Yesterday, Ruth Conniff reported that Wisconsin Republicans and conservative activists put on a major push to take over the state's school boards this year, culminating in Tuesday’s 53 school board elections. Far right candidates campaigned on conservative hot-button issues including race in education, coronavirus responses and gender identity identity, giving Wisconsin the third-highest number of such races out of all the states.
The crackpot congresswoman running for governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, endorsed the furthest right nut-cases up and down the state, though the elections are nominally non-partisan. "Wisconsin’s politicized school board races were part of a national trend in which, according to ProPublica, 'Republicans, and particularly the wing of the party that still supports Trump, have come to see local races as a way to energize their base and propel voters to the polls-- part of what some leaders have called a precinct strategy.' But if Republicans were using Wisconsin’s April 5 school board elections as a test run for state and national elections this fall, the results were mixed."
The fascists picked up some seats in Waukesha and Kenosha but lost in Beloit, La Crosse and Eau Claire, "despite," wrote Conniff, "unprecedented involvement by outside groups, major political parties on both sides and even rightwing billionaire and GOP megadonor Diane Hendricks... as voters rejected hyperpartisan, negative school board politics."
In Eau Claire, all three school board candidates who ran on anti-LGBT platforms lost to the incumbents and their allies.
The three conservative candidates stoked controversy about a teacher training program they claimed excludes parents from conversations about their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation. The issue became a topic of national news stories and outraged commentary on Fox News.
The school board president received a death threat in the form of an anonymous email from an account named “Kill All Marxist Teachers” that stated, “I am going to kill you and shoot up your next school-board meeting for promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda.”
School board president Tim Nordin, who urged his community not to “cede to fear,” won with the largest share of the vote-- 19%-- on Tuesday night, followed by his allies, incumbent Marquell Johnson and Stephanie Farrar, with 18% each, beating three conservative challengers who each received 15%.
...Partisanship and rancor in formerly nonpartisan races spiked this year all over Wisconsin.
In Kenosha, school board members who had survived a recall attempt were faced with a group of community members angry about COVID-19 safety protocols who swarmed a meeting and voted to slash their salaries. Three seats were up for election on Tuesday, and the county Republican Party gave $750 each to Eric Meadows, Jon Kim and Kristine Schmaling. Two of the Republican-supported newcomers, Meadows and Schmaling, won. But the top vote-getter was Rebecca Stevens, the longest-serving incumbent on the board and one of the three candidates who received $1,000 in support from the teachers’ union-affiliated Kenosha Education Association PAC.
In Waukesha, GOP-backed candidates scored a decisive victory, sweeping all three open seats. Marquell Moorer, Karrie Kozlowski and Mark Borowski, who were supported by WISRED, ran as a combined slate and defeated moderate incumbents Greg Deets and Bill Gaumgart and newcomer Sarah Harrison.
Conversely, in La Crosse, a slate of three candidates endorsed by the teacher’s union, including the incumbent school board president, beat their conservative challengers. The La Crosse Education Association endorsed a slate of candidates for the first time in 30 years. The same slate was endorsed by the La Crosse Democratic Party.
The La Crosse Republican Party endorsed its own slate and Republican congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden weighed in in support of the conservative candidates. The school board’s decision to phase out the school resource officer program was one of the most contentious issues in the race, along with COVID-19 protocols, “parental involvement” and eliminating “critical race theory.”
The normally dull, civil discourse of nonpartisan school board races went out the window and the La Crosse GOP-backed candidates refused to participate in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters ahead of the primary.
...In Beloit, school board president Megan Miller survived a campaign in which a group called the Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund spent more than $11,200 on a campaign of attack ads, according to a late campaign expenditure filing.
Among her opponents: Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who has launched a controversial charter school that Miller has criticized, and that operates outside the school board’s governance.
A flier with a photoshopped picture of Miller in a dunce cap landed in Beloit mailboxes, featuring a newspaper clipping stating: “Beloit Schools Get 1 Star, Fail to Meet Expectations on Report Card.” A Facebook video blamed Miller for bad school lunches, the collapse of classroom discipline, and poor academic performance.
In an email dated Jan. 18, 2022, sent by former school board member and current Diane Hendricks employee Kim Bliss from her Hendricks holding company email account, stated, “Diane and I are excited to share some great news regarding monumental changes that can happen this year for the Beloit School District.” The email urged Beloit residents to support a slate of four “exceptional candidates.” On Tuesday, only one of those candidates won, Brian Anderson, in a race in which Miller turned out to be the top vote-getter.
Curriculum about racism, transgender kids and other culture war issues did not feature heavily in the Beloit school board election. Instead, says Miller, “they were running around trashing our school district.”
The students she teaches as a special education reading specialist received the fliers attacking her and emphasizing the district’s low test scores, which she feels had a lasting negative effect.
...There is some evidence that the negative campaigning backfired, turning off voters.
“People are treating me like I have a terminal illness — everyone is being so nice,” Miller said as she awaited election results on Tuesday. Republicans had been coming up to her, she said, “telling me they are voting for me even though they don’t agree with me on anything.”
Today, state Senator Chris Larson told us that "The focus on education by Republicans should backfire so long as Democrats don’t retreat. The Republicans think they have a winning issue but they are severely overplaying their hand. Case in point: Scarlett Johnson, who has been the spokesperson for the latest billionaire-funded effort to make it easier to ban books by misconstruing what is happening in schools, lost big in her race for school board in a very Republican part of the state. Parents and voters still don’t trust Republicans with their kids’ future."
Mark Neumann is the progressive congressional candidate for the seat in red-leaning western Wisconsin. "When," he asked today, "will enough be enough? One of the pleasures of serving on the Common Council of the City of La Crosse is the non-partisan nature of how we were elected, and how we are thus free to go about our work. As a council member, I am able to study, consult, deliberate, and agree or disagree with the opinions of my colleagues concerning the legislative issues that come before us. Even if I disagree with the outcome of our votes, I come away respecting everyone’s efforts to decide the policy that we all want to be for the best of our community. It works. I have heard myself say that I wish this experience of representative democracy could move into higher levels of our government. Unfortunately, the post-mortem evidence of our spring elections in Wisconsin bodes otherwise that the pollution of partisanship is moving down into our more local centers of governance on county boards and school boards. Should I fear that the same will soon happen at our next elections for my city council as well? I recall the words spoken by President Lincoln on the eve of our Civil War at his first inaugural address when he hoped against hope that storm clouds of violence would pass.
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
"'Our better angels' did not prevail back then, continued Neumann, "and the storm came. War came and was not held at bay because the evil of chattel slavery demanded expulsion from our American heritage. After a terrible war and hundreds of thousands of Americans dying. The same president at his second inaugural address recognized the price that was paid for the evil compromise that had been made at the founding of our nation. He pointed us in the direction of the work that was still to be done.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wound, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphans; to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
"This work is not yet done," said Neumann. "There is more evil to be expunged as long as we accept that property rights can prevail over human rights. Workers treated like things and not persons with their right to live in solidarity. People of color with their rich and wonderful heritage treated like color does not exist, nor should their identity. Immigrants to our country treated like non-persons who must hide in fear and never be seen. Ill and frail persons treated like a monopolized market held captive to purchase commoditized healthcare. People of all genders being imposed upon that they cannot be free to discover and live freely their true identity. Women seeking comprehensive healthcare being denied respect for their dignity and their autonomy to care for their own bodies. Yes, there is more room for the expulsion of evil from our American tradition. We can hope as President Lincoln did that our better angels will prevail. I am not that sanguine. I do not believe that we are ready to leave behind the negativity that invades our elections on all levels. I believe that we will not know “charity toward all” until we achieve the work that lay before us to expunge the evil that must be expunged for us to know the peace we all long for."