by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
June 23, 2022
Voters in Cherokee and Coweta counties rejected three school board candidates backed by a right-wing federal PAC Tuesday, following similar losses in last month’s primary.
It’s uncommon for political action committees to weigh in on local races, so voters were surprised to open up their mailboxes and find flyers from the 1776 Project PAC endorsing a slate of candidates ahead of the primary.
The PAC is a response to the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative examining the lingering effects of slavery throughout U.S. history.
The 1619 Project; critical race theory; diversity, equity and inclusion and social and emotional learning have become rallying points for white, conservative parents who say their children are being made to feel guilty for racial injustice.
On its website, the committee describes itself as “dedicated to electing school board members nationwide who want to reform our public education system by promoting patriotism and pride in American history. We are committed to abolishing critical race theory and ‘The 1619 Project’ from the public school curriculum.”
Among the PAC’s endorsees were Cherokee County’s Sean Kaufman, a small business owner, and Ray Lynch, a physician.
The two previously teamed up with fellow 1776 Project endorsees Cam Waters, who works for the Georgia Association of Health Underwriters, and accountant Chris Gregory, styling themselves as 4CanDoMore, a slate for parents who “have been silenced, ignored and belittled.”
“With 4CanDoMore we can have a board majority that asks questions, a board that is transparent and unafraid, a board that reflects the family values of Cherokee County,” reads a statement on their website.
Their goal was to create a majority on the seven-member board to prevent policies they view as divisive, especially critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
The district had plans to hire Cecelia Lewis, a Black principal from Maryland to serve as its first diversity, equity and inclusion administrator, but she decided not to take the offer after watching a raucous meeting in which parents railed against her hiring.
The 4CanDoMore team offered Lewis’ planned hiring as evidence that the board did not consider the desires of parents.
Lewis has said she did not know what critical race theory was at the time and had no plans to incorporate it in her role. Cherokee County has never included the concept, which is typically reserved for higher-education graduate studies, in its curriculum, but the school board approved a resolution to ban it anyway. The state school board went on to impose its own ban on lessons teaching that the United States is racist, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill into law further banning “divisive concepts” regarding racial history. Teachers and administrators have largely said such measures were unnecessary.
Cherokee is a conservative county — nearly 70% of voters there chose Donald Trump in 2020, but their rejection of the 4CanDoMore squad suggests local issues can still trump national culture war arguments, said Jamie Chambers, a writer and Cherokee County resident who opposed the four candidates.
“In my area, Ray Lynch was running against Susan Padget-Harrison, and unlike him, where he came from out of state and was just kind of attacking, she has experience. She has been a teacher. She’s been involved with our school system for decades and has ties to our community,” he said. “And I think, ultimately, that’s the thing that carried the day with voters, people who were connected, that were actually talking about real issues within our schools and not just repeating talking points that don’t apply to us. While we live in a very conservative area, I don’t think that the kind of people who were protesting the hiring of Lewis, who were banging on the windows and doors of the superintendent’s office, those aren’t representative of the voters around here.”
Kaufman lost to Erin Ragsdale, a businesswoman and educator, and Lynch was defeated by Padgett-Harrison, a professor of education at Piedmont College.
In last month’s primary, Waters and Gregory were both defeated by incumbent board members by significant margins.
In Coweta, incumbent school board member Linda Menk was ousted by baseball coach Rob DuBose, who received nearly 80% of the vote in the runoff.
Menk received calls for her resignation after she attended the Jan. 6, 2021 rally in Washington that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Critics also offered a list of insensitive and conspiratorial social media posts as evidence of her unfitness.
She also raised hackles on the board in 2019 for contacting the FBI, allegedly in an attempt to set up colleagues in a non-existent bid-rigging scandal.
Menk said she did not breach the Capitol and was simply expressing her First Amendment right to protest.
She offered no apologies in a school board meeting days after the riot.
“It was not sedition, it was not insurrection,” she said. “I attended a very peaceful rally, one of the most meaningful things that I actually had the privilege of engaging in was a large percentage of the attendees were there who had escaped communist China and had emigrated to this country, and the stories that they told me, basically, the United States was the last hope, it was the last place that they had to go.”
At the same meeting, then-board chair Amy Dees castigated Menk for distracting from the job of supporting students.
“We do have First Amendment rights as board members, but as an elected official, there are consequences for what we post and say,” she said. “Tonight, three board members took an oath of office. That oath of office means something, it means something to me. I uphold that with the utmost of integrity. It saddens me that we are here again and again and again, and it seems to me, Miss Menk, that you’re in the center of that.”
Other Coweta candidates endorsed by the 1776 Project PAC, Maxwell Britton, Megan Smith and Cory Gambardella, fell to board incumbents in the May primary.
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