With Textbook Content at Stake, Extremist Views of Texas School Board Candidate Don’t Faze Local Voters
By Manny Fernandez, New York Times
MINEOLA, Texas — On Super Tuesday, Dale Clark voted for a local Republican who claimed on social media that President Barack Obama had worked as a gay prostitute in his youth, that the United States should ban Islam, that the Democratic Party had John F. Kennedy killed and that the United Nations had hatched a plot to depopulate the world.
Clark, 75, was unaware that the candidate he had supported — Mary Lou Bruner, 68, a former kindergarten teacher running for a seat on the state Board of Education — held such views. But as he sat with his wife eating lunch in this East Texas city, Clark was ready to give Bruner the benefit of the doubt.
“I would not discount her on the basis of having those beliefs,” said Clark, a retired pilot. “It convinces me, though, that she’s quite conservative, and if I were going to err either way, I would want to err toward the side of the conservative.”
Bruner’s anti-Obama, anti-Islam, anti-evolution and anti-gay Facebook posts have generated national headlines and turned an obscure school board election into a glimpse of the outer limits of Texas politics. In a part of the state dominated by conservative Christians and Tea Party activists, Bruner’s candidacy has posed a question no one can answer with any certainty — how far to the fringe is too far for Texas Republicans?
Bruner was a relative political newcomer when she started her campaign to represent a 31-county section of northern East Texas on the 15-member board that sets curriculum standards, reviews and adopts textbooks, and establishes graduation requirements in Texas public schools. Because of the board’s clout in selecting textbooks for all of the state’s schools, it can influence the content of textbooks produced nationwide.
Here in Bruner’s hometown, Mineola, and elsewhere in intensely conservative East Texas, her views fit a widely accepted anti-Obama and conspiracy friendly anti-government mindset. Inside Kitchens Hardware and Deli, the combination hardware store and diner where Clark was eating, a sign on a shelf read, “Hillary for Prison 2016.” A woman in a nearby store who declined to give her name said she would not hold Bruner’s Facebook posts against her, and spoke at length about her belief that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a government-staged hoax.
Tammy Blair, chairwoman of the Republican Party in nearby Cherokee County, said there were differing definitions of extreme, adding that she was sympathetic to the movement to have Texas secede from the United States.
“At the end of the day, is Mary Lou a wacko extremist? No,” Blair said. “She’s a nice older lady who doesn’t understand social media and the impact that it can have. I’m still going to vote for Mary Lou, and I’m going to encourage people to do the same.”
Bruner was the top vote-getter in the Republican primary, winning 48 percent of the 220,000 ballots cast, and now faces Keven M. Ellis, 44, a chiropractor who is the president of the school board in Lufkin, Texas, in a Republican runoff on May 24.
On her Facebook page, Bruner called Obama “Ahab the Arab,” and wrote that he “hates all white people and all wealthy people because to him wealthy means white.” Although she condemned the Ku Klux Klan in one posting, she wrote positively of its roots, writing that it started “as citizens trying to fight back against a corrupt government when there were corrupt officials or no officials at all to keep law and order in the rural areas.” Of Obama’s youth, she wrote: “I heard from a reliable source that Obama was also a male prostitute for a while when he lived in New York with his male ‘partner.’ How do you think he paid for his drugs?”
Nearly all of her Facebook posts have been removed from public view, but they have been collected and publicized by her critics, including the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that advocates religious freedom in the classroom and monitors the activities of far-right organizations.
Bruner declined a request for an interview. “The newspapers are not interested in doing anything nice to me, and so I’m not interested in giving them ammunition that they can twist and use against me,” she said. “I don’t know why I’m getting so much attention. I’m just saying what I believe and what the people of my district agree with.”
Ellis, her opponent, disputes Bruner’s claim that the district shares her views. “That hate-filled speech that she has is not conservative, it’s not Christian,” he said.
Yet some Republicans have rallied around her, arguing that her social media postings do not disqualify her from sitting on the state Board of Education. “I believe, like Benjamin Franklin said, stand on principle even if you stand alone,” said John E. Tweedell, 85, who lives in the nearby city of Hideaway and endorsed Bruner. (The saying is credited to John Adams.) “If she’s standing alone, she’s standing on her principles, and for that I admire her.”
Tweedell and other Republicans who said they voted for Bruner had not read her Facebook posts. Even the group that was instrumental in her victory in the primary, Grassroots America — We the People, an influential Tea Party organization that gave her a dual endorsement with another candidate, appeared to be caught off guard. “We were not aware of Ms. Bruner’s social media postings, and we do not agree with them,” the group said in a statement.
Other Republicans have expressed shock and disgust at Bruner’s comments and primary victory, and have vowed to vote for Ellis in the May runoff. Her critics include the superintendents of several East Texas school districts.
“Some of the statements that she has made make you question her ability to hold an office,” said Mary Ann Whiteker, the longtime superintendent of the Hudson Independent School District in Lufkin. “It’s very, very frightening to think that she could be giving input on what we ought to be teaching our students.”
The board’s conservative bloc has put it in the cultural-war spotlight in the past — it approved a social studies curriculum in 2010 that put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks — but a mix of Democrats, moderate Republicans and social conservatives who often break from the far-right faction have balanced the board in recent years. So it is not clear how much impact she would have on the board if elected.
“I think she will have minimal, if any, influence on the board,” said the board member Bruner is hoping to replace, Thomas Ratliff, a moderate Republican. “I think she’s just going to be a distraction to the deliberation of the board.”
To Learn More:
Right-Wing Conspiracy Theorist Could Be Choosing Texas Schoolbooks (by By Erik de la Garza, Courthouse News)
Texas Approves Controversial School Textbooks Still Laced with Ideologically-Driven Inaccuracies (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
California Senate Opposes Texas History Textbook Changes (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Racist Views of Blacks and Jews Taught in Texas Public School Bible Classes (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)
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