SAN FRANCISCO — As Election Day approached, a flurry of messages swept through the phones of the Chinese-American community in San Francisco. “Don’t forget to vote,” read a message in Chinese from campaign organizer Selena Chu. “And fire commissioners who discriminate against us and disrespect our community.”

The lopsided victory in a recall election on Tuesday that ousted three San Francisco school board members rocked the city’s liberal establishment and was a resounding alarm bell of parents’ anger over the way the school system public has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

Parents of different ethnicities and income levels who banded together last year as schools in San Francisco remained closed — they stayed closed much longer than those in other major cities — organized through groups Facebook and vowed to expel members of the Board of Education for what they saw as incompetence. They kept their promise: the three commissioners were removed from office by no less than 79% of the voters, an unequivocal rejection in a city notorious for its fractured politics.

For many of the city’s Asian Americans, particularly the large Chinese-American community, the results have been an affirmation of the group’s voting power, accompanied by a high degree of organization, participation and leadership. intensity not seen for many years. In an election where every registered voter received a ballot, the overall turnout was relatively low at 26%; turnout among the 30,000 people who requested Chinese ballots was significantly higher, at 37%.

In a wildly liberal city, Asian American voters have sided with Democrats for decades. But in recent years, a growing number of Chinese residents, many of whom were born in mainland China, have emerged as a restraining political force. Most of the city’s Chinese residents are registered as independents and, as Tuesday’s elections seem to show, they are not afraid to oppose some of the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party. It’s a pattern that has emerged in other cities, like New York, that are largely Democratic with large Asian American populations.

“They’re absolutely up for grabs,” David Lee, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said of Asian American voters in the city.

In Tuesday’s election, two issues in particular motivated Chinese-American voters. The Board of Education had voted to implement a lottery admissions system at highly selective Lowell High School, replacing an admissions process that primarily selected students with the highest grades and test scores. . For decades, Lowell represented what one community member described as the “gateway to the American dream.” The introduction of the lottery system reduced the number of Asian and white ninth graders at Lowell by about a quarter and increased black and Latino ninth graders by more than 40%.

Chinese voters were also upset by tweets from Alison Collins, one of the recalled school board members, which were unearthed during the campaign. Ms Collins said Asian Americans were using ‘white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘move on’.” using asterisks to mask an anti-black racial slur. The tweets reinforced a sense among many Chinese voters of being taken for granted, underrepresented and insulted, people involved in the recall campaign said.

Asian American voters also said they were motivated by issues beyond the council’s actions: The number of high-profile attacks on Asian Americans, many of whom are older, has traumatized the community. And many Chinese-owned businesses were suffering the effects of the pandemic shutdowns, especially in Chinatown.

“We are losing faith in the government,” said Bayard Fong, president of the Chinese American Democratic Club.

Asian Americans make up about 36% of the population of San Francisco, one of the largest such communities in a major city, but they are an incredibly diverse group that includes Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese and Thai people and has different economic, linguistic and ethnic origins. Chinese Americans are by far the largest Asian group, making up 23% of San Francisco’s population. Forty percent of the population is white, 15% Latino and 6% black.

The ousting of the three board members will elevate the only Chinese-American member of the seven-person board to the position of chairman. And it puts the mayor of London Breed in the delicate position of appointing three replacement members who will be acceptable to parents who are now watching the process closely. Recall campaigners say they hope more Asian Americans will be appointed to the board.

Autumn Looijen, who along with her partner, Siva Raj, organized a signature drive and launched the recall campaign, described the Chinese-American community as crucial to the success of the recall.

“They were the backbone of our volunteer efforts,” Ms. Looijen said. “They really propelled this campaign from the start.”

During the campaign, organizers used WeChat, the Chinese-language messaging app, to offer everything from step-by-step instructions on how to fill out a ballot to organizing the deployment of volunteers in Chinatown, where dances lion and drums urged the inhabitants to vote.

“We will not be silent any longer,” said a leaflet in English and Chinese distributed by the Chinese American Democratic Club.

Parents campaigning for the recall described a wake-up call in the Chinese-American community by people who had been largely apolitical until now.

Ms Chu, the woman who sent the WeChat message urging people to vote, said she grew up with parents who advised her to shut up if she felt she was being treated unfairly. Many first-generation immigrants still feel the same way, she said.

Now a mother of two in the San Francisco public school system, Ms. Chu felt compelled, for the first time, to get actively involved in an election. Her hands hurt, she said, from texting so much on WeChat during the campaign.

She was driven by a feeling of being punished and pilloried for working hard and trying hard.

“This year a lot of parents are telling me, ‘We’re done being scapegoats,'” Ms Chu said.

“We are still considered outsiders,” she said. “We are Americans. You have to respect us.

She called the recall election a milestone for the Asian American community.

“They finally understand the power of their vote,” she said.

Ann Hsu, a Beijing-born entrepreneur with decades of experience starting and running businesses in China and the United States, played a crucial role in the organizing efforts.

Ms. Hsu used her management background to organize volunteers and strategize campaigns. She ignored English-language media and instead focused on Chinese-language newspapers, YouTube channels and advertising. She and her volunteers handed out thousands of yellow shopping bags emblazoned with reminder messages and handed them out to older Chinese residents. She set up a task force that registered 560 residents, almost all Asian Americans, to vote.

Using WeChat to organize her operations had the added benefit of breaking the language barrier: she speaks Mandarin while other residents are more fluent in Cantonese. The written messages could be understood by all.

Ms Hsu’s voice fills with emotion as she discusses the Lowell issue, which she says was the main motivation for getting into politics.

“When you came for Lowell, you came for the Asians,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re going to stand up and say no more, no!”

The future admissions process at Lowell remains unclear — the lottery system will remain in place for students entering in the fall, but the board has not made a decision on admissions beyond next year.

Ms. Hsu says Lowell is not directly personal to her. Her two teenage boys attend another school in the San Francisco Public School District.

But she saw in the council’s decisions a deep sense that the aspirations of Asian American residents were being ignored.

The debate over admission to elite public high schools has galvanized Asian parents in other cities, including New York. In San Francisco and New York, the issue divides liberal voters who are torn between wanting to maintain a system that has traditionally benefited high-achieving students from poorer, often immigrant backgrounds, but at the same time left students behind. blacks and latinos.

In New York, where black and Latino students are disproportionately underrepresented in elite public high schools, the issue of school segregation was highlighted during New York’s mayoral election last year. Left-leaning applicants have called for a fundamental overhaul of admissions standards while centrist applicants have called for it to be maintained. Among those who promised to keep the test was Eric Adams, the current mayor.

Ms Collins, the board member who has come under fire for her tweets, said during the campaign that she had “desegregated” Lowell.

In the wake of the lopsided recall, political analysts wonder if the energy and fervor of the campaign will carry over into further elections both in the city and nationally.

Mike Chen, board member of the Edwin M. Lee Asian Pacific Democratic Club, said the results were remarkable – “no one in the city can agree 80% on anything.” But he said he would make predictions about other campaigns based on a single election with relatively low turnout. San Francisco had a very particular set of issues that were pushing parents over the edge, he said.

“People have tried to extrapolate: what does this mean for school board elections in Ohio or Virginia? ” he said.

“We had this very particular case,” he continued. “We have had very visible examples of incompetence, bad governance and wrongdoing. Most people could objectively look at the decisions that were happening in the last year and think, “This is really messed up.”

Dana Rubinstein and Dana Goldstein contributed report.