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Rage over mask mandates, 'critical race theory' bombs in Tucson school board races

What the Devil won't tell you

Rage over mask mandates, 'critical race theory' bombs in Tucson school board races

  • Voters weren't really into populist outrage over mandates or race theories in 2022. Right-wing theatrics took it on the chin from the governor's race down to the school boards.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comVoters weren't really into populist outrage over mandates or race theories in 2022. Right-wing theatrics took it on the chin from the governor's race down to the school boards.

Talk about the Red Flameout is all the rage at the state and national level but here in Pima County, the same results played out in local school board races.

The COVID conspiracy crowd staged a small but important effort to gain footholds on several area school districts. These candidates drew their inspiration to run from mask and vaccine mandates, with a hearty side of "critical race theory" outrage.

If there was a year when red-faces with pulsing veins of the right should have wound up victorious, 2022 was certainly it. Critical race theory – or what the public has been told is critical race theory – had been a winning issue in Virginia just one year ago. The terrain, the weather gauge and the overall environment favored Republicans.

School board melees erupted over the past couple years over masks, vaccines and the teaching of history seemed to portend a populist reckoning that would dovetail with election denialism and space-laser talk.

It didn't happen.

Election night didn't go well for the right-wing's leaders or down-ballot candidates.

Denialism didn't just bomb at the top of the 2022 ballots. Voters chose actual issues instead of overhyped conspiracies when it came to several local school board races.

Let's take a trip around Southern Arizona.

Big footed in Cat Foot

Three spots were open on the Catalina Foothills Unified School District. So three candidates waving bloody shirts, both racial and viral, together as a slate. Grace Jasin, William Morgan and Bart Pemberton (yes, Bart Pemberton is a real name) all ran campaigns promising to keep kids safe from a liberal agenda boosted by educators.

Voters decided to keep the Foothills kids safe from them instead. This anti-CRT slate failed to break 11 percent of the vote. The other three candidates — Amy Bhola, Amy Krauss and Gina Mehmert all coasted safely ahead with 22 percent of the vote and up.

The swanky and geographically crinkly bastion of dollars and hot tubs voted for Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008.

OK, but some say the Foothills is full of RINOs under the spell of John Legend and Nathan Lane.

Well, let's swing down to the Vail Unified School District. Jennifer Anderson and Edward Buster ran on the idea of "Hey, I believe in public service." 

They won with 26 and 25 percent of the vote respectively.

Let's take a look at who they beat.

First up is Leroy Smith, who liked to rant about "our children are being indoctrinated with liberal ideologies."  Well, they're not going to be indoctrinated by Smith, either. He finished sucking oxygen with 14.6 percent of the vote.

Smith is running just behind Anastasia Tsatsakis, who ran against mask mandates and "pornographic books being taught in our classrooms," in addition to a litany of other complaints. She was adamant that kids be taught: "Nothing is handed to you and there’s no participation trophy in life. You must work for it."

Well, she should have worked harder. She finished south of 17 percent of the vote.

Then there's Geraldine Kleber, who was a fixture in the anti-mask, anti-mandate movement in Vail. Late-breaking votes didn't go her way, so she'll fail to crack double digits. 

This is Vail and there's nothing RINO about Vail. A strong concentration of conservatives live there, and even they seemed to have had enough of the shouting and sloganeering.


Hopping up to the Amphitheater Unified School District, there's the curious case of Jeffrey Utsch. Utsch is a self-styled self-taught "constitutional expert," much in the vain of failed secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem.

Utsch has some name ID, as he says he's a regular guest on James T. Harris' radio show discussing constitutional truths being hidden from the rest of us or the something. The point is, he's on the radio and people should know him giving him and edge over candidates most voters probably couldn't recognize.

That didn't help. The former military vet finished tail-end charlie, trailing the pack in the Amphi election, with just under 20 percent of the vote.

He ran on "Students First," which is one of those contradictory slogans that means the opposite. The general gist of "Students First" actually puts the emotional needs of right-wing parents at the head of the class. The movement disregards kids, teachers and parents who live as Earthlings.

Mona Gibson says she decided to run because she was angered that the Amphitheater School Board wouldn't listen to mask protesters. She's running closer than most of her brand, but she trailed incumbent Matt Kopec by about 4,000 votes.

Incumbent Susan Zibrat won re-election to the board and led all candidates with 28 percent of the vote in a four-person field. Zibrat, by contrast, ran after spending more than a decade involved in "silly stuff" like budgets overrides and three years on the board.

Showing up and being constructive, in 2022, proved a far surer bet then grabbing a mic and shouting about imaginative plots and schemes.


Up in Marana, incumbent Tom Carlson led the competition with 28 percent of the vote. He ran on metrics and accountability and voters seem to have liked what they saw out of the board.

Kathryn Mikronis and Abbie Hlavacek wound up a close second and third for the last open seat on the board. Mikronis won with 26.1 percent and touted empathy and compassion. Hlavacek just missed a seat with 24.9 percent after campaigning on safety and inclusiveness.

Mikhail Roberts is brought up rear with 20.7 percent. She ran with a more low-key message against "trendy" curriculum and the district's organizational isolation from parents. It's not expressly anti-racial history but it seems like a nod in that direction, rather than slamming on the accelerator right at race, sex and contagions. 

Roberts' criticisms do apply to some school districts. They can be structurally suspicious of too much community involvement.

It's just that Marana has a pretty good record with bonds and overrides passed. That suggests support for the district within the community it is supposed to serve. 

No shutout

Election Day wasn't a complete wipeout for right-wing critics of pandemic mitigation and instruction about racial history in America.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Raul Rodriguez beat the field for a seat on the Sahuarita Unified School District Governing Board and he campaigned on straight-up paranoia about the looming Left.

And Tucson barbecue salesman Val Romero won a seat on the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board a year after failing to win a seat on the Tucson City Council. The other open seat was snagged by Jennifer Eckstrom, of the Eckstrom Eckstroms.

Romero didn't exactly play up his MAGA connections during the campaign, unlike the last time around, and seemed to focus more on granular issues like teacher retention. His reputation around Tucson is something of a fringe right-winger and TUSD isn't used to that. Well, they better get used to it.

To that I say, God bless America. These folks represent a contingent of our community. They get to run. If they get enough votes, they get to serve. If people don't like how they perform, voters get to turn them out of office.

The alternative is some sort of High Moral Council that can eliminate candidates who are found to be too extreme. Tucson ain't Iran.

Locking people out of the process, so they can't have a voice makes fringier people far more dangerous. Then they turn to other means to get their point across and those means tend to be... highly anti-social.

A piece of a whole

There's a saying in journalism that "three is a trend." In three school districts surrounding Tucson, anti-maskers and white rights conspiracy theorists got shut out of elective office. They ran in some of the more traditionally conservative parts of the Tucson region and voters noped them hard.

When taken with the statewide and national rejection of MAGA and FOX News obsessiveness over dark schemes and Anglo persecution and nonsense "replacement theory" paranoia, the local races seemed to complete a picture.

Voters said they were sick of the constant apocalyptic outrage fueling the anti-democratic movement in America. At the school board level, voters prefer candidates who talk about issues actually facing education over whatever Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity cook up from a studio in New York City.

I also should point out the Legislature already banned vaccine and mask mandates. Whatever lawmakers define as "critical race theory" is also verboten in Arizona schools. Voters might have known that.

If voters understand the difference between school board policy, state law, federal powers and limitations on issues like inflation, they aren't as low-information as the chattering class makes them out to be.

Finding the signal in the noise isn't that hard. At every level of government voters were sternly requesting: "Can you just be normal, please?"

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you what the Devil won’t.

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