Similar to its California Trailblazers program, which focuses on running for legislative seats, participants received a binder of information that includes not just deadlines and required forms, but also vendor options, website design tools and tips on how to make the most of campaign funds.
There’s also a website dedicated to the cause, plus emails sent out weekly from a rotation of Republican leaders: Steel, party Chairperson Jessica Millan Patterson, U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel, gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Brian Dahle, Christensen and Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon.
During the party’s July event, speakers didn’t dictate specific talking points. Instead, they encouraged participants to focus on the issues important to their community.
Photo, left: Sonja Shaw, a candidate for a seat on the Chino Valley School Board, holds a state GOP training binder on Aug.14, 2022. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
For Kelly Felton, a first-time candidate running for a Tustin Unified School District seat in Orange County, that issue was the “political narratives” being taught to her kids (one in 7th grade, and one who is in 10th), including critical race theory, sex education and the use of gender pronouns.
In June 2021, she began attending Tustin Unified school board meetings, where she said she joined many other angry parents. Feeling shut out, Felton decided to enter politics, and took part in the state GOP July training session, which she said taught her “the practicality of running.”
“It did inspire me to think that I can do it,” she said.
One point emphasized in the training sessions: It usually doesn’t cost a lot to run for school board.
The cost varies depending on the district size, according to Mari Barke, a member of the Orange County Board of Education and director of the California Policy Center’s project to recruit and train local elected officials.
Barke espouses the low-cost “walk to win” strategy by going door-to-door, but acknowledges that’s not always possible in large districts, rural areas or in gated communities. That’s where mailers come in handy, and they can cost anywhere from $10,000 in a smaller district to $40,000 in a large one.
Photo, right: Shawn Steel, former chairperson of the California Republican Party. Photo via Wikipedia
But according to Steel, running for school board in regular elections is a better use of time for candidates than recalls — which can be powerful at times, but are often short-sighted. “I like to say run or recruit. Don’t bitch to me anymore,” he said.
Hicks, the California Democratic Party leader, said the Republican party’s focus on local races is not surprising, given that the Democratic Party has largely targeted state and federal races for the last two decades.
“As a result, Republicans have been able to maintain some level of relevance on the local level,” he said.
Is Hicks worried?
“No, because at the end of the day while Republicans in California are trying to throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks — to keep people angry and to frankly, in my view, destroy a traditional free public education in California — Democrats have been focused on the most important things.”
That includes smaller class sizes and ensuring students have pathways to college and careers, Hicks said.
Schnur said that while education is an issue that Democrats believe belongs to them, the pandemic concerns could help the GOP.
“It’s more than likely that Republicans can reinforce their strengths in their regions of core support,” he said. “But it’s an open question whether they can expand beyond that base.”
Counter-messaging by Democrats
While the state Democratic Party doesn’t have a specific strategy focused on school boards, it is operating the California version of the Democrats’ national strategy called “Contest Every Race,” recruiting candidates to run for city council, school board and other local seats, with a focus on rural areas.
Hicks said the party looks to its county chapters to take the lead on local races. In Placer County, for example, the local Democratic Party is hosting phone bank events every Saturday.
In Contra Costa County, the local party responded to concerns from school board members who reported being harassed and threatened. It passed two resolutions, one supporting the pandemic measures taken by school board members and calling out “coordinated efforts by a ‘network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks’ to engage in culture war fights designed to intimidate school board members so they can be replaced by radical conservatives.”
A second resolution passed in November 2021 backed the district’s ethnic studies curriculum and criticized the effort to mislead parents into confusing critical race theory with ethnic studies.
To counter some of the anti-union messaging from GOP-recruited candidates, the California Teachers Association has spoken out in support of pro-union candidates, many of whom happen to be Democrats.
Hicks said that while there’s no formal partnership between the Democratic Party and the CTA, it makes sense that they’re often allied. “I think the Democratic Party is the party of working people,” he said. “I think that means not just workers on the job, but also ensuring that workers on the job get their kids a quality education.”
Lisa Gardiner, spokesperson for the 310,000-member California Teachers Association, said the union’s local chapters do endorse school board candidates, but not along partisan lines. She also disputed that teachers’ unions have too much influence over school boards, saying that “the real power resides in parents, educators, students and communities working together.”
“November’s school board elections are a critical opportunity for all of us to stand together to support racially and socially equitable schools, and the public education our students need to succeed,” she said in a statement.
Prospects for success
The state GOP isn’t alone in recruiting or training school board candidates who oppose critical race theory and vaccine mandates and take issue with school unions. Other organizations involved include Let Them Breathe, a group that advocates for more parental say, including against mask mandates; the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation; and churches, though as nonprofits, they’re not permitted to do more than provide information.
Some candidates who took part in the GOP sessions said they’ve taken part in training by other groups as well.
Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education, said while there are legitimate concerns about how school boards handled the pandemic, partisan influence can sometimes turn toxic — and isn’t politically beneficial, either.
“What I would hope is that these efforts actually engage seriously with issues that matter to voters … and not on sort of manufactured stuff about transgender athletes, or pick a topic, that these culture wars that conservative candidates in other places are running on,” Polikoff said.
How likely are candidates to succeed?
Polikoff said that depends on how much candidates can stay on message with issues that matter to parents and voters. “In my view, the reason why the Republican Party has really struggled in California is the candidates are too extreme for where the majority of the state is,” he said.
Photo, left: Rusty Hicks, California Democratic Party chairperson, speaks at the state Democratic Party convention in San Francisco in 2019. Image by Devlin Shand via Wikimedia