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‘Critical race theory’ divides, then unifies Guilford as Republican school board candidates are defeated

The culture war over how America teaches its children about racism drove an extraordinary turnout Tuesday in the shoreline community of Guilford, where unofficial returns showed voters decisively rejecting a Republican school board slate organized in opposition to critical race theory.

A typically sleepy election for five seats on the Board of Education turned into an early test of how much mileage an issue promoted as the new super fuel of conservative politics could get in white and well-to-do New England suburbs. At least in Guilford, the answer appeared to be not very far.

Since five Republican insurgents outpolled GOP establishment candidates in a primary, running on their opposition to the degree to which critical race theory is shaping the curriculum, Guilford has been on edge.

On Tuesday, no one predicted closure, even though a coalition of Democrats and Independents shut out the GOP slate. Shortly before 9 p.m., the coalition claimed a win by a 2-1 margin.

Some voters said the talking points about critical race theory were about partisanship, not education.

“It’s a tribal marker, like wearing a MAGA hat,” said Nan Ellman, the mother of a high school junior who says she was turned off by the GOP insurgents.

Donald J. Trump’s former adviser, Steve Bannon, would not disagree. Last summer, he told Politico that critical race theory would be stronger than the Tea Party movement that made life difficult for moderate Republicans to win primaries.

“This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” Bannon said. “This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms — and a lot of these people aren’t Trump voters.”

But the issue powered the insurgents to victory in a GOP primary, but not Tuesday in Guilford, where Democrats outnumber Republicans, 6,620 to 3,519. There also are 6,314 unaffiliated voters.

The winners were Democrats Moira Rader and Arnold Skretta and Independents Kristy Faulkner, Jennifer Baldwin and Noel G. Petra.

The Guilford turnout at 5 p.m. was 50%, a stunning number in any municipal election year, but more so in a town where the top elected official, First Selectman Matthew T. Hoey III, was running unopposed for a second term.

Woody Lewis, a Guilford voter, said the outrage over diversity is an attempt by Republican operatives to gain more influence in local governments and boards education. He viewed the local election as a “litmus test” for the town and its residents.

Not an isolated issue

Voters in other scattered suburban towns — Coventry, New Canaan and Glastonbury among them — also said they were drawn to the polls this year to register concern about critical-race theory or opposition to conservatives intent on putting it ahead of traditional concerns about school spending and quality.

Promoted by Bannon and others as a potent wedge issue for the 2022 midterms and Trump’s promised comeback in 2024, critical race theory has been an unwanted and uncomfortable issue for Connecticut Republicans in communities where Trump is a liability.

Critical race theory is just that — a theory, an academic approach to assessing racism as systemic in institutions, not just a failing of individuals. It became an issue on the right as school systems reviewed their own efforts toward diversity and inclusion after the police murder of George Floyd.

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said district leaders around the state are paying attention to Tuesday’s elections and hope that it will bring an end to some of the “divisive outbursts” regarding critical race theory, or CRT.

“I think differences of opinion are absolutely part of who we are as a country, [but] I do think that facts need to play a part,” she said. “So I think if knowledgeable practitioners are saying, ‘We’re not practicing CRT in our schools,’ and the curriculum gives no indication that we are, then I think that needs to be a given unless there’s evidence otherwise.”

Some voters complain even if CRT is not taught, some schools are taking a doctrinaire approach to racism, not a better teaching of history.

“I think it is building in kids a racist concept. Quite honestly it’s teaching white kids ‘I’m not good because my ancestors weren’t good,’ ” said Dave Krum, a voter in West Hartford who says he taught history to 7th and 8th graders for 35 years before retiring in 2003.

Helga Gordon, who has lived in West Hartford for 30 years, said she wants to see the town continue its efforts on diversity and inclusion, a struggle that continues. “There’s places in West Hartford I feel like I’m not welcome, as a person of color,” said Gordon, who is Black.

There is not easy conversation on the topic, at least not in an election season.

A campaign for an open first selectman seat in Westport, one of the wealthy Fairfield County suburbs that has trended solidly Democratic, had been turning comfortably on issues like traffic and infrastructure, much to the relief of the Republican nominee, Jennifer S. Tooker.

Westport is more than 2-1 Democratic, but it offers a competitive terrain for the office of first selectman: Jim Marpe, the incumbent who retired after three terms, is a Republican.

“The strategy had been to stay local,” Tooker said.

But an anonymous group recently began agitating about how racism was being addressed, suggesting that critical race theory was an influence. Robert Harrington, a Republican candidate for Board of Education, complained that his own party had failed to denounce what he saw as disinformation.

Westport was an odd place for the fight. There are four candidates — two Democrats and two Republicans — for four seats on the Board of Education. Everybody wins.

But suddenly critical race theory, with its overtones of Trump talking points, was an issue in Westport. State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, the Democratic nominee who had not used Trump as an issue, immediately denounced the anonymous group and called on Republicans to do the same.

“In suburban communities, especially in Fairfield County, the one thing they want to avoid is any connection to the national platform or the national crazies,” Steinberg said. Of the local GOP, he said, “They were trying to run under the radar. ‘They’re not those kinds of Republicans.’ You know, the usual thing. And this brought it back.”

Tooker said the anonymous attacks on the schools were wrong.

“I’ve not been in favor of the tactics that have been used by the group,” Tooker said. “I am in favor of how our superintendent, Tom Scarice, responded, which is basically, what we’re going to make sure is that we are very transparent about curriculum issues and around DEI issues.”

IMG_8701-scaled.jpg
Jenna Carlesso
Campaign signs in Avon’s municipal election highlighted some of the wedge issues that have divided the parties.

DEI is shorthand for diversity, equity and inclusion, but even those attributes are now seen as code for something else in some corners.

Sheila Walston, a Republican voter in Guilford, said she didn’t like the idea of teaching kids about equality, diversity and inclusion. Walston, 62, said she views those terms as codewords for “brainwashing” and “indoctrination.”

Joanne Gay, 72, of Glastonbury, the retired former director of education reform for the teachers’ union, the Connecticut Education Association, said CRT is more a buzzword than a real issue, at least for now.

“It could be divisive in the community, but I don’t think it’s there yet. My sentiment on that is people don’t really know what CRT is,” she said. “But I think it is a term that evokes emotions.”

She said she encourages people to learn more about it. “I hope in Glastonbury that all history is taught, that the true history of our country is taught.”

Others in Glastonbury were certain they knew enough.

Gary Dussault and Tim Hassan greeted voters outside Hebron Avenue School as volunteers with the Republican Party. Both said they’d only recently gotten involved in politics, primarily because of their concerns about education in a town where Democrats hold a majority on the school board.

“I got fed up a year and a half ago – probably like 90% of us,” said Hassan, a resident of 54 years, whose daughter graduated from Glastonbury schools recently. “Believe me, two years ago you would not have seen me here.”

Dussault has two children in school, 9 and 14.

“My son who’s 14 is pretty in tune, so he’ll tell me what’s going on.” Dussault said. Based on what he hears from his son, Dussault said he believe critical race theory is being taught, if by another name.

“They will cry up and down that it’s not being taught, but it is,” he said. “It goes under many names, it goes under ‘social learning,’ ‘truth in education,’ ‘socially responsible’ or something like that.”

Hassan offered a metaphor.

“They’re not teaching it, they’re teaching the tenets of it,” Hassan said. “It’s almost like saying, I’m gonna go to college and I want to take a class on bank robbery. ‘Oh sir, we don’t offer that class but we have this class, Unauthorized Withdrawals.’ Oh what’s that? Well, we teach you how to write the note, how to shoot the gun, how to put the mask on, how to disarm the security guard and disarm the cameras and how to get the dye off your hands. But we’re definitely not going to offer a course on bank robbery.’ ”

Not far away, in Coventry, masks and race were issues.

For George Connelly, the mask issue was what brought him to the polls, even though it is a statewide mandate.

“Making people wear masks all of the time, especially the kids, is just another way of trying control people’s lives. Everyone should make their own choices on whether they want to wear a mask and not be forced to. If you want to wear one, go ahead. If I don’t, that’s my business,” Connelly said.

Connelly walked into the auditorium not wearing a mask and was immediately stopped by a poll worker, who handed him a mask and told him he needed to wear it. He put the mask on, barely covering his mouth, voted, and threw it away as he left.

Mary Beth Riley walked into the polls with her two young children in tow and said she normally doesn’t vote in non-presidential elections but came out to vote for Democrats this year because school curriculum had become such a hot-button issue.

“Children shouldn’t be used as political pawns and it seems that’s exactly what the Republicans here are trying to do,” Riley said.

Amid the rancor, there was one issue that crossed lines — a referendum on building at least one softball field for the town’s younger girls. For the last 35 years the issue has been on and off the ballot, but this year Carl Rivers, an organizer of girls softball, said he’s hopeful it will be approved.

The softball field is, in other words, a typical municipal-election issue.

Rivers and several young girls stood about 3 feet from the tents set up by the opposing political parties, They held a sign, “Equal playing fields.”

“I’d like to think we’re Switzerland,” Rivers said, “And both sides will support us, and we will finally get the girls their own fields.”

Adria Watson and Kelan Lyons contributed to this story.