.The Race Is On: ‘East Bay Express’ Bay Area election coverage

It Can’t Happen Here. Can It?

Far-right PACS dump money into local school board races

Parents with kids in Contra Costa County’s Lafayette School District (LSD) and Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) first became aware of right-wing candidate slates running for school board seats through—what else?—social media. A Twitter account linked to “Stop the Steal” belonging to one of the candidates, was taken down when discovered, according to one parent.  

The same parent, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, noted that one of the Acalanes candidates “was the leader of the ‘Stop the Steal’ signs draped over an overpass.” Parents began expressing their concerns on Facebook and Nextdoor. At the same time, the slates of three candidates each declined to participate in most scheduled forums. Their signs and billboards popped up everywhere. Their polished websites have a strong family resemblance, and, it transpired, the two slates share the same campaign treasurer.

The parents dug deeper. “Of their campaign contributions, 91% is coming from outside the area,” said Chad Curran, who has children who will matriculate into the Acalanes Union High School District. “Ginni Thomas is a contributor.” A parent who watched one of the only Acalanes forums attended by the slate commented, “They refused to answer the donor question and got combative.”

That conservatives linked to Trump and far-right groups are targeting school boards nationwide has been widely reported. An Oct. 11 AP article headlined “Conservative Pacs Inject Millions into Often-Ignored School Board Races,” stated, “a growing collection of conservative political action groups is targeting its efforts closer to home: at local school boards.

“Their aim is to gain control of more school systems and push back against what they see as a liberal tide in public education classrooms, libraries, sports fields, even building plans.”

In the primarily liberal areas LSD and AUHSD serve, the pandemic opened an opportunity, as a sizable number of parents objected to the districts’ school closure policies. Parent Marissa Silva, whose children attended LSD schools as elementary and middle-school students, is one of the parents doing extensive online research about the “slate” candidates, Sarah Lind, Niels Larsen and Robb McSorley. 

“Sarah Lind is anti-vax and anti-masking. Niels Larsen tried to initiate a recall of school board members during [the pandemic],” she said. Robb McSorley’s social media posts include references to election denial, COVID and vaccine denial, and claims about indoctrination and “grooming” in schools.

It’s notable that local paper Lamorinda Weekly reported on Sept. 28 that Larsen, “in a Sept. 23 social media post announced that he was stopping his campaign, citing politically charged attacks on social media and an ugly and destructive process.” However, he remains on the ballot.

The Acalanes slate, which includes Renee Nowac, Mark Woolway and Gabriel Ladeen, has also come under intense scrutiny. Woolway once ran right-wing billionaire and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s “family office,” according to his published bio. (Thiel is currently funding J.D. Vance’s controversial Senate run in Ohio, and co-authored the book, The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford.

According to research done by the anti-slate parents, Ladeen’s family has decades-long and extensive links to extreme conservative causes and figures, including Donald Trump, Michael Flynn, Ginni Thomas and Project Veritas, the organization which uses secret recordings to try and discredit mainstream media organizations and progressive groups.

These slates, said all the parents interviewed, claim to be concerned with “getting back to basics” in education, but their real agendas are anti-inclusion, diversity and equity. If elected, these parents believe, they would work to ban teaching of critical race theory, alternate pronouns for nonbinary students and even change the process by which school members are selected. Note: Efforts were made to solicit responses to this via the two slateswebsites, www.back2education.org and www.forbettereducation.org, but emails were not returned.

“‘Back to education’ is a real red flag,” said Curran, comparing it as a slogan to “Make America Great Again.” “There is a vocal group here that buys into the idea that diversity and inclusion is Marxist indoctrination.”

But part of the problem, he said, is that the language used to describe the slates’ priorities on their websites and elsewhere, is carefully worded to disguise the true intent. One section on forbettereducation.org states, “we believe it does not serve the long term interests of the students to be taught according to their teachers’ ideological/political beliefs. We will work with the Superintendent to make sure that the curriculum, course materials, and teaching practices avoid advocacy of political or ideological perspectives as much as possible.”

“They use terms like ‘parent transparency,’ which actually means banning books and whitewashing the curriculum,” Curran said. 

Silva, who has lived in Lafayette since 2015, noted she has witnessed “painful experiences to people of color,” and believes that these slates, if elected, “would try to roll back the progress that has been made” in district policy towards social justice. As for the dissatisfaction over districts’ COVID protocols, “the majority of the community did want students home,” she said, citing surveys that showed 60% of parents favored keeping students out of public classrooms for health and safety reasons.

“It was a difficult time,” said Curran,”but I feel [the districts] did well in following state guidelines.”

All the parents interviewed were glad their efforts have drawn attention to the two slates, and the backgrounds of the candidates included. “When [they] post online, there is public outcry against them,” said Silva.

But they continue to worry that, although “people who have kids are very engaged,” said Curran, school board elections frequently are not top-of-mind for other voters. And there is a deniability factor, he added. “For some people, it’s not believable that we would be a target for a right-wing takeover.”

And yet, reported AP, the 1776 Project PAC, “formed to push back against the 1619 Project, which provides free lesson plans that center U.S. history around slavery and its lasting impacts,” has scored victories in liberal-leaning districts. 

Founder Ryan Girdusky is quoted saying: “Places we’re not supposed to typically win, we’ve won in. I think we can do it again.”

As Sinclair Lewis wrote in 1935, “An honest propagandist for any Cause, that is, one who honestly studies and figures out the most effective way of putting over his Message, will learn fairly early that it’s not fair to ordinary folks—it just confuses them—to try and make them swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people.”

 President Berzelius Windrip, in It Cant Happen Here

Small City, Big Money Woes

El Cerrito finances a factor in city council race

El Cerrito is a small city, population 25,962, according to the 2020 census. But its financial problems, according to some residents and at least one city council candidate, loom large, and continue to be inadequately addressed.

These include a state auditor’s report, with recommendations which have not been followed, such as increasing the city’s reserves and developing a plan funding the city’s pension liabilities. A March 16, 2022 update from the auditor’s office states: “El Cerrito continues to defer taking specific actions that could increase its revenue and contribute to more financial stability.” 

El Cerrito ranks worst in the state in future retirement funding. The city’s current BBB-bond rating—one step above junk bonds—means the city would have a difficult time obtaining a bond to build a long-promised library. Cutbacks in city services have included closing the senior center, and a city hall open only four days a week for four hours each day.  

However, some of the most significant concerns, according to several residents and city council candidate Vanessa Warheit, are the uses of revenue raised by 2018’s Measure V, and the allocation of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Property transfer tax Measure V passed with the assurance by city officials that money raised from a tax on El Cerrito homes sold would fund the library, senior center and other public services. Yet, says one source familiar with the city’s budget, “The 2018 Measure V money has mostly gone to reserves, and now possibly for pension liability, in spite of what was promised.”

ARPA funds that were used by other cities to “help people who could not pay their rent, fund after-school projects and help small businesses stay open,” instead went into the city’s coffers to help balance its budget, according to another knowledgeable source. “ARPA funds were not used for the purposes for which they were intended,” said Warheit, “and were used instead to pay off the equivalent of a pay-day loan.”

Candidate Carolyn Wysinger said, “Community members and especially our El Cerrito Financial Advisory Board have been vocal about their disagreement on the way the funds were allocated… The guidelines do allow for ‘revenue replacement relative to revenues collected in the most recent fiscal year prior to the emergency.’… I am running on a platform which includes a more transparent and equitable budgeting process and robust community feedback.” 

Residents’ group El Cerrito Committee for Responsible Government polled candidates, including current Mayor Gabe Quinto, running for reelection to the council, specifically on the impact of the BBB- rating on library funding. Quinto responded in part, “El Cerrito passed a transfer tax (Measure V) to help fund the library at the [BART] station, but we need more funding to ensure that we build the library.” The group found this response inadequate.

Warheit, asked her priorities if elected, listed following the state auditor’s road map, including monthly status reports, expanding the Financial Advisory Board to “at least” seven members, engaging the community in a participatory budgeting process, reshaping the city’s budget to ensure it funds pension liability and looking closely at a city-commissioned study that will examine city salaries. 

Phone and email requests for comment to Quinto received no response.

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