Voters favored incumbents over conservative newcomers in suburban school board races
More conservative candidates fail to gain majorities in most districts
With few exceptions, candidate slates that pushed for "parental rights" and leaned into culture war issues failed to make waves Tuesday in politically charged races for suburban school boards.
While at least one conservative-leaning incumbent won reelection in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, first-time conservative candidates fell short of taking majority control of the board there and in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, Antioch Elementary District 34 and Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, unofficial results showed.
Fresh off his reelection to the school board in District 200, Dave Long credited his win to "emphasizing the students and education and not the political agendas."
"The national talking points, things like parental control, I don't even know what that really means. Parental involvement is one thing. Parental control is another," Long said. "I think that the platform and that vitriol hurts their case."
In Barrington Community Unit District 220, the New York-based 1776 Project Political Action Committee dumped money into mailers for a losing slate of three challengers who also were endorsed by the group Moms for Liberty.
As outside conservative groups put more emphasis on local elections, Gov. J.B. Pritzker's nearly entirely self-funded campaign committee made a $500,000 donation to the Democratic Party of Illinois in late February to combat what party officials called "really extreme" school and library board candidates across the state.
"While it makes sense for conservatives to focus at the local level and to run the anti-woke playbook in relation to K-12 schools, it also makes sense for Pritzker to be visible in opposing it," said Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "It fits into his desire to project a progressive profile, in Illinois and nationally."
The day after the election, the state Democratic Party claimed success in opposing 73 of 101 targeted candidates as well as winning elections for 84 supported candidates, but it didn't specify where. The state party had launched a website, DefendOurSchoolsIL.com, identifying the "candidates that share our values" and labeling others as "extreme."
The Illinois Education Association, the state's largest union, got involved in "upwards of 100 different races," canvassing and campaigning on behalf of endorsed candidates. In the end, 90% of the IEA-backed candidates won, union officials said.
Pritzker said last week suburban voters "saw through the hidden extremists" running for school board.
"This does lay down a marker by the governor going forward in relation to local efforts to build conservative political support at the grass-roots level by focusing in nonpartisan elections and anti-woke policy," Redfield said.
In Barrington, Katey Baldassano, Leonard Munson and Matt Sheriff unsuccessfully ran on a slate vowing to "respect the voice and rights of parents." They objected to "sexually explicit" school library books and called on the board to put "age filters on content" during a conservative radio station interview last month.
"You couldn't walk down the street and show that to a 15-year-old kid on the street without someone calling the cops," Munson said at the time about "Flamer," a graphic novel about a boy grappling with his sexual identity.
Baldassano told the Daily Herald the trio were unfairly characterized in campaign literature by Democrats. She also said Moms for Liberty used their names for an endorsement of which they were unaware.
"What was a single piece of a proposal or a program or an actionable item that we were proposing that was extreme? There was none," Baldassano said. "But it was characterized that way or attempted to be by associating us with groups that maybe others perceive as extreme. There was nothing extreme about anything we said."
District 300 candidate Connie Cain, who finished in fifth place, said people may be reluctant to run when faced with potential "smear campaigns" from powerful politicians.
"I think it is going to have a chilling effect," Cain said.
Some conservative candidates did win on Tuesday. In Huntley Community School District 158, a slate of four challengers swept out four incumbents.
"We were kind of the dark horse in this whole thing," said Gina Galligar, who ran with Laura Murray and Andrew Bittman for three 4-year seats on the board. The slate included Michael Thompson, who won a three-way race for a 2-year seat.
"I think people are going to be supportive of more conservative values," Galligar said. "I think people are just hungry for a change."
Sources of support
In District 211, the apparent top three vote-getters were incumbents among a crowded field of 10.
Kimberly Cavill and Steven Rosenblum were endorsed and supported by the teachers union, while Peter Dombrowski was endorsed and supported by the local conservative group Citizens For Kids Education, or C4KE.
Incumbent Mark Cramer also was endorsed by C4KE and had been leading for the fourth available seat Tuesday. But ballots counted since have put union-endorsed newcomer Michelle Barron ahead of him.
Rosenblum, Barron and fellow union-endorsed candidate Jane Russell also accepted an in-kind donation for advertising from the Democratic Party of Illinois, which Cavill declined. Those mailers specifically opposed Cramer, Dombrowski and the other two C4KE-supported candidates -- Susan Saam and Barbara Velez.
"I would say campaign finances and the Pritzker machine did have an influence," Cramer said.
Though Cramer had received $6,000 each from conservative donors Richard Uihlein and David Prichard, he said that doesn't constitute the conflict of interest that accepting support from the teachers union does.
Cavill said she personally made a distinction between accepting support from the teachers union and accepting political party support.
But she saw the mixed outcome of the race as the result of the district's ideological diversity.
"I don't think we can expect to agree on everything," Cavill said. "It's the manner in which we disagree that matters."
'Night and day'
In Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200, Long and fellow incumbent Julie Kulovits -- the top vote-getter -- finished well in front of a slate of candidates who argued parents ought to have a greater say over their children's education and vowed to keep curriculum "ideologically neutral, free of political bias, and developmentally appropriate."
Three of the four slated candidates -- Spencer Garrett, David Sohmer and Kimberly Hobbs -- lost, despite an unusually large campaign war chest.
On election night, slate member Amy Erkenswick held a 61-vote lead over newcomer Erik Hjerpe in the battle for a third board seat. But as ballot counting continues, Hjerpe now trails by three votes.
Awake Illinois, a Naperville group that has opposed mask mandates and called Pritzker "a groomer" for signing a controversial law updating sex education standards, endorsed Garrett, Erkenswick, Sohmer and Hobbs.
Long said the difference between running in 2019 and this election cycle was "night and day." Four years ago, he knocked on some neighbors' doors to encourage them to vote, bought 300 campaign signs and ended up using about half of them.
His campaign for a second term required more effort -- canvassing, some 500 to 600 flyers and about 500 signs. The teachers union also backed Long, Kulovits, Hjerpe and John Rutledge, a former city councilman who won a 2-year seat.
"This time, it was pretty rough. No. 1, a lot of personal attacks, a lot of political vitriol, but also a lot of support," Long said.
Now he's hoping to move forward.
"I pray that our community can come together and focus on some common goals and get beyond this," Long said.
• Daily Herald staff writers Alicia Fabbre and Steve Zalusky contributed to this report.