New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
GOP faces test over critical race theory
For a few hours Tuesday evening, opponents of critical race theory in one Connecticut community reveled in their lopsided victory over a primary slate that included several Republican incumbents on the Board of Education, proving that issue carries weight in the minds of many GOP voters.
But with the focus now turning toward a general election in Guilford, a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1, members of both parties said conservative ire over the supposed teaching of the controversial theory faces an uphill climb to gain widespread traction across Connecticut.
In Guilford and other towns where the debate over CRT has taken hold, local education officials have fervently denied that it is being taught in public schools.
The theory, developed in the 1970s, holds that racism is not just a characteristic of certain people, but is entrenched in American social and political systems, perpetuating the unequal treatment of minority groups. In a public letter released earlier this year, the Guilford Board of Education pointed to the separate concept of institutional racism, which it said was being taught as part of a larger focus on social justice and equity in the schools.
That has not stopped some Republicans — including Board of Education candidates in Guilford, New Canaan and Glastonbury — from latching on to CRT, holding rallies, appearing on Fox News and eventually ousting established members of their party who have sided with education officials.
Despite those early successes, Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Ben Proto said in an interview last week the issue of critical race theory, by itself, was unlikely to win over more moderate voters to either the GOP or Democratic side.
“I think they have to broaden their support,” Proto said. “They’ve got to talk about issues related to the Board of Education as a whole. It’s very difficult for any candidate to win either in support of or in opposition to a singular issue.”
Candidates on the GOPendorsed slate in Guilford point to the informal name of their group — “5 Reasons Why” — as evidence they are running on more than just opposition to CRT. The first point on their platform,
“stop indoctrination,” refers to the issue, while others reference fiscal responsibility, educational performance and government accountability.
Still, members of the group readily admitted last week that focusing on how schools teach race has helped them build inroads with concerned parents and activists around the state.
None of them said they see the issue fizzling away anytime soon.
“Enough people are looking at their own local school boards and local policies and saying, ‘Wow, what’s going on here,’” said Tim Chamberlain, one of the GOP candidates in Guilford.
Others say the general election for the Guilford Board of Education will serve as a kind of referendum on critical race theory as Connecticut heads toward next year’s midterm and gubernatorial elections.
“I, like everyone else I know, never dreamed Donald Trump would win in 2016,” said Ronald Schurin, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. “But I will say that based on my best guess, it is a guess, it would be very unlikely and surprising if this slate [of Republicans] wins. If it does win, it would make broad news as a sign of a resonance of this issue.”
Connecticut is not the only state where local officials are grappling with vocal and organized activists accusing them of indoctrinating students.
Similar protests have sprung up in communities from Virginia to Nevada and Maine, often with links to a national group called No
Left Turn in Education, according to a report from NBC News. In some states, lawmakers have even weighed in with laws banning public schools from teaching CRT.
‘Democrats need to wake up’
Connecticut Democrats, while largely in agreement that the debate over CRT is the result of out-of-state efforts to inject partisan conflict into local elections, differed in their views of whether the issue could carry the Republicans running in a heavily Democratic and increasingly diverse state.
“This is going to end up being a bigger problem for Republicans that nominate more conservative, incendiary candidates,” said Amy Dowell, the state director for Democrats for Education Reform. “I don’t think this is a good setup for Republicans in the long term, particularly in Connecticut.”
Enthusiasm in traditionally low-turnout municipal elections could be an issue for Democrats, however, said Michael Farina, a Democratic strategist based in Manchester. Farina said turnout in Guilford’s primary, which reached nearly 50 percent, was evidence that Republican voters are “angry” and energized by the CRT issue.
“They are extremely motivated to come out municipally,” Farina said. “Democrats need to wake up and turn out.”
Aly Passarelli, also a member of the GOP slate of candidates in Guilford, said she is used to opponents labeling her as a white supremacist or racist, saying the criticism she and her fellow candidates have faced online is “abhorrent.”
“I would ask that people just take a second to figure out who we are, get to know us, and realize, like, we’re only doing this for the kids,” Passarelli said.
“We’re not anything like that,” she said of the insults. “We are just normal parents that are worried about their kids.”
Schurin said the results of Tuesday’s Guilford primary did show that opposition to CRT represents “a very strong base” within the local Republican party, though he noted that roughly a quarter of GOP voters supported the establishment slate of candidates.
Members of that slate, known as Republicans for Education, declined to say who they will support in the general election.
Because of Guilford’s Democratic tilt, the election will provide a useful test for Republicans to see if the issue of CRT can resonate with some independent voters or socially conservative Democrats. To have any success, Schurin said Republicans must also avoid alienating any of their more moderate voters.
“There will be some [crossover appeal], but as I said, there will be some in the opposite direction as well,” Schurin said.
Regardless of its success in this year’s elections, Dowell said she viewed the debate over critical race theory as part of a larger strategy by Republicans to push divisive topics related to education in the suburbs, potentially serving as a “launching pad,” for higher-profile campaigns, including those for the state Legislature.
“It seems to be coming down the pipe,” she said.
However, Proto said the debate over critical race theory remains, at its core, a local issue in just a handful of towns.
“I don’t think it’s an overriding issue, I think it’s an issue in some towns, I think there are other issues in other towns, which are not nearly as sexy and not nearly as important to reporters,” Proto said.
For Bill Bloss, a long-time Guilford school board member and campaign advisor to three independent candidates running on a combined slate with local Democrats, the primary victory of the anti-CRT group of candidates represents a “transformation” of the local Republican party into the national party brand represented by Trump.
Supporters of the coalition slate of candidates, known as Protect Guilford Schools, have not taken solace in the town’s Democratic lean, Bloss said, and have signed up 100 volunteers since Tuesday’s primary.
“I've lived in Guilford since the early 1990s and municipal elections can sometimes be truthfully, a little bit sleepy, including some that I ran in,” Bloss said. “But no one is going to sleep through this one.”