For conservative school board candidates in California, any ‘red wave’ dreams turned out to be a dud as Republican candidates, including a member of a right-wing extremist group, lost in most races across the state.
But even some unsuccessful campaigns have garnered enough votes to fuel an already acute sense of political polarization that was once lacking in local school board races. And conservative groups feel they have found a playbook to earning more.
Jeffrey “Erik” Perrine, a member of the extremist group Proud Boys, lost his bid to win a seat on the San Juan Unified School Board. But more than 2,600 people in Sacramento County voted for him — 18% of the vote in his district, according to the latest election update.
Perrine campaigned on “the nuclear family” and promoted anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ sentiments, calling schools “indoctrination centers.”
In Orange County, Kira Davis, editor of the conservative political blog Red State, is poised to lose in the race for a seat on the Capistrano Unified School Board, but garnered more than 9,000 votes, or about 40%.
Davis, who has spoken out against race courses and called being transgender a “social disease,” spoke to Fox News last week, calling for “a determined and concerted effort to own the American school boards”.
Conservative groups such as the American Council and Moms for Liberty recruited and endorsed dozens of candidates across the state and helped fund victories in Placer, Sacramento and San Diego counties, turning red parts of the California even redder thanks to school board races. They hope to tap into any lingering COVID-19 frustrations and have adopted a broad “parental rights” motto that, on the face of it, would seem to appeal even to Democratic voters.
“It’s shortsighted to say, well, they didn’t win. What this tells us is still chilling,” said Tracie Stafford, chairwoman of the Sacramento County Democratic Party, who urges voters to pay attention to once-controversial races. “If they’ve done that right this time, they’ll regroup and refocus and create a strategy that could actually bring them a lot closer together.”
The American Council, which was launched in 2020 with the goal of recruiting political candidates with a “biblical worldview,” is already preparing for the upcoming election and sees California’s nearly 1,000 school boards as a way to rise to political power in a place where a Republican hasn’t won a statewide race in 16 years.
The majority of the $426,000 raised by the organization went to California school board candidates, according to Tanner Di Bella, president and founder, who noted that these races are less expensive than senior positions.
Di Bella said he thinks conservatives can win local races, even in a largely Democratic state like California.
“If our desire as an organization is to influence the culture, to influence the things that we see in California that we don’t like,” Di Bella said. “It has a much more direct and immediate impact on families and children than talking about 2024 in the White House.”
When asked how parents of LGBTQ children can feel safe in districts overseen by school boards whose members are endorsed by groups openly critical of policies designed to protect them, Di Bella, who did not no children, pointed to anti-discrimination laws but said councils need conservatives to be “more comprehensive”.
“It is not my desire to elect individuals who would discriminate against people based on these characteristics, but I believe there is a biblical model for human sexuality,” he said.
But a conservative push for school boards could also mean the races are attracting more attention from the left than ever before.
When Conservative candidate slates showed up in Contra Costa County, residents of Rossmoor, a retirement community of about 10,000 in Walnut Creek, got involved after most of their children had dropped out of K schools. -12 years ago.
“For many, many years, no one paid attention to school board races. We were asleep at the wheel thinking it would never happen here, but it is happening here and it will continue to happen, and we are going to have to keep fighting it,” said Susan Hildreth, chair of the Rossmoor Democrats group. “I think we really woke up.”
Nick Bennett, president of the Roseville Junction Democratic Club, said school board races haven’t been the top priority in the past, but he’s seen more commitment from both sides this election. Even with an influx of San Francisco Bay Area residents, it’s not surprising to see Republican victories in Placer County, he said, but there was “a lot more coordination.” and “increasing politicization”.
“I grew up in Roseville and I’ve never seen so many signs supporting school board candidates,” he said, adding that newly elected school board members were backed by organizations that support banning books and “hold views that are prejudicial to LGBTQ students.”
Even small school board runs are on the radar of gay rights groups like Equality California. Spokesman Samuel Garrett-Pate said the organization plans to become more involved in 2024.
School boards have a crucial duty to ensure that California laws regarding comprehensive sex education and transgender rights are upheld, he said.
“The problem is that all these bills are implemented at the local level. Their impact depends on their implementation by school boards,” he said. “We are dealing with a number of candidates who essentially promise to violate California law to go after LGBTQ students. There are LGBTQ students in all of these districts; children do not decide where they grow up.
Conservatives have failed to win seats on the boards of wealthy Contra Costa County, where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans, but the race has had a grip on the East Bay area , in part due to a $250 donation from Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. and the subject of Investigations into the January 6 Uprising regarding false election claims.
Mark Woolway, a technology executive with ties to top Republican donor Peter Thiel, who was part of former President Trump White House transition team in 2016, ran unsuccessfully for a spot in the Acalanes Union School District.
Woolway, a registered libertarian and parent, denied that his campaign was part of a broader effort to “take charge” of school boards. He lamented that his affiliation with Trump, whom he said he would not support in 2024, had overshadowed the local race.
“It was literally about trying to make schools better,” Woolway said. “I never really understood what a school board was or thought about it until COVID shone a light on the lack of leadership.”
Despite widespread losses, the California GOP was celebrating victories in Republican strongholds and said it would “absolutely continue” its “Parent Revolt” program, which helps train candidates to run for school boards and “give a voice to parents”.
“Not only are these recruiting efforts a boon for California kids as candidates to fix our broken schools, but they are also an opportunity to build a group of leaders who will shape politics at every level for years to come. “, Ellie said. Hockenbury, spokesman for the California Republican Party.
Tanya Kravchuk, a registered Republican and mother of four, won a spot on the San Juan Unified School Board, promoting parents’ “guaranteed legal rights” to be involved in student education.
During his campaign, Kravchuk said his constituents named a new bill to protect out-of-state transgender students from prosecution as a top concern. Several voters called medical treatments recommended by doctors for trans youth “child mutilation,” she said.
“It was surprising to me. My particular district is very old, so the fact that it’s a priority for people – not safe classrooms or the fact that our kids can’t read or do grade-level math — I think it reflects people’s concerns,” she said.
Other recipients endorsed by the Conservatives include Jean Pagnone, a firearms instructor and president of the local chapter of the Federation of Republican Women, and Jonathan Zachreson, who led a parents’ movement against COVID-19 closures and vaccination orders.
Folsom Cordova Unified School Board member Josh Hoover ran for state assembly and, according to the latest returns, had taken the lead in a close contest with incumbent Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) .
He maintains that the interest of school boards is not the power of political parties, but rather the granting of more rights to parents.
“I think this message that we have to put parents first really resonates,” Hoover said. “I don’t think any of them did it to take over school boards for the Republican Party; they were doing it to take back the school boards from their families.
Julie Marsh, faculty director of the nonpartisan research firm Policy Analysis of California Education, said while large districts like Los Angeles Unified have long garnered national political donations, the shift in interest in small breeds is new. . The issues of many public school board debates have increasingly seeped into larger arenas of debate, she said.
“Extreme talk about critical race theory and parental rights and teaching about racism and gender identity, all of those things we were also hearing in the job races vying for college-level positions. State,” she said. “I don’t think it’s over. I think it’s part of the playbook.