Editor’s note: Judi Ketteler writes frequently about life in the Midwest. She is the author of “Would I Lie to You? The Amazing Power of Being Honest in a World That Lies.” The views in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Voters in my state of Ohio decisively approved a reproductive rights amendment last week. That vote was monumental, but it wasn’t the ballot item that many of us with kids at home were most focused on.
As a parent of two teenagers, I had poured my heart into an election battle for two seats on our local school board. The vote had huge implications for our local schools, but I knew there were school districts all over the country just as on edge that night.
For me, the big question was: Could a couple of grassroots, nonpartisan school board candidates in Ohio defeat a pair of contenders backed by the conservative Moms for Liberty group?
To be honest, the odds against us didn’t look great at the beginning. The juggernaut conservative interest group, which has substantial backing from Republicans, has been shaking up classroom politics across the US, with a platform of banning books, restricting the rights of LGBTQ students and dialing back diversity initiatives.
After reading stories of turmoil about what happened to districts when Moms for Liberty and other “anti-CRT” (the often misused acronym referring to Critical Race Theory) candidates took over school boards, my neighbors and I knew we didn’t want them running roughshod over our schools.
It turns out voters in districts all over the country were thinking the same thing. Moms for Liberty took a drubbing on election night. In fact, of the eight Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates in Hamilton county, where I live, only two of them won. And similar results were repeated across the US.
School board elections haven’t always been the focus of as much energy and attention as they’ve gotten the last few years. We didn’t pay much attention either in our small suburb of Cincinnati, Madeira, which has about 1,500 kids in the school district — until we saw what happened in a nearby jurisdiction two years ago.
In our neighboring district of Forest Hills, four rightwing candidates who embraced an anti-critical race theory platform similar to the one endorsed by Moms for Liberty swept in during the 2021 election. The first thing the new board did was pass a resolution banning any assignment asking students to consider their race, religion, socioeconomic class, gender identity, or sexuality.
They also canceled “Diversity Day,” which led to a student walk-out and led to a lawsuit against the board that is still pending. Similar problems happened in the Lakota school district, about 10 miles away. I had friends and relatives in each of those neighboring districts who told me about their frustrations with the new school board. I didn’t want changes like that in my district.
Moms for Liberty brands itself as a parents’ rights group and works to elect school board members across the country. It formed in 2021, initially in opposition to mask mandates that were taken up in some school districts.
When we started seeing signs for school board candidates who had formed a partisan PAC (political action committee) and who we feared might be allying with Moms for Liberty, about a dozen of us got together and decided to form our own PAC.
The first time we met, in mid-August of this year, it seemed like an uphill climb. How could we beat back the tide of something we knew was sweeping the country, especially in our decidedly red state? We knew that we likely couldn’t do it just as Democrats and, to be honest, we didn’t want to. The school board was supposed to be a nonpartisan body. We wanted to talk to parents on the center, center-right and center-left who care about our schools and our children.
We decided that the goal of our PAC, which we named Madeira United, would be to actively campaign against extremism in general and Moms for Liberty, in particular. We wouldn’t be tied to any campaign or political party, financially or otherwise. We would simply share information and talk about common sense candidates, for both school board and city council.
We were a rag-tag bunch of citizens who were willing to stand up and fight: A combination of parents, retired folks, and people with no children, some of us had a history of political activism (mine consisted mostly of writing postcards) and others had been involved in city government. A few worked for nonprofits. Another member knew enough to do basic website design. Someone else had experience helping another school district pass a levy.
It’s no exaggeration that the first thing we did was Google, “How do you start a PAC in Ohio?” Turns out, the first step was to find a treasurer — the only person whose name had to be publicly disclosed. We knew this person would face scrutiny from conservative gadflies in our town. My neighbor, Steve, a longtime resident with grown children, bravely stepped up to do it and schooled himself in financial reporting requirements.
We met weekly and we raised about $7,000 through website donations. We created a brand and a cohesive messaging strategy (This is where being a writer came in handy). We mined public data and learned to do targeted ads on Facebook. We designed and sent out mailers and did literature drops. We trained ourselves how to use texting programs.
As the Ohio Republican Party sent out mailer after mailer, listing the Moms for Liberty candidates as their endorsed candidates we stayed relentlessly focused on our message of “No culture wars. No extremism.”
Several prominent community members who typically voted Republican started echoing our message, saying that politicizing school boards was bad for our community and bad for our kids. It felt like a coalition, and we leaned into it.
That said, a constant thrum of conservative voices on our neighborhood Facebook page called us a hate group. They accused us of mudslinging and attacking the candidates personally. In fact, we only focused on things the candidates had publicly said and done, like declaring their first order of business was to start a curriculum committee — often the first step in efforts to strip materials that focus on diversity out of the classroom.
In the end, we won. Big. The nonpartisan school board candidates beat the Moms for Liberty candidates by a roughly 3 to 1 margin. That’s not nothing when you live in a town of just over 9,000 and your kids might be friends with kids whose parents vilify you. It’s not nothing when your preference is always to get along with your neighbors. And when some of your neighbors align themselves with groups known for bigotry, school disruption and harassment, the time for smiles is gone.
We were not alone in our election success: Of the 130 Moms for Liberty school board candidates across the country, Newsweek and other media outlets reported that the majority of them lost. In fact, every single Moms for Liberty candidate who contended for a school board seat in Minnesota, Kansas, North Carolina and Washington state went down in defeat. Of 14 candidates in Iowa, only one prevailed. And so it went, all across the country.
Would Moms for Liberty have lost in our district either way? Perhaps. But we had wanted to send a clear message, and we did. We may have been mild-mannered Midwesterners with little political experience, but we did not just roll over and hope that everything would work out.
We mapped out a template to turn back future challenges from extreme groups. Because while they may be defeated for now, they won’t stop trying. So, if Moms for Liberty is eyeing your district, start getting organized now. Find your pack. Create your PAC. And get ready to fight.
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