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November 04, 2015 11:56 AM UTC

Earth-Shaking Jeffco Recall Victory Confounds Local Media

  • by: Colorado Pols
Jeffco recall supporters celebrate last night.
Jeffco recall supporters celebrate last night.

To kick off our recap of 2015’s biggest election in Colorado, last night’s landslide recall of the right-wing majority on the Jefferson County school board, we’re skipping our feckless local media and going straight to the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss:

Voters in the Denver suburb of Jefferson County on Tuesday tossed out three conservative members in a recall vote that was marked by some $1 million in spending, including support for the incumbents from a Koch-backed organization. The school board earned national attention when the members in 2014 said the Advanced Placement U.S. History course was not patriotic enough and needed to be changed…

In Jefferson County, Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk have been in office for two years. They won seats in 2013 on the five-member board and moved quickly to institute controversial school reforms, including a merit pay system for teachers and an educator evaluation system that used student test scores.

Public school activists charged that the three were part of a reform movement trying to privatize public education and started a recall effort that attracted national attention, including money from outside the state from partisans on both sides. Americans for Prosperity, the national organization founded by Charles and David Koch, contributed to the reformers, while unions supported their opponents. Some $1 million was believed to have been spent in the race, one of a few local elections around the country in which outside money played a role.

Jon Caldara.
Jon Caldara.

In the days leading up to the election in Jefferson County, conservative opponents of the recall led by activist firebrand Jon Caldara’s Independence Institute and national “astroturf” organizing group Americans for Prosperity pulled out all the proverbial stops in an attempt to re-energize the “Tea Party” electorate that had put this school board majority in power in 2013.

But it wasn’t just conservative groups: the local media showed distressing bias against the recall effort, both in editorial and “hard news” coverage. This bias was most evident in the continuous dismissal of the recall campaign as a “union effort” in supposedly objective news reports. High-visibility events like the “Boots on the Boulevard” protests along Wadsworth were ignored with no explanation. Then, just before Tuesday’s election, Denver’s highest-rated television news station 9NEWS apologized for a “Truth Test” of an anti-recall ad that conservative recall opponents didn’t like. The abject, debasing apology offered by Kyle Clark for that “Truth Test” simply doesn’t make sense given the difference of interpretation over Superintendent Dan McMinimee’s salary their supposed “error” boiled down to.

Because 9NEWS has a reputation for not being anyone’s squish, we’re quite curious to know who was able to ring their proverbial bell this way. It was out of character to say the least.

Today, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this lopsided defeat that the local press didn’t see coming: Caldara’s shameless exploitation of the children of school board members in campaign ads, including Julie Williams’ special-needs son, should be remembered as a ugly low point in our state’s political history that rightfully backfired. Overall, Caldara’s brash style of emotional manipulation and unapologetically devious tactics was powerfully repudiated in yesterday’s elections. AFP’s vaunted field operations came up totally empty. “Independent” local pundits the press relies on like Floyd Ciruli and Eric Sondermann revealed themselves as fundamentally clueless about the electorate on which they were pontificating.

As our state’s foremost bellwether suburban population center, what happened last night in Jefferson County is hugely prophetic for the direction of Colorado politics. Democrats have finally broken the curse of off-year elections going famously badly for them, and established critical momentum going into next year’s general election in a county whose voters can swing the entire state. Without a doubt, Democratic campaigns at every level of American politics are looking at these results and thinking big.

As for our local media? They can either tell the story of this new reality, or be left behind by it.


17 thoughts on “Earth-Shaking Jeffco Recall Victory Confounds Local Media

  1. It is hard to see how the Denver Post's editorial moved the needle at all on this one. Would it have been 75% in favor of the recall but for the Post's opposition? If their endorsements are now demonstrably meaningless, does that mean I can't complain about how wrong they are? (They clearly were off base with Gardner.)

    Is it possible that in this day and age of information (and opinion) overload, that people protesting in the streets, going door to door, and talking to their neighbors are still an effective political strategies? 

  2. The Right has had this strategy – take over school boards and institute your world view via the classroom, for many years. From Mother Jones in 1994:

    Truth be told, the religious right doesn't believe in public education. "Many of the organizations advise members not to put their children in public schools," says Robert Boston of the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "They recommend home schooling or Christian academies."

    But right-wing groups do advise their members to run for public-school boards, Boston says. Their aim? To "Christianize" public schools. "And when they say Christianize, they have a very specific understanding of the word, which reflects a theological view held by only a minority of Americans."

    Which kids are most likely to be home schooled? Correct. 

    But running for a school board seat is beneath someone like Caldara, a professional liar of a much higher order. Those who can and do certainly have the ideology, but they've been proven over and over to lack the social and political and organizational skills to fully implement their plan. A plan they must deny having.

    This strategy was a major failure in Co Springs D-11 in the early 2000's and followed nearly the same script. The Indy ran a rare editorial at the time:

    Shame on the Gazette for casting aspersions on the motivations of longtime civic leaders Mary Ellen McNally and Ann Oatman-Gardnerin last Sunday's spiteful editorial ("D-11 recall backers have suspect motives," Metro, p. 8).

    Instead of focusing on relevant issues, the Gazette resorted to cheap ad hominem attacks, calling those seeking to recall D-11 school board members Sandy Shakes and Eric Christen "union apparatchiks" and "left-wing activists."

    About the only thing the Gazette's editorial got right is that McNally and Oatman-Gardner are "no ordinary citizens." Unlike the recent arrivals to our community who control the Gazette's editorial page, 

    The meltdown was spectacular. And the Rich Guy/Privatize/Radical Conservative slate lost again this year in another attempt to take over that same district:

    Two incumbents heavily backed by teachers' unions were re-elected their board seats, and a traditionalist slate mate and the wife of a departing school board member have taken the other open seats, according to unofficial election results at 9:30 p.m.

    "This shows the unity of teachers and the support of so many people in the community, and that's what you need in education," said incumbent Elaine Naleski.

    She and incumbent Nora Brown were first elected in 2011.

    "It means the voters have confidence in what the board is doing right now and the direction we're moving as a district," Naleski said of the results.

    The four expected winners faced an education reformist slate of three challengers: landscape contractor Jeff Kemp, senior retirement community owner Karla Heard-Price and charter school executive Dan Ajamian.

    Where'd the "reformers" come from?

    About two months ago, El Paso County Republican Chair Jeff Hays sent an email message to the party faithful:

    "Upcoming school board elections provide outstanding opportunities to positively influence our county's youth, contribute to your local community's success, and gain valuable experience in campaigns and governance. In particular, districts such as Colorado Springs School District 11 need strong, thoughtful, and bold conservative leadership.

    "If you are interested in running for an open position in your school district in this November's election, we want to hear from you. Let's help elect people who believe that educational standards should emanate from their own communities instead of from Washington."

    The result is a group of three conservatives labeling themselves as the "reform team" and running as a group. They haven't used the word "Republicans" in their rhetoric, but their backgrounds and motives indicate their determination to push for major disruptive changes in D-11. We won't go into the details, but none of the three — Dan Ajamian, Karla Heard-Price and Jeff Kemp — have served on any D-11 committees, a common path to the board. Their involvements have been only with charter schools, yet they boast endorsements from Republicans, and it's clear they'll be armed with an agenda.

    We were also insulted to see the Gazette's repulsive editorial openly embracing those three, despite the daily paper not identifying any D-11 problem other than low scores on standardized tests, actually a direct correlation to the high poverty level.


    Maybe the press can't figure it out. But Democrats had better


  3. The media is astounded that voters want  children, all children, to be educated and literate??  And, they wants schools to do the educating??

    As that sage, Gomer Pyle, used to say, "Surprise, surprise, surprise assholes"!!

  4. I have to take issue that the local media was "confounded" by the news. I reported in September that Americans for Prosperity folks were girding themselves for a loss, which they noted before an audience that included Williams and Witt.

    Even the story I did five days ago pointed out that despite likely low voter turnout (true) the recall supporters were likely to win this one because they had everything on their side.

    Dead guvs, it would be nice if you wouldn't lump us all together. Some of us saw this coming.

  5. By your definition, Pols, every photo taken by a union member of a child holding a recall sign is exploitation too. Keep that in mind.

    This was an ugly recall election. I congratulate the teacher's union on your victory. We all want good schools for our kids, it's just a question of how we get there. I hope none of the reforms the new board repeals are helping students achieve. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, and admit that some good has been done by the reformers.

    1. Thanks, but most of the recall activists were parents and grandparents in Jeffco, not necessarily teachers at all. Certainly the JCEA contributed $50 K seed money, but the recall was funded by a big pool of contributors. To set your fears to rest, the new board members really will put students first – school boards are supposed to be nonpartisan, and everyone really wants to get back to that basis now that the Teapublicans are on their way out. 



    2. The Moldy view of elections: If the vote is in my favor than it is a huge victory for Democracy and even my enemies must submit to all the ramifications of the vote..  If the vote is against me then it is the sign of the loss of FREEDOM and the freedom taking,gun grabbing, baby brain selling victors are scum of the earth that I can not respect or comply with because FREEDOM.

      You're no patriot Moldy and what you call FREEDOM means slavery for everyone else so no thanks.  Your blaming the unions on brainwashing all those Republicans in Jefferson County sure sounds like you don't want the recalled three to take any responsibility for the loss of trust by their constituents in their ability to hire and plan for a robust education system.  How is that partisan hacks like you are so proud of how completely you take personal responsibility of your actions until it's time to blame someone else for your failures?  Buck up Moldy. The odds are in your favor that you are going to be playing the blame game a lot in the near future.

      1. Oh, I don't know, Gray. That's a pretty important lesson. As I said, yesterday, the Board didn't want the kids to learn about civil disobedience from a textbook, but they unwittingly gave them an object lesson in same.

  6. The meme of the elections across the country is it is a big Republican (conservative) win (even if the Dems did not bother to vote).

    One thought I have is that JeffCo is not DougCo.  Very different demographics. 2009 when I was campaigning down there I could easily tell the voters were ready to accept the Republican education line.  Going deeper into DougCo than the Arapahahoe-Douglas border it became obvious that the new suburbs held people who were very Republican and wanting something other than public schools.

    JeffCo has been around a long time, with few new large neighborhoods.  The people do not want a conservative, religious and information free school system.  The population is diverse as opposed to a lot of upper middle class white folk.

    Now comes the hard part. Getting Dems into the majority.

    1. Even DougCo voted against their "reform" board members this time too. Not as dramatic as there was no recall and the entire board wasn’t replaced as in JeffCo but the ones that were up for re-election lost.  We conservatives will run your schools more efficiently instead of wasting your money sounds good but apparently after a while people with kids in public school realize that having a school board that considers your kids' teachers the enemy and really doesn't even support public education kind of sucks

  7. My father was a School Administrator in Colorado from 1954 until the mid 1980's. he also happened to be one of the teachers that studied how to improve on education, and actually helped design most of the currently in use "NEW" education, including "CORE". he did so in the 1930's at the Horace Mann Lincoln School of Progressive Education, a project school under Columbia University.  some otf the schools he was an administrator included Aspen, Broomfield, when it was part of the Boulder Schools, Alamosa, Telluride, Seibert, Elbert, La Jara, and Egnar schools to name a few. EVERY school he was in developed many advanced students, and had scores that averaged well above the norm, when he left. All the schools he was with, also found themselves far better off financially, simply because he understood how to use the state and federal grant programs for the best education the kids could get. multiple districts he was asked by the Colorado Department of Ed to take over because they were about to be closed due to deep debt, and low student as an example was Moffat schools in the San Luis Valley where he realized that the district was not getting taxes it was owed because a large land development for the wealthy, was being built within the school districts boundaries, and the county hadn't bothered to tax them. what is wrong with schools today is not the students, it is admins that are too involved in their titles (PHD etc) to actually research all the title PROGRAMS  that can bring in huge financial benefit to a district, allowing them to pay the wages TALENTED teachers deserve and EXPECT to be paid. with good teachers, and there are a huge majority of them in Colorado, and the funds to support EDUCATION, including in the arts and humanities kids get excited to learn because a responsive and interesting program can be developed by truly creative teachers.  School boards have much to much decision power in education today. their job is to hire the best administrators, and the the PROFESSIONALS do the educating. few school board members have come from the ranks of teaching, and even fewer have come from talented school administrators. yet they seem to believe they have the knowledge and skills to dictate curriculum and hire teachers. this is sad, and it is what has destroyed the strength of education in out country, not just Colorado. i have intentionally used my real name in my id, those that were in Education from 1954 to 1990 may even have either heard about George, or actually knew him, many of the rest of you may even have been taught in schools he affected. it is tome schools reverted to what they used to be, NON POLITICAL BASES OF EDUCATION, solely set up and operated to provide the best education possible for the students, and nothing about political agenda's which, like faith have no place in public education. morals, yes, but doctrines not at all!!!

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