Democratic Party of Illinois enters a politically crowded Unit 5 school board race
The era of nonpartisan Unit 5 school board elections may be over.
The Democratic Party of Illinois says it’s spending an “unprecedented” $300,000 to try and swing school board races in favor of 84 candidates statewide, including four running for the Unit 5 school board on April 4. They’re playing political catchup with conservative groups like the McLean County Republicans that have openly waded into school board races and public education in recent years.
“It’s not something we take enjoyment in doing. I wish it wasn’t necessary to do,” said Ben Hardin, executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois (DPI).
Democrats say their effort – in motion since January but announced publicly last week – is a reaction to “extremist conservatives” trying to sneak into power through low-turnout, low-information elections like the one happening April 4. Democrats are spending that $300,000 statewide on mail and digital advertising targeting “a base of Democratic voters in target districts” like Unit 5. The mailers have begun hitting Twin City mailboxes, warning that "Dangerous and radical candidates are trying to take over your local school board" and that "Extremists aren't stopping at the Capitol," alluding to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The campaign points voters to a new website DefendOurSchoolsIL.com, where you can plug in your address and see if Democrats support or oppose school board candidates on the ballot. If they’re opposed, the candidates are labeled as “pursuing an extremist political agenda.”
“This isn’t the GOP of Ronald Reagan here. This is a new paradigm of extreme right-wing thought, one that is completely antithetical to our values, and one that can’t go unchallenged,” Hardin said.
For those living in Unit 5, the Democratic Party is merely the latest entrant into a high-stakes campaign for school board made even more contentious by a tax referendum that’s back on the ballot for a second try. Unit 5’s current board has already set in motion a wave of budget cuts that will happen if the referendum is rejected again, and they warn more cuts will be needed.
In Unit 5, the Illinois Democrats support a group of union-backed, pro-referendum school board candidates including incumbents Amy Roser and Kelly Pyle and newcomers Alex Williams and Mark Adams. Democrats oppose a Republican-aligned, anti-referendum slate called Students First that includes Brad Wurth, Amee Jada, Mollie Emery, and Dennis Frank.
The Students First candidates object to being characterized as extremists.
“Our campaign has been laser-focused on addressing the Unit 5 budget deficit and creating a stronger path forward better representing all students and the community,” the candidates said in a statement Tuesday. “We want nothing but the best opportunities for our young students and have been truly disappointed at how that leads to name calling, personal attacks and outright vitriol. Some of which has the potential to be considered slander or libel.”
In the statement to WGLT, the slate said they’ve been able to “to create discourse and the potential for change with very little financial resources.”
“A couple organizations have created signs and literature promoting us, but I can promise you there is no ‘dark money’ or any money for that matter that has been contributed to us as candidates. This campaign has really been a David vs. Goliath story from the beginning,” they said.
Angels 4 Freedom
When asked why the Democrats described the Students First slate as “extremist,” DPI’s Hardin said it was partly because they were endorsed by a far-right organization called Angels 4 Freedom.
Angels describes itself as a Bloomington-Normal grassroots group of “like-minded patriots” that promotes “active and informed involvement through constitutional literacy.” The group opposes comprehensive sex education and electronic voting machines. Its website links to far-right groups like the Patriot Freedom Project that falsely portrays the Jan. 6 defendants as unarmed civil rights protestors.
It’s unclear if the Angels formally endorsed the Students First slate, although the group’s website certainly encourages people to vote for them. Angels is also opposed to the Unit 5 referendum and reportedly paid for an anti-referendum digital billboard on Veterans Parkway, according to conservative blogger Diane Benjamin, though it does not appear to be a registered committee with the State Board of Elections. On a list of “Voter Resources” on the McLean County GOP’s April 4 election webpage, Angels appears first.
Angels did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Hardin also noted that the Students First slate was endorsed by the McLean County GOP, which has contributed at least $1,500 to the slate. The GOP actively recruited school board candidates – including Wurth, Jada, and Frank – opposes comprehensive sex education, and calls diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts an “evil influence” on public schools.
Watch playlist: Video interviews show Unit 5 candidates on DEI issues
Groups of conservative candidates are teaming up across the country to get elected to local school boards, which are volunteer positions that generally don’t take much money to win. Some were stoked by pandemic-era remote learning and masking, others by more pocketbook issues like Unit 5’s tax referendum.
National Republicans have taken note of schools as an animating issue, passing legislation through the U.S. House last week dubbed the Parents Bill of Rights. It requires schools to notify parents that they have the right to review the curriculum and school budget, inspect books and other library materials, and receive information about any violent activity in the school. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says the bill has no political future in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Here in Illinois, DPI says it analyzed over 500 districts and chose to recommend 84 candidates and to oppose 74 candidates in the April 4 election. Hardin said their decision-making process involved feedback from “local stakeholders” like Democratic Party county chairs, township committeemen, and labor leaders.
That includes the McLean County Democrats. Local party chair Patrick Cortesi called DPI’s new program “unfortunately necessary.”
“Would I like to go back to a time when these elections were truly nonpartisan, and if you were running for school board you just needed a couple dozen yard signs and make sure friends and family and neighbors voted for you? Sure, I’d love to do that. But we haven’t had that kind of environment in a while, and I don’t see any way to put that genie back in the bottle,” Cortesi said.
After the three-way race for Bloomington mayor in 2021, the local Democrats changed their bylaws to allow for endorsements and upfront support for candidates in nonpartisan races, albeit with a high threshold, Cortesi said. None of this year’s school board candidates sought that endorsement, he said.