“Us Vs. Them”: How A School Board Race Became About So Much More

The threads of politics today converged in one school board race. Things are getting ugly.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado — Wearing mittens and clutching signs for three school board candidates, Eric Ward stood at a busy intersection on a chilly morning before Election Day, greeting passing cars as part of a “honk and wave” to remind them to vote and to gin up some last-minute enthusiasm.

With races like this much too small for any real polling, a honk and wave also serves as something of a mood gauge: A friendly smile and series of beeps from a passing motorist probably means one vote in the bag; when a pickup truck stopped at the intersection revs their engine and blankets you in black exhaust fumes — a “coal roll” — it suggests they’re voting for your opponent.

This was supposed to be a nonpartisan and sleepy election for the three open spots on Mesa County Valley School District 51’s five-member board, which is in charge of hiring a superintendent and establishing the district’s educational “philosophy, policy and guidelines.” But this year is different. A trio of conservatives ran together as a bloc with the same campaign adviser. The candidates were quickly endorsed by local Republicans and a right-wing group fighting vaccine mandates, mask requirements, and critical race theory — none of which is actually present in the district’s schools. The candidates’ signs were branded differently but all read “Vote Conservative” or “The Conservative Choice.”

Their three Democrat-endorsed opponents — a Democrat, a Republican, and an independent — decided in the last days of the race they may as well band together too. Division breeds division, Ward explained, as he held signs for these three candidates by the side of the road.

“They’ve broken themselves into the three of them versus the three of us,” Ward said — before immediately scolding himself for using “us versus them” language about, of all things, a school board race.

“I keep saying the other group because I don’t know what else to say,” he said. “I don’t know what ‘conservative’ teaching is.”

The waters of political discourse in America today are flowing through this city on Colorado’s Western Slope, named for the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. A traditionally deeply Republican pocket in a state that is turning more Democratic each year, Mesa County has made national headlines in recent months after top elections official Tina Peters, a conspiracy-prone Trump supporter who has spread doubts about voting integrity and Dominion machines, was pushed aside and put under criminal investigation to the outrage of her far-right supporters. Her followers have been conducting their own review of the 2020 election, going door-to-door to survey people about their votes.

In this city ringed by flat-topped mountains, official hearings have been inundated with people railing against vaccine mandates for healthcare and government workers. Two heated school board meetings in August ended in chaos as angry parents yelled they were being silenced about their opposition to masks. Some demanded members either resign or be arrested. "Why am I doing this?" one board member asked himself as guards escorted him and his colleagues to their cars.

Amid all the noise, residents went to the polls this week to vote in a school board election — more partisan, more flush with cash, and unlike anything people here could remember. Everything just feels more intense, more heated. “It seems as if things have gotten supercharged over the past few years,” said Nick Allan, a former teacher and the Democrat running against the conservative bloc in the District 51 race.

None of this, though, is particularly remarkable for the US today.

“Holy cow, what is going on in our little area?”

In towns and cities and states across the country, Americans are wading through culture wars — about the pandemic, about race, about elections — and picking sides. Republicans have put schools at the center of their elections strategy, with early success in states like Virginia, where the party swept statewide races this week. National politics is now local politics. People are angry. Long trusted institutions, from local media to family doctors, are suddenly no longer trusted. Partisanship has turned into tribalism, which has turned into echo chambers. Facts can be chosen at will and, when challenged, be replaced with alternative facts. The lie about the 2020 election is spreading as its chief proponent lusts for a return to power. While in Washington, DC, and in places like Mesa County, Republicans are making decisions about the future of their party — and the future of the Republic itself.

America is at a crossroads in Grand Junction.

“Our town has been so vanilla and blah. We don’t get any major weather or issues. It’s kind of a plain little town,” said real estate agent Andrea Haitz, one of the conservative trio running in District 51. “But I have had people say, and I’ve even thought too, ‘Holy cow, what is going on in our little area?’”

The day before voters went to the polls, a man approached a microphone in a meeting of the county commissioners to let them know he had no confidence in what was about to unfold. “I’m here to talk about the election integrity — or the lack thereof,” Mark Rybeck said.

Rybeck was upset that his ballot had been mailed out to him, but then returned to the post office because he was on vacation. An elections official had tried to explain it was a good thing that his ballot wasn’t sitting in his mailbox while he was away, and the system would know it was undelivered. But Rybeck wasn’t satisfied. He said it was an opportunity for fraud and wanted postal ballots done away with nationwide.

“I’m really upset with the elections in this country. We’ve got a fake president and a fake administration that is trying to do away with the Second Amendment and the Fourth Amendment,” he told the commissioners. “It’s all because of this election fraud.”

Locals and outsiders have stoked the unfounded fears of Rybeck’s and others’ here. At the center sits Peters, the Republican elected as the county’s chief elections official. Last month, a judge barred her from overseeing the November election after she was accused by Colorado’s secretary of state, a Democrat, of an “unprecedented security breach.”

Peters’ drift into the center of election conspiracies happened gradually. She initially lauded the 2020 vote as smooth, but by January, she was tweeting that Republican senators who would affirm Joe Biden’s victory were “dirty and ignorant.” On a Sunday in May, with the security cameras switched off, Peters and her deputy allegedly snuck an unauthorized man into a secure part of the clerk’s office to make copies of the Dominion voting machine hard drives and take photos, which were later posted online by QAnon leader Ron Watkins. Peters has said her intention was to make before-and-after copies of the hard drives before planned upgrades in order to see whether sensitive files were deleted. She and her deputy are now being investigated by both state and federal agencies for potential criminal charges.

Peters has claimed she is being made a political target for exposing election fraud, of which she has provided no proof, and has become a MAGA hero.

Doubts about election integrity have spread here like a virus. The three conservative school board candidates — Haitz, cosmetology school owner Angela Lema, and football coach Will Jones — each said they had met residents on the campaign trail who had no faith their ballot would be counted. “Why should I vote? It’s rigged,” Lema said people had told her.

Of the three, only Jones would say he felt there was “funny stuff” behind the 2020 election. Both Lema and Haitz said they’d been too busy to properly research the issue. “If I guess I felt things were too illegitimate, why would I then run?” Haitz said.

Peters has said her doubts about the election were sparked by Stand for the Constitution, a local far-right group whose members have asked for the county to declare itself a “constitutional sanctuary.” The group canvassed residents to conduct their own audit of the election. Sherronna Bishop, a right-wing activist and Peters ally who previously served as campaign manager for Rep. Lauren Boebert, the conspiratorial Republican who represents the district, told me that she and others had found evidence of fraud, but she didn’t provide any.

“Ultimately it’s the people of Mesa County who have to decide if they’re going to accept the results or not,” Bishop said. “I still think the eyes of the rest of the nation are watching Mesa County to see what’s going to happen and how the endurance of the people here will stand up against this type of corruption.”

“If they only knew that the reason why I got into journalism is because I don’t trust government.”

Weekly meetings of Stand for the Constitution have broadened from election integrity to organizing against vaccine and mask mandates, and the group eagerly promoted the conservative school board candidates on social media. Haitz and Lema both campaigned at one of the group’s events. Haitz sported a shirt similar to one Rihanna once wore that read, “Think While It’s Still Legal.”

At Stand for the Constitution meetings and at rallies for Peters, when speakers mention the town’s newspaper, the Daily Sentinel, it’s usually with derision and a nickname (“the Daily Senile”) that draws boos. Reporter Charles Ashby is a favorite target. He’s been at the paper for 12 of his roughly 40 years in journalism, but staff numbers have halved since he started in Grand Junction. Like other local reporters across the country, Ashby is now being asked to do more with less. Still, he sees it as his mission to debunk the lies and conspiracies suddenly everywhere in town, not for those who will never be convinced, but for his readers who he feels are genuinely confused by the subterfuge operation. His reporting has drawn death threats, but he’s not scared, even if he has taken his press pass off his car’s dashboard.

“I don’t know what it is but it seems to be a cultural thing — around the country, not just here — that people have lost faith in their institutions and the press is one of them, and that’s unfortunate because we’re probably more on their side than they realize,” Ashby told me.

“If they only knew that the reason why I got into journalism is because I don’t trust government. The government needs to be watched. Candidates and politicians need to be watched,” he said. “But I don’t make shit up! I don’t make it up.”

Local officials have also worked to counter disinformation and rebuild trust.

“This is a humble city that has sadly really gotten caught up in these lies.”

“We’ve done a lot of effort to do some voter education, to help people understand,” county elections manager Stephanie Wenholz said. “We’ve had people come to our office. We’re willing to answer any questions they have for us. We’re hoping that we keep building that confidence, that trust with everybody.”

The trio of candidates running against the conservatives — Allan, the former teacher; Chief Deputy District Attorney Trish Mahre; and activist David Combs — each said they felt claims of a rigged election would only arise if they were to win. It was something of a win-win situation for Republicans, Allan said: Either they are victorious, or they can keep supporters mad and engaged ahead of next year’s midterms. He found the idea that there could be a grand conspiracy to interfere with a small local election laughable.

“The accusation of whether this thing is gonna be stolen or not will depend on the outcome,” Allan said. “If it doesn’t turn out the way I would like it, it’s because I didn’t earn enough votes, but I can’t say the same will happen if the other candidate loses, and that’s really sad.”

“This is a humble city that has sadly really gotten caught up in these lies,” he said, “and what I’m really interested in seeing on Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. is which direction we’re going.”

Together with his wife, Pete Hosburgh knocked on a total of 783 doors during the election campaign as a volunteer for the conservative candidates. In all those conversations, he said the biggest issue he heard was concerns about critical race theory and Black Lives Matter. “They wanted to get back to conservative schooling, teaching the basics,” Hosburgh said. “A lot of people that did not have kids in the schools, like us, but we still pay taxes and I don’t like the product that my taxes are paying for.”

When right-wing media latched onto critical race theory earlier this year, it came as the Mesa County school board was seeking to hire a director of equity and inclusion. The position soon attracted anger. “There are code words in the job description for promoting CRT,” a pastor in the county told the Colorado Times Recorder.

Critical race theory is a college-level framework that analyzes systemic racism. It is not taught in Mesa County schools or in really any children’s classrooms in the US. But it has been weaponized as a tool of white identity politics by conservatives nationally and has morphed into an effective boogeyman for practically any form of liberal discussion in schools. Tucker Carlson, one of the loudest voices in the country against CRT, this week told his viewers he has never really figured out what it is.

In Mesa County, where less than 1% of the 154,000 residents are Black, CRT has come to serve as a gateway. A Stand for the Constitution member told me it covered any teachings that could make children “anti-American.” The conservative school board candidates all said anything that emphasizes division or kids’ differences was a problem. Football coach Jones, who is Black and calls it “Creating Racial Tension,” brought up the issue of transgender students being allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender. Mahre, the district attorney, said one of her campaign volunteers spoke with a resident who was convinced CRT was being taught because her grandson had come out as bisexual.

When I asked Lema, the cosmetology school owner, why parents were so upset about something not being taught in schools, she scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, it is. Give me a break. Of course it is,” she said. “It’s little things. It’s subtle things. It’s not ‘We’re gonna take CRT off the shelf and this is what we’re going to teach.’ Everybody understands that. It’s about separating kids based on race, based on socioeconomic status, how tall or skinny, ‘are you overweight?’ How many ways can we separate kids out?”

“CRT is the reference that covers a lot of different things,” Lema said. “It’s bigger than that. It’s more subtle than that.”

All the candidates in the race were against CRT being taught to children. But activist Combs, who is Black, said such prohibitions could not be twisted to ban any discussion of diversity, inequality, or equity that were just part of everyday living in a racially diverse country.

“It’s an issue that’s been made an issue,” he said of CRT. “It gives people something to hang on to. It’s just a soundbite.”

Combs, an independent, doesn’t believe there should be a Democrat or Republican way to educate a child. He said the CRT obsession was illustrative of how national politics had “trickled down” into local races, poisoning what should be a nonpartisan race and making even his friends feel as if they are “putting themselves on the line” by backing him publicly.

Kevin McCarney, the head of the local chapter of Republicans, presents himself as more pragmatic. He said his party spent money in the race to counter donations and support from teachers groups to the other candidates. “There is no such thing as a nonpartisan race,” he said. “Every issue has one side or the other, and a partisan takes a side. Every election is politics.”

“CRT is the reference that covers a lot of different things,” Lema said. “It’s bigger than that. It’s more subtle than that.”

There’s been ugliness in the race. Jones’ other job as a security guard at a local strip club drew attention on social media, as did his decades-old criminal history, even though he has had to clear background checks to work as a football coach with children. “I felt personally attacked,” he said. “It was a little bit racial because you didn't do it to any other candidates but me.”

There’s misinformation, too, on both sides. Haitz, the real estate agent, said her position against mandates was twisted into a blanket opposition to vaccines and masks. (She declined to say if she is vaccinated.) Allan, the former teacher, said he’s been called an antifa collaborator and a Satanist.

All the candidates said they felt the pandemic had made people in town angrier, more frustrated. “I was aware of parents talking about having us all charged with child abuse,” said Mahre, the prosecutor and a registered Republican who was appointed to the school board last year to fill a vacancy. “Who would feel good being the subject of something like that?”

For some, it has been too much. One school board member, Paul Pitton, resigned in September because the role had weighed so heavily on him for months. “Politics have crept in and have no place in the public school system,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

Hosburgh, the conservative volunteer, said in all his discussions with residents it had been clear to him the school board race was going to be a referendum on something much bigger.

“A lot of people were just fired up with the way the country is going right now,” he said. “Not a lot of people volunteered that information but you definitely get the feeling, especially in Mesa County.”

Amid morning rain on Election Day, a steady stream of motorists pulled into the parking lot of the elections office to place their ballots in a drive-thru secure drop box. Some preferred to walk inside and cast a vote the old-fashioned way. “I’m not going to drop it anywhere if someone could get in,” Lynn Layton said.

Another voter, Tom Ripper, said he’d voted for the conservative bloc and appreciated that their campaign signs made their politics clear. CRT had been his motivating issue. “As far as schools teaching white people are bad or Black people are bad or anything else — I just want the kids having reading, writing, arithmetic,” he said.

Sitting silently but sternly in the corner of the polling room was David Anderson, a Republican who had volunteered to serve as a “watcher” and keep an eye out for anything nefarious. “On the surface, it all looks good, but you have those little black boxes,” he said, pointing to the Dominion machines. “You just have to ensure that we’re getting a fair election, and it’s not been set up by the Chinese or whoever.”

“You just have to ensure that we’re getting a fair election, and it’s not been set up by the Chinese or whoever.”

Anderson said he viewed this race and his role as preparation for something bigger. “It’s a school board election, so why should anybody mess with them?,” he said. “But next year it’s the midterms and then the presidential election.”

When polls closed, the diehards went to bars. Peters, the county clerk, was among the guests at the packed conservative watch party, mingling with friends and fans as she sipped a cocktail. (She declined to speak to me about whether voters could trust the results of the race, but did want to know my thoughts on the pandemic lockdowns in my native Australia, which have become something of a cause célèbre among the American right.)

Also present were several people who spoke the day before at the city commissioner’s meeting against vaccines, as well as members of Stand for the Constitution. “Everything hinges on this,” said Cindy Ficklin, an early member of the far-right group who is running for the state House next year. “They’ve shut us out, and that’s not OK. That’s why it was time to flip the school board.”

Some in the crowd wore T-shirts with conservative slogans and memes: “Stand for Freedom,” “Let’s Go Brandon,” and “Just a Mom Who Refuses to Cooperate With the Government.” They cheered as the big screen airing Fox News displayed the latest returns from Virginia and New Jersey, showing the Republican vote surging nationwide, not just in Colorado. “We can add Virginia to the home shopping list,” a man speaking into a microphone told the crowd. “That shows what’s going to happen in the midterms! It’s looking really good.”

People checked their phones and refreshed browsers on laptops for Mesa County’s returns. Results trickled in gradually until the writing was on the wall. It was decidedly close — less than 3% separated Mahre and Haitz in their race — but it was over. With more than 46,000 votes cast, all three conservatives had won.

Across town, the mood was decidedly different. Sitting outside a bar in the evening cold as people started leaving his sparsely attended watch party, Allan, the former teacher, began to confront his defeat. I asked him about our first conversation where he told me election night would reveal to him which direction the county was going. “We’re still on that knifepoint,” he said. “It’s definitely different visions of moving forward and moving back.”

He conceded he had more learning to do — about his town, about his country, about himself.

“Is this more than a school board campaign? It wasn’t for me. It shouldn’t be. It’s always been for the kids and the teachers,” he said. “For other people, it was probably more. But I don’t know if they know what that is.” ●

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