Aftereffects of a political smear campaign erode community’s trust months after election


screenshot of now-deleted webpage from group "East Bay Educators"

In a now-deleted web page, an unnamed group called “East Bay Educators” used disinformation to harm the reputation of Michelle Petersen, a candidate for the Nov. 2022 SRVUSD school board election.

A targeted campaign attacking a candidate from last year’s SRVUSD Board of Trustees election has still had lasting effects in the local community, raising concerns about the role of disinformation in both election campaigns and local journalism.

The San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees Area 1 election was held on Nov. 8, 2022. The election was certified on Dec. 2, with Jesse vanZee winning the seat with 6,030 votes, approximately 42.1% of the total turnout. He was followed by Michelle Petersen, who garnered 40.5%, losing by 236 votes. Jerome Pandell finished third with 17.2% of the vote.

Just five days before election night, though, a targeted smear campaign put one of the candidates on blast. On Nov. 3, Petersen received an email from an anonymous group called East Bay Educators (EBE) alleging that she had committed election fraud by misstating her ballot designation as an ex-firefighter as retired, not resigned. The group further claimed that Petersen committed worker’s compensation fraud, citing three alleged former co-workers of Petersen’s who repeated the fraud claims, one of whom stated that she “resigned in disgrace.”

Michelle Petersen
“It’s the people on social media that hide behind keyboards that are the ones that need to stop. They’re the ones that keep perpetuating negativity. They really should take a look at what they’re doing and be better models and examples within our community.” – Michelle Petersen
Jesse vanZee
“What I’m actively trying to do on the board is bring a parent’s voice that unifies different factions of the community. It’s time to stop yelling at each other, stop blaming each other and try to focus on where we can find common ground.” – Jesse vanZee

Petersen did not respond, which prompted East Bay Educators to release a second email on Nov. 5 blasting the same claims to over thirty officials serving the cities of San Ramon and Danville, in addition to SRVUSD administrators.

But the allegations that Petersen committed fraud were proven false, indicating that the three co-workers’ claims were also fabricated. Petersen waived her privacy rights to provide her full employment file to The Wildcat Tribune and to the East Bay Times. Though SJFD told us that they are “unable to comment on an employee’s work history,” they verified with the East Bay Times that the file Petersen provided was authentic.

The types of separation listed on her personnel file were “Resigned,” “Terminated,” “Retired,” “Deceased,” and “Laid off.” Petersen was listed as resigned. There is no indication that she ever received worker’s compensation.

Petersen’s ballot designation of “Retired Firefighter” was also valid under both the Contra Costa County Candidate Guide and within SJFD, the latter of which was verified by Ray Storms, president of the Association of Retired San Jose Police Officers and Firefighters.

While ballot designations are optional, those who wish to describe their principal occupation must do so within three words, so long as they satisfy certain requirements.

“Designations will not be accepted if [they] use a word or prefix, such as ‘former’ or ‘ex-,’ which means a prior status. The only exception [to denote a prior status] is the use of the word ‘retired,’ the candidate guide stated, meaning that Petersen could not put “resigned” even if she wanted to.

Ballot designations are rejected if they do not comply with California Election Code 13107. Petersen’s designation was not rejected, nor were there any complaints filed with the county Elections Office (as of Feb. 16) regarding a misrepresentation or violation of the Election Code, contrary to the statement created by East Bay Educators that claimed “Contra Costa County officials have been notified of the complaint and are currently investigating.”

“It is not my opinion that Michelle misrepresented herself. I don’t think that ballot designations win or lose races, so I don’t think any of this changed the outcome,” vanZee (who said that he shortened his formal job title to “Oncology Executive/Parent” in his designation) stated in an email with an East Bay Times reporter.

Though she did not publicly comment on the ballot designation issue, Petersen deleted the word “retired” from her campaign website, leading some to believe that all of EBE’s claims were truthful.

“Designations will not be accepted if [they] use a word or prefix, such as ‘former’ or ‘ex-,’ which means a prior status. The only exception [to denote a prior status] is the use of the word ‘retired,’ the candidate guide stated, meaning that Petersen could not put “resigned” even if she wanted to.

“Falsifying that statement was a big deal. Part of the election code for the state of California goes over when it’s appropriate to say retired. It might have been a mistake. It was not a minor one,” opined an editor for DanvilleSanRamon, a local news website, in an interview.

Both DanvilleSanRamon, which endorsed vanZee in an editorial published Oct. 29, and the East Bay Times, which did not endorse a candidate, were asked by community members to repost EBE’s claims. Because there was no concrete evidence associated with the website or the email, both newsrooms refrained from reporting on the content. Furthermore, the email elicited no public response from any of the three candidates running for the position. vanZee replied to EBE asking for their sources, but received no response.

However, the claims had already made their way to social media, with Facebook groups such as “The other parents of SRVUSD” reposting the content from EBE. Supporters and critics of all candidates flooded Nextdoor to voice their opinions.

Within the next 24 hours of the first posts appearing, Nextdoor moderators (volunteer residents) voted to take down the posts from accounts that appeared to have been created that same day solely to spread the misinformation.

The EBE website was deleted on Nov. 9, the day after the election. The East Bay Times confirmed that the website was registered in Iceland and that the phone number on the website was a default one provided by domain name registrar company Namecheap.

Whether the website influenced the outcome of the election is unknown. Polls and early-voting counts favored Petersen as the winner, but there is no proof of causation. However, it marked the worst of a string of underhanded tactics that started at the beginning of the campaign season.

All three candidates were targeted, but none with the scale of personal attacks that Petersen received. Campaign signs of all were removed or blocked, and Pandell was targeted by critics trying to “expose” his old tweets. Petersen received a threatening anonymous letter in her mailbox that made her fear for her safety. Community members, some of whom worked for Petersen’s campaign, called out vanZee for pushing a “right-wing Christian agenda,” referring to the California Republican Party’s “Parent Revolt” program, which aims to help local Republicans win school board races through funding and campaign resources (and of which vanZee had no involvement).

Throughout the entire campaign, though, Petersen and vanZee both maintained that the other candidate had always shown them respect.

“As a first-time candidate, seeing these mean-spirited attacks that Michelle, Jerome and I had to endure in this campaign was saddening,” vanZee said. “I knew there would be scrutiny, as there should be, but I was surprised at the level of malice that all three of us experienced.”

After the election, when the East Bay Times and DanvilleSanRamon did eventually report on EBE as an anonymous website with baseless claims, vanZee explained that he and the other candidates tried to distance themselves from their supporters’ actions.

“All felt the nastiness during this campaign, and there was a ton of misinformation floating around on social media for all the candidates,” vanZee said in an email to an East Bay Times reporter. “However, there is a big difference between a supporter of a candidate and the candidate themself. I never blamed Jerome or Michelle for untrue things their supporters said about me because I knew they couldn’t control their supporters.”

However, the East Bay Times reported that vanZee said “there is a big difference between a supporter of a candidate and the candidate themself” when justifying his decision not to tell his supporters to spread EBE’s claims.

Petersen believes the situation speaks to a broader issue of misinformation and underhanded tactics in politics. Going forward, Petersen hopes to use her experience to campaign for laws that would provide better protection for targeted local election candidates.

It was vanZee’s belief that the East Bay Times took his quotes out of context, and that the article was composed of “cherry-picking comments” that “wove a narrative of a journalist’s own design.”

In vanZee’s eyes, his choice not to address EBE’s campaign targeting Petersen was a difficult decision to make.

“I was kind of damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” vanZee said. “If I call it out, I’m now highlighting [the claims]. But if I don’t call it out, then people would criticize that. I think people have had the opportunity to be critical of either decision. When Michelle never said anything about it, why [would I] speak to it if she’s not going to?”

Petersen preferred not to comment on the situation so close to the election day. However, she has spoken about it since the election in media interviews, spreading awareness about how false news can harm campaigns in small-stakes local elections. 

“That’s creepy, right? Because you’re used to this more on a national level, like federal level elections, and I think that’s why the LA Times reached out to me,” Petersen said. “They’ve never seen anything like this on a local level.”

The editor from DanvilleSanRamon, who believed Petersen’s ballot designation was “not a minor” mistake, reached out to Petersen via email on Dec. 28, asking to meet in person that weekend for an column arguing that “people need to educate themselves so they don’t fall for disinformation and share it.”

“I am sorry that I will not be able to respond to your questions by your deadline,” Petersen responded, stating she would be out of town to care for her terminally ill mother. While Petersen maintained that she wanted to meet with the editor but couldn’t due to her circumstances, the editor wondered whether she was being purposefully evasive. This purported miscommunication created problems for both parties.

The column was published the following Thursday, Jan. 5. vanZee promoted it on his social media accounts as the “most holistic viewpoint on the drama.” But it included a falsified headline that Petersen had claimed that vanZee “pulled “dirty tricks” that cost her the election.” Petersen has denied blaming vanZee, and vanZee had never heard this claim, which the column’s author says came from the headline of an article published by the East Bay Times. The reporter who published the article in East Bay Times sent proof that such a quote was never included in her story. Again, residents sounded off about both the articles on social media.

Though the election was months ago, the school board candidates are still a contentious issue among local residents, though for different reasons. vanZee has faced controversy for being especially vocal in discouraging the classroom assignment of books with LGBTQ+ characters. Petersen received criticism by local Republicans who took issue with her recently winning the election for Assembly District Delegate of the California Democratic Party after calling for bipartisan support during the school board election.

Furthermore, the perpetrators of the EBE smear campaign against Petersen were never identified. Petersen believes the situation speaks to a broader issue of misinformation and underhanded tactics in politics. Going forward, Petersen hopes to use her experience to campaign for laws that would provide better protection for targeted local election candidates.

“I’ve contacted the Contra Costa County Department elections, the new elections clerk, [District 2 Supervisor Candace] Anderson and Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan. I’m setting up meetings to show them what happened and find out for myself what we can do in the future to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. And not just to me, but to anyone else who wants to run for office,” Petersen stated. “Nobody should have to go through this, and it ultimately makes people not want to go through it again.”