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Conservative PACs inject millions into local school races

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(Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via AP, File)

As Republicans and Democrats fight for control of Congress this fall, 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.

Once seen as sleepy affairs with little interest outside their communities, school board elections started to heat up last year as parents aired frustrations with pandemic policies. As those issues fade, right-leaning groups are spending millions on candidates who promise to scale back teachings on race and sexuality, remove offending books from libraries and nix plans for gender-neutral bathrooms or transgender-inclusive sports teams.

Democrats have countered with their own campaigns portraying Republicans as extremists who want to ban books and rewrite history.

At the center of the conservative effort is the 1776 Project PAC, which formed last year to push back against the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which provides free lesson plans that center U.S. history around slavery and its lasting impacts. Last fall and this spring, the 1776 group succeeded in elevating conservative majorities to office in dozens of school districts across the U.S., propelling candidates who have gone on to fire superintendents and enact sweeping “bills of rights” for parents.

In the wake of recent victories in Texas and Pennsylvania — and having spent $2 million between April 2021 and this August, according to campaign finance filings — the group is campaigning for dozens of candidates this fall. It’s supporting candidates in Maryland’s Frederick and Carroll counties, in Bentonville, Arkansas, and 20 candidates across southern Michigan.

Its candidates have won not only in deeply red locales but also in districts near liberal strongholds, including Philadelphia and Minneapolis. And after this November, the group hopes to expand further.

“Places we’re not supposed to typically win, we’ve won in,” said Ryan Girdusky, founder of the group. “I think we can do it again.”

In Florida, recent school board races saw an influx of attention — and money — from conservative groups, including some that had never gotten involved in school races.

The American Principles Project, a Washington think tank, put a combined $25,000 behind four candidates for the Polk County board. The group made its first foray into school boards at the behest of local activists, its leader said, and it’s weighing whether to continue elsewhere. The group’s fundraising average surged from under $50,000 the year before the pandemic to about $2 million now.

“We lean heavily into retaking federal power,” said Terry Schilling, the think tank’s president. “But if you don’t also take over the local school boards, you’re not going to have local allies there to actually reverse the policies that these guys have been implementing.”

In a move never before seen in the state, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsed a slate of school board candidates, putting his weight behind conservatives who share his opposition to lessons on sexuality and what he deems critical race theory. Most of the DeSantis-backed candidates won in their August races, in some cases replacing conservative members who had more moderate views than the firebrand governor.

The movement claims to be an opposing force to left-leaning teachers unions. They see the unions as a well-funded enemy that promotes radical classroom lessons on race and sexuality — a favorite smear is to call the unions “groomers.” The unions, which also support candidates, have called it a fiction meant to stoke distrust in public schools.

In Maryland’s Frederick County, the 1776 group is backing three school board candidates against four endorsed by education unions. The conservatives are running as the “Education Not Indoctrination” slate, with a digital ad saying children are being “held captive” by schools. The ad shows a picture of stacked books bearing the words “equity,” “grooming,” “indoctrination” and “critical race theory.”

Karen Yoho, a board member running for re-election, said outside figures have stoked fears about critical race theory and other lessons that aren’t taught in Frederick County.

The discourse has mostly stayed civil in her area, but Yoho takes exception to the accusation that teachers are “grooming” children.

“I find it disgusting,” said Yoho, a retired teacher whose children went through the district. “It makes my heart hurt. And then I kind of get mad and I get defensive.”

In Texas, Patriot Mobile — a wireless company that promotes conservative causes — has emerged as a political force in school board races. Earlier this year, its political arm spent more than $400,000 out of $800,000 raised to boost candidates in a handful of races in the northern Texas county where the company is based. All of its favored candidates won, putting conservatives in control of four districts.

The group did not respond to requests for comment, but a statement released after the spring victories said Texas was “just the beginning.”

Some GOP strategists have cautioned against the focus on education, saying it could backfire with more moderate voters. Results so far have been mixed — the 1776 Project claims a 70% win rate, but conservative candidates in some areas have fallen flat in recent elections.

Still, the number of groups that have banded together under the umbrella of parental rights seems only to be growing. It includes national organizations such as Moms for Liberty, along with smaller grassroots groups.

“There is a very stiff resistance to the concerted and intentional effort to make radical ideas about race and gender part of the school day. Parents don’t like it,” said Jonathan Butcher, an education fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The foundation and its political wing have been hosting training sessions encouraging parents to run for school boards, teaching them the basics about budgeting but also about the perceived dangers of what the group deems critical race theory.

For decades, education was seen as its “own little game” that was buffered from national politics, said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who has written about outside funding in school board elections. Now, he said, local races are becoming battlegrounds for broader debates.

He said education is unlikely to be a decisive issue in the November election — it’s overshadowed by abortion and the economy — but it can still be wielded to “amplify local discontent” and push more voters to the polls.

Republicans are using the tactic this fall as they look to unseat Democrats at all levels of government.

In Michigan, the American Principles Project is paying for TV ads against the Democratic governor where a narrator reads sexually explicit passages from the graphic novel “Gender Queer.” It claims that “this is the kind of literature that Gretchen Whitmer wants your kids exposed to,” while giant red letters appear saying “stop grooming our kids.”

Similar TV ads are being aired in Arizona to attack Sen. Mark Kelly, and in Maine against Gov. Janet Mills, both Democrats.

Politics

Trump impeachment leader Schiff joins California Senate race

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who rose to national prominence as the lead prosecutor in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, said Thursday he is running for the Senate seat held by long-serving Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

The 2024 race is quickly emerging as a marquee Senate contest, even though the 89-year-old Feinstein, the oldest member of Congress, has yet to announce if she will seek another term, though her retirement is widely expected. Schiff is jumping in two weeks after Rep. Katie Porter became the first candidate to declare her campaign for the safe Democratic seat.

Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, made clear he intends to anchor his candidacy to his role as Trump’s chief antagonist in Congress. In his campaign kickoff video, he said the “biggest job of his life” was serving as impeachment manager, and he promised to continue to be a “fighter” for democracy.

“If our democracy isn’t delivering for Americans, they’ll look for alternatives, like a dangerous demagogue who promises that he alone can fix it,” Schiff said of Trump, who has announced his 2024 campaign for the presidency.

Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor who joined the Senate in 1992, told reporters in Washington this week that she will make a decision about 2024 in the “next couple of months.”

The jockeying for the seat has created a politically awkward dynamic for Feinstein, who has broken gender barriers throughout her decadeslong career in local and national politics. In recent years, questions have arisen about her cognitive health and memory, though she has defended her effectiveness in representing a state that is home to nearly 40 million people.

Schiff, 62, said in an interview Thursday that he had spoken to Feinstein a day earlier to inform her about his plans.

“I want to make sure that everything I did was respectful of her and that I did so with her knowledge and her blessing,” Schiff told The Associated Press.

Asked if he was aware of the senator’s plans, Schiff said, “I don’t want to presume to speak for Sen. Feinstein, and I think she’s earned the right to announce her decision when she’s ready to make that announcement.”

Schiff was first elected to Congress in 2000 and represents parts of Hollywood. He has been a frequent target of conservatives — Trump in particular — since the then-GOP-led House Intelligence Committee he served on started investigating Trump’s ties to Russia in the 2016 election. Schiff appeared frequently on television to question Trump’s actions.

That criticism intensified when Democrats took the House majority in early 2019 and he became the committee chair, and it reached a full-on roar with his role in the impeachment investigation of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Trump was impeached in December 2019 on charges he abused the power of the presidency to investigate rival Joe Biden and obstructed Congress’ investigation.

In an impassioned plea to the Senate in early 2020, Schiff urged Trump’s removal from office and framed the choice in moral terms. “If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost,” he said at the time.

“You know you can’t trust this president do what’s right for this country,” Schiff said. “You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months, he’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to. This is why if you find him guilty you must find that he should be removed. Because right matters.”

The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump of both charges. In 2021, he became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice, this time for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol after he lost the 2020 election. He was again acquitted by the Senate.

Republicans are still angry about Schiff’s starring role at the impeachment trial, with new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy accusing him of using his leadership position to “lie to the American public again and again.” McCarthy, R-Calif., said this week that he intended to block Schiff from continuing his service on the House Intelligence Committee.

With the centrist Feinstein in the twilight of her career, the race in the heavily Democratic state already is shaping up as a showcase for an ambitious, younger generation on the party’s left wing.

Both Schiff and Porter are nationally recognized — Schiff through his leading impeachment role and Porter, a favorite of the party’s progressive wing, through her tough questioning of CEOs and other witnesses at congressional hearings. Each is also a formidable small-dollar fundraiser.

Neither has run statewide before, and each would face the challenge of becoming better known beyond their Southern California districts. Democrats are expected to dominate the contest — a Republican hasn’t won a statewide race in California since 2006, and the past two Senate elections had only Democrats on the November ballot.

The field is expected to grow, with other possible contenders including Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Asked how he would stand out in what is expected to be a crowded field, Schiff said he would emphasize his central role of national struggles over democracy and the economy.

“I think that record of leadership, that record of staunch defense of our democracy, and the way that I’ve championed an economy that works for everyone, I think are a powerful record to run on,” he said.

In his announcement video, Schiff mixed shots of his family and highlights from his courtroom work with video from the impeachment proceedings and clips of Trump and other Republicans.

He warns that the threat of extremism is not over.

“Today’s Republican Party is gutting the middle class, threatening our democracy” Schiff says. “They aren’t going to stop. We have to stop them.”

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Florida House Democrats React to House Bill 1 Passing its First Committee

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In response to the committee vote referring House Bill 1 to its next House committee, Florida House Democrats provided the following statements.

“While I am disappointed my third amendment was not accepted to give Florida’s families the accountability and transparency they deserve so they make the right choice for their children, we will continue working with our Republican counterparts to ensure no student gets left behind,” said Choice and Innovation Subcommittee Democratic Ranking Member Representative Susan L. Valdés (D-Tampa).

“Today’s committee hearing hosted a robust discussion about policy and finance, but we need to realize that is ultimately about the children,” said Representative Kevin Chambliss (D-Homestead). “Each child is different and unique, especially those with disabilities. Every child deserves quality education, and I sincerely hope we can work together to put our children before the politics of the bill.”

“Today’s vote is disappointing. While there is definitely room for innovation in the public-school system, the negative fiscal impact on public schools will be felt on the back of public school students,” said Representative Katherine Waldron (D-Wellington).

This morning’s Choice and Innovation Subcommittee hearing can be replayed any time via The Florida Channel’s archive.

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Randy Fine Announces Endorsement of Brevard State Rep. Chase Tramont

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Melbourne Beach, Fla. – Today, State Representative Randy Fine (R-Melbourne Beach)
announced the endorsement of Brevard County State Representative Chase Tramont in Fine’s
bid for the open State Senate District 19 seat.

“For many years, I have had the privilege of knowing Representative Fine and observing his
service in the Florida House,” said Tramont. “I can personally vouch for his tenacious spirit.
When it comes to fighting for our families, he’s left it all on the field. I have no doubt he will
do the same in the Florida Senate.”

Representative Tramont joins fellow Brevard County Representative and former Senator Thad
Altman in endorsing Fine, along with former Senate President from Brevard Mike Haridopolos
and Republican Party of Florida Chairman and Senator Joe Gruters. Fine’s political committee,
Friends of Randy Fine, has almost $500,000 on hand.

“Representative Tramont has been a fantastic addition to the Brevard Delegation,” said Fine.
“Many legislators talk about fighting for the most vulnerable among us; Representative Tramont
is an inspiration in living that fight every day. I am so excited to work with him this term in the
House, and moving forward, in the Senate.”

Representative Fine currently serves as the Chairman of the House Health & Human Services
Committee, where he oversees all aspects of health care and welfare reform in Florida.

Previously, he served as Chairman of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, where
he sponsored the largest School Choice expansion in American history and as Chairman of the
House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, where he redesigned the process of
capital funding for state universities. He also served as the Chairman of the House Select
Committee on Gaming. In his time in the legislature, Fine has passed over two dozen pieces of
legislation, including the bill holding Disney accountable for its wokeists attacks on Florida’s
parents.

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