It’s a start. In run-off elections for Houston ISD board trustees, two conservatives defeated their incumbent Democrat opponents. National politics look to have influenced voters as they rejected hot button issues like Critical Race Theory and face mask mandates in Houston public schools. Both conservative candidates used the issues on the campaign trail.
There has not been conservative representation on the HISD school board since 2019. It is a nine-member board so clearly, two conservatives are in the minority. It is good news to simply have them on the board. This looks to be another bad sign for Democrats as the midterm elections next November loom in the background. Frustrated voters are not only in blue states like Virginia but also in blue cities like Houston. HISD is the largest public school system in Texas and one of the largest in the United States. It is crucial for conservatives to have representation on the school board.
The elections are not supposed to be partisan but everyone knows which party the candidates are associated with during the campaigns. Local Democrats, including County Judge Lina Hidalgo, endorsed candidates in the run-off elections. These races are like the mayor’s race or the county judge’s race – they, too, are supposed to be non-partisan but party affiliations are clear. Typically the HISD trustee run-off elections don’t get a large turn-out and that was the case Saturday. One Republican won by less than 100 votes.
Pastor Kendall Baker edged out Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca by less than 100 votes to win the seat in District 6. In District 7, Trustee Anne Sung lost to former PTO President Bridget Wade.
About 5,300 people, less than 7 percent of registered voters, participated in the District 6 runoff, while over 12,400 people, about 12 percent of registered voters, turned out for the District 7 election, according to Harris County election statistics.
One incumbent blames interest in national issues and how they trickle down to local politics. She said as she knocked on doors, she faced voters concerned about CRT being taught in schools, whether they had children currently enrolled in school or not. Naturally, she included Fox News in her Democrat talking points that CRT isn’t taught in schools.
“Knocking on doors in District 7, it was pretty clear to me that the impression that voters have of public schools, if they don’t themselves have children in public schools, is informed by Fox News and national news coverage that has nothing to do with what our kids are being taught,” said Sung, the District 7 incumbent who lost to Wade.
“The fear that kids are being taught critical race theory or taught that they are victims, is completely opposite of what we’re doing in HISD schools,” Sung said.
Critical race theory — an academic framework most typically taught in colleges and universities — was banned by Gov. Greg Abbott in public schools earlier this year. Opponents of the ban say that it is not taught in Texas schools in the first place, and accuse proponents of the law of trying to whitewash discussions of race and the country’s history.
Sung is a former physics teacher and chair of the science department of an HISD high school. In 2011 she was named Teacher of the Year. She co-founded a group that “gives Houston students, parents, educators, and community members greater voice in strengthening public education.” Ironically, those people spoke and she was not re-elected.
HISD Supt. Millard House II’s mask mandate for students in public schools is also unpopular with voters. Wade says the results are proof that issues like these matter to everyday Houstonians.
“It speaks to the fact that people want to have a say in their public education as taxpayers and parents and families, people want to be active participants and be heard, and so I think it was people crying out to be heard. That was the foundation from which everything came,” Wade said.
While both conservative victories are in districts that lean Republican, it is too simplistic to point the finger at that fact. Sung’s district, for example, was once solidly Republican but as of the last two presidential election cycles, it is a purple district. Democrats won that district in the presidential elections and in the race for the U.S. House representative. The winners of the elections have learned to focus on local issues.
All politics is local, as the saying goes. Conservatives believe that the government closest to the people is the best. Fortunately, the Republican Party of Texas is finally focusing on local elections. The state Democrat party began doing that in 2015. Last week before Saturday’s run-off elections, the state GOP spoke about the decision.
Texas Republicans are increasing their involvement in local races, hoping to do more to influence municipal and school board elections that have turned into political battlegrounds during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state Republican Party announced Monday it had formed a new Local Government Committee to work with county parties on backing candidates in nonpartisan local elections, where issues like mask mandates and the teaching of what some conservatives call critical race theory have become flashpoints.
“That’s really been the match that totally” ignited this, said Rolando Garcia, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee who chairs the new group. “School board races have always been important, but it’s been hard to get the attention and resources to them, and so they’ve been sleepy affairs.”
The state GOP is emboldened by recent wins in places like Carroll Independent School District, where opponents of a district proposal to address racism in schools captured a majority on the school board last month. Republicans are also looking to build on victories like that of Javier Villalobos, a Republican who won his election earlier this year as the mayor of McAllen, which traditionally votes for Democrats.
“Democrats across the country see the importance of local elections in the fight for America, and so does the Texas GOP,” Matt Rinaldi, chair of the Texas GOP, said in a statement.
School board elections aren’t exciting, as a rule. Now, however, with the controversy of CRT in the forefront and pandemic mandates, many parents and grandparents are getting involved. The importance of school board decisions is no longer being overlooked. If a deep blue city like Houston can see those results, it bodes well for other places, too. It’s a start.
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