did not respond to requests for comment on whether she would initiate legal proceedings to remove her name from the ballot.

Community members speculated publicly whether Zhao’s withdrawal aimed to alleviate pressure from her high profile backers, including Mayor London Breed, Sen. Scott Wiener and Assembly member David Chiu, who as of Monday had not rescinded their endorsements.

Breed and Wiener said in separate statements on Monday that they did not believe Zhao to be “transphobic or homophobic,” but supported her decision to withdraw.

“I do believe that her current comments in combination with older, hurtful comments have created an atmosphere of distrust,” said Breed. “Josephine has made real strides personally in her understanding and support for the LGBT community and has worked to educate her own community about LGBT acceptance, but she has more work to do.”

Breed’s statement closely mirrored Wiener’s, who added that he knew of instances in which Zhao “has significantly helped members of the Chinese American LGBT community,” but also concluded that there was more work to do.

“Josephine has a real opportunity to be a bridge between the LGBT community and the Chinese immigrant community, a community we have struggled to reach,” he said, adding the he believed Zhao will ultimately “play a positive role.”

Former San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, now chair of San Francisco’s Democratic County Central Committee, in turn, blasted his former colleagues for their unwavering support of Zhao in recent months in a Facebook post on Monday.

“Let me just say that while I’m happy that bigot Josephine Zhao dropped out, it is pathetic that not a single one of her high level supporters called her out,” he wrote. “When the history of this sad episode is written, we will not only remember the deafening silence of her high level supporters but the embarrassing attempt by people who should know better to excuse the inexcusable.”

It is unclear if Zhao plans to run for office in the future. According to the most recent data reported to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, Zhao was the school board race’s frontrunner in terms of campaign contributions, totalling $77,575 last month.

Any funds remaining in a candidate’s committee following a loss or withdrawal are declared as surplus if left unspent 90 days after the reporting period (which for the upcoming election is 90 days from December 31).

Surplus funds can be spent on payments for outstanding debt or office holder expenses, refunds to contributors, charitable donations and other limited spendings. Before that deadline, however, the funds could be transferred to another committee for candidates seeking office in the future.

With Zhao’s campaign dropped, 18 remaining candidates are vying for three seats on the school board with no incumbent opposition.

Martin Rawlings Fein, an educator and one of two transgender candidates in the school board race, thanked Zhao for “thinking about her statements and considering her run for a position that impacts the youth of San Francisco.”

Another candidate, Alison Collins, said that Zhao’s controversial campaign has brought to light important issues not only around “student safety and language,” but also on “representation.”

One priority of Zhao’s campaign was to bridge the gap between monolingual, immigrant Chinese families and school district resources.

“In the school my daughters attend, there are a majority Chinese and monolingual families. In some ways those families are not represented in school’s decision making,” said Collins, a public school advocate and educator. “It’s important, and we need to represent [them] in a way that we are not pitting one group’s values against another.”

Li Miao Lovett, an academic counselor at City College of San Francisco and another Chinese immigrant candidate in the race, said that while she also sees herself as a liaison to the Chinese community, she said that “it’s a role that shouldn’t be restricted.”

“I’m a voice for this community where people are voiceless sometimes but I don’t exclude myself from other communities,” said Lovett. “All of our communities need to come together to stand as a collective. That’s how we are strongest.”

This story has been updated.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

Laura Waxmann
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