State Board of Education Races: Running With the Wingnuts

by Published on

UPDATED AT 12:25 a.m.: It seems the State Board of Education has taken a turn back toward the mainstream tonight.

Of the four key races, the social conservatives have lost two, with one more headed for a runoff. If the current results hold up, the Christian-conservative bloc will hold, at most, six seats on the 15-seat board — and perhaps as few as five seats, depending on the outcome of the runoff. (The districts are ultra-partisan, so it’s unlikely any of these seats will flip in the general election.)

Everyone knew the battle for direction of the SBOE would take place in the Republican primaries, and it seems the moderates have won.

Let’s start with the headline race. As of this writing, moderate Thomas Ratliff is clinging to a slim lead over incumbent right-winger Don McLeroy. With 98 percent of the vote in, Ratliff leads 50.5 percent to 49.5. The spread is 1,100 votes out of 104,000 counted.

McLeroy told the Texas Tribune tonight, “I think I lost…but I’m not conceding.”

Indeed, McLeroy is mathematically in it. So it’s possible he could still pull out a win. But it appears that GOP voters have unseated the SBOE’s most prominent social conservative.

Then there’s the race for the open seat held by the outgoing social conservative Cynthia Dunbar. This race will head to a runoff next month. Dunbar’s  hand-picked Christian conservative successor, Austin attorney Brian Russell, received 35 percent of the vote tonight. He’ll face the more moderate educator Marsha Farney, who also tallied 35 percent, in the next round of voting. (I’ll add, by way of disclaimer, that it’s hard to know exactly where Farney stands on many issues. She appears more moderate than Russell, but it’s hard to glean much from her Web site.) The third candidate in the race was also a moderate.

The problem for Russell and the right wing is that 65 percent of the vote tonight went against him. He’ll have an uphill fight. If Farney wins the runoff, that would leave the Christian conservatives in clear control of just five seats.

Earlier tonight, Bob Craig, a moderate from Lubbock, easily beat back a right-wing challenger.

As I wrote below, the wild card is George Clayton, a largely unknown candidate who was poised to upset Dallas incumbent Tincy Miller late tonight.

Still—assuming Ratliff holds off McLeroy—the storyline here is that social conservatives on the State Board have lost serious ground.

For years, they’ve twisted State Board meetings into one long culture war. The debates are less about education policy and mostly about their own worldviews, no matter how far from the mainstream.

Tonight Republican primary voters seemed to say enough is enough.

 

UPDATED AT 11:57 p.m.: We could be looking at a stunning upset of Tincy Miller in Dallas.

I say stunning not just because Miller, a moderate Republican, has served on the State Board for a quarter century, but also because her opponent, George Clayton, has come out of nowhere.

I didn’t list this race as competitive earlier because few people saw it as such. I mean, Miller has outspent Clayton $55,000 to $1,500!

And the man has next to nothing on his Web site.

Yet, at this moment, Clayton leads Miller 52-47 percent. Only about 40 percent of the precincts are in, and much of Dallas County hasn’t reported yet. So Miller could certainly come back and win this.

No Democrat is running. If Clayton holds on, the SBOE seat is his.

So who is this guy? Hard to tell.

He’s an administrator for the Dallas school district. As i noted earlier, he doesn’t appear to be a hard-core social conservative. If you read this candidate bio from the Dallas Morning News, it seems Clayton decided to run because he despises the TAKS test.

Fair enough, but I don’t think the SBOE has much control over the TAKS. He probably should have run for the Legislature, but I digress.

Miller might still rally. If she doesn’t, Clayton will join the SBOE as a real wild card.

 

UPDATED AT 10:40 p.m.: Thomas Ratliff’s lead over Don McLeroy is growing. With 83 percent of the vote in, Ratliff leads 51-49. His edge has expanded to 1,700 votes.

It’s not over, but social conservatives may be about to lose their standard bearer.

One more update to come.

 

UPDATED AT 9:32 p.m.: The social conservatives on the SBOE are in trouble.

Moderate Thomas Ratliff has just taken his first lead of the night on Don McLeroy. Nearly 41 percent of the vote has been counted in this headline race, and Ratliff leads 50.72 percent to 49.27. That’s a spread of just 900 votes out of 61,000 counted.

Elsewhere, it looks like the moderate faction of the State Board wlll hold its ground tonight. Bob Craig, the moderate Republican from Lubbock, is cruising to reelection. That ensures that social conservatives won’t claim a majority of the State Board tonight.

The best the Christian conservatives can do — it appears — is break even. And even that’s not assured. Right now, McLeroy is in a dogfight. The race to replace right-winger Cynthia Dunbar is also tied among three candidates. That appears headed for a runoff.

In Dallas, moderate Tincy Miller’s race continues to be close. I don’t think this race was on anyone’s radar. I honestly don’t know much about her opponent, George Clayton. But in this interview with the Dallas Observer, Clayton doesn’t sound like a hardcore social conservtive.

More to come.

 

UPDATED AT 8:40 p.m.: Could be a late night in the McLeroy-Ratliff race. With 16 percent of the vote in, the candidates are essentially tied at 50 percent. (McLeroy leads by 500 votes out of more than 40,000 counted so far).

 

UPDATED AT 8:08 p.m.: Early returns are trickling in. Still very early. But so far it looks like the moderates and the right-wingers are each going to hold at least one seat.

The AP has reportedly called the District 5 race for right-wing incumbent Ken Mercer.He leads by nearly 30 points over Tim Tuggey, who hasn’t garnered enough support despite one of the great names in recent Texas political history. That’s a win for the social conservatives.

Meanwhile, moderate incumbent Bob Craig is trouncing his right-wing rival in West Texas’ District 15. With nearly 8 percent of the precincts reporting, Craig leads Randy Rives 68 percent to 32 percent. That’s looking like a win for the moderates. I’ll add one caveat, though. This district is split between Lubbock and Odessa. Craig is from Lubbock. If results from Midland-Odessa haven’t come in yet, then Rives may yet pull closer. But 36 points is a steep hill.

The rest of the SBOE races are close. Don McLeroy (51 percent) has a slim lead on Thomas Ratliff (49 percent) with 6 percent of the precincts in. That one could go down to the wire.

There’s an interesting story developing in Dallas, where Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, a longtime board member and a moderate Republican, is in a surprisingly close race with challenger George Clayton. Miller has really outspent Clayton and appeared to be cruising to reelection. But with 28,000 votes in, Miller is trailing 51 percent to 49 percent. Too few votes have been counted yet to draw any conclusions, but it’s a race to watch.

 

UPDATED AT 6:30 p.m.: As we wait for early-voting results, which should be posted in about half an hour, I’d like to highlight one other State Board race worth watching tonight—the GOP primary in District 10, where three candidates are fighting to replace the departing social conservative Cynthia Dunbar. I didn’t include this race in the top three because the stakes aren’t as clear. We know that Dunbar endorsed Austin attorney Brian Russell, so I’ll assume he’s fairly right-wing. But little is known about the other two candidates in the race. I’ll say this, I’m going to miss Dunbar, a constant source of good copy.

 

You could argue that the most important elections in Texas today are the Republican primaries for the State Board of Education.

After all, the outcome of the governor’s race—or any other statewide election—won’t be determined tonight (there’s still a general election, of course) and neither will the makeup of the Texas House.

But today’s three key Republican primary races will likely determine who controls Texas’ infamous State Board of Education: the moderates or the right-wing.

The seven Christian conservatives on the State Board have been on quite a run the past two years.  A brief a sampling: At least one of them believes the Earth is just 6,000 years old, and all seven have tried to slip “weaknesses” of evolution into school curriculum, and tried to teach kids that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” that Red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated, and that Cesar Chavez wasn’t a significant historical figure.

Give them points for ambition.

But the Christian conservatives have had limited success with these efforts because they control just seven seats on the 15-seat board. In today’s primaries, they hope to change that math.

If Christian conservatives win all three races, they will likely claim an 8-7 majority on the State Board and gain substantially more power over Texas education.

And, conversely, if the moderate Republicans win all three races, the Christian conservative bloc will shrink to five seats and its voice will be marginalized for the next two years. (If moderates win even two of the three races, the Christian conservatives will hold just six votes.)

I’ll be updating this post throughout the day and evening as results come in. For now, here’s a look at the three key GOP primary races.


District 9
Don McLeroy (incumbent) vs. Thomas Ratliff

This is the headline race. McLeroy is perhaps the State Board’s most infamous member. A dentist from Bryan and avowed young-Earth creationist, McLeroy was the most publicly outspoken of the board’s Christian conservatives, particularly on evolution, and global warming. He served as chair of the board until last year, when the Texas Senate refused to confirm him to another term. For more on McLeroy, read this Observer profile of him from last year. Suffice it to say, McLeroy’s many critics would love to see him knocked off the board.

Thomas Ratliff is a political consultant and lobbyist. He’s the son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff—a well-respected pragmatist during his time in the Texas Senate. On his campaign site, Ratliff lists his top two issues as: “More input from local school boards, parents, superintendents and teachers.” And: “Taking politics OUT of public education.”

That last one would be quite the contrast to McLeroy.

District 5
Ken Mercer (incumbent) vs. Tim Tuggey

This race in the San Antonio area received statewide attention recently after supporters of Ken Mercer, the right-wing incumbent, accused his opponent of being soft on terrorism.

Tim Tuggey, in addition to having one of the best names in this year’s elections, is a lawyer and lobbyist whose firm has represented Saudi clients.

As the Statesman reported, a Mercer supporter recently sent out a mass email that read:

“Could Tim Tuggey, who has made tens of thousands of dollars by helping the Saudis to scrub their image, be trusted to stand up to the far left to make sure our history books do not undergo revisionism?”

Mercer has also attacked Tuggey for conflicts of interest in Austin—clients and partners of Tuggey have lobbied the Legislature and the State Board.

For his part, Mercer is a member of the Christian conservative bloc. In State Board meetings, he is often one of the more aggressive social conservatives.

District 15
Bob Craig (incumbent) vs. Randy Rives

This West Texas race has a lower profile than the others, but is no less important to the makeup of the State Board.

Craig, a folksy mainstream conservative from Lubbock, is the moderate in this race. The right-wing wants to unseat him, and Randy Rives, a former school board member in Odessa, is their guy.

Rives’ views  are rather extreme. The issues page of his Web site really must be read to be believed. He attacks Craig for siding with the ACLU and an “arch-Drawinist”:

“During the adoption of Science standards by the SBOE last year, Craig consulted with area ACLU secretary Steve Schafersman, arch-Darwinist Eugenie Scott of Berkeley, California, and Texas Freedom Network’s Kathy Miller in a strategy session to promote the teaching of evolution to our school children.  (Texas Freedom Network is closely aligned with Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, the largest homosexual organization in the country.)”

(Here’s an obligatory fact check for those who don’t follow these issues closely: Texas Freedom Network is a left-leaning activist group. But it isn’t “closely aligned” with Planned Parenthood or the Human Rights Campaign.)

On social studies, he believes:

“There is a liberal movement to allow elements in our history that are inaccurate to creep in, clouding the documented truth about the Christian foundation upon which our country was founded. I am firm in standing on my conviction that we should preserve historical documents AS WRITTEN, and teach about the values upon which this nation was founded.”

Given all that, it’s safe to assume that if Rives defeats Craig—and McLeroy and Mercer hold their seats—the board will shift even further rightward. Now there’s a thought to chill your spine.

Stay tuned. Updates to come.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.