Race, politics, partisanship: Bend school board race sees unusual division
Typically, school board races in Central Oregon are a quieter affair than City Council or state Legislature campaigns.
The elections are in May, not November, and during odd-numbered years. Turnout is lower, as most people don’t get as fired up about who’s going to be on the school board as much as they do about who’s going to represent them in Salem. And the race is nominally nonpartisan — no Republican or Democrat identifiers on the ballot.
But not in this year’s race for the Bend-La Pine School Board.
The campaign has become politically charged, and three candidates on a conservative slate have repeatedly criticized schools for how they teach issues of race. They’ve said local schools make white students feel guilty, and claim so-called “wokeness” — slang for an alertness to racial or social discrimination and injustice — is ruining local schools.
The conservative-learning candidates — Maria Lopez-Dauenhauer, Jon Haffner, Gregg Henton and Wendy Imel — did not participate in Central Oregon’s largest nonpartisan political forum and have barely spoken with local media. Instead, they tout themselves as “parents, not politicians,” while at the same time chatting with conservative pundits from outside Central Oregon, like Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham and Portland radio personality Lars Larson.
John Rexford, who spent 29 years as a local school administrator before retiring in 2018, said he had never seen a school board race this politically charged.
“This is the ultimate fallout from the severe partisanship we’ve experienced over the past few years on a national level,” Rexford said. “This is really — and I hate to say it — unprecedented.”
Partisan discussion of race
On “The Lars Larson Show,” Henton said local schools were making white students feel guilty.
“What they’re going to be doing is pushing a — I hate to say it — but a guilt trip on our children, especially our white children,” he said. “’Billy won’t play with me because I’m white.’ This is where this is going.”
Henton did not list his race on his campaign filing information.
Henton’s opponent for the school board seat, Shirley Olson, said Henton’s assumptions about race in local schools was off-base. Teachers do bring it up, but it’s more nuanced than simply making white students feel guilty, she said.
“He’s making some huge assumptions,” said Olson, who also did not list her race on her campaign filing information. “I don’t have any idea where he’s getting his information — he’s certainly not getting it from the school district.”
Fellow board candidate Marcus LeGrand added that the point of anti-racist practices in teaching is to make students aware of systemic barriers that harm students of color, not make white kids feel bad.
“An honest look at history may lead students to feel empathy and a greater understanding of the lived experiences of their marginalized peers, but guilt is not the goal,” LeGrand, who is Black, wrote in an email.
Phrases like “wokeness” and “white guilt” are intended to shut down dialog rather than address underlying issues of racism, he said.
Ingraham described the candidates as running “on a platform of breaking the woke monopoly that’s brainwashing their kids,” and both Lopez-Dauenhauer and Imel made brief statements decrying what was being taught in schools regarding race and the United States.
Lopez-Dauenhauer complained about critical race theory — a practice of acknowledging how America’s racist past still has systemic impacts today. Critical race theory has recently become a hot topic among conservatives, according to The Atlantic.
“We’re finding they’re talking about critical race theory (in schools),” Lopez-Dauenhauer, who identifies as Mexican-American, said on Fox News. “We believe politics have no place in the classrooms.”
Henton has also been accused, both on Twitter and on Reddit, of making racist and Islamophobic tweets. These tweets come from multiple accounts — @HentonGregg and @gregghsunriver — that could not be independently verified as belonging to Henton.
One of the accounts, @gregghsunriver, was deleted after The Bulletin asked Henton and his running mates for comment.
Archived tweets from that account, from 2017, said that Muslims were “the western hating-murder-them-all kind” of people, and that the prophet Muhammad committed genocide against those who didn’t convert to Islam.
“I know of no historian who has written that Muhammad said ‘convert or perish’ or that he committed genocide,” David Hollenberg, associate professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies at the University of Oregon, wrote in an email to The Bulletin.
Henton did not respond to email and phone call requests for comment about the tweets. When asked about the tweets outside his Sunriver home Thursday, Henton refused to comment.
“I know who you are, and I’m not going to talk with you,” Henton said. “I don’t appreciate you coming to my house. Please leave.”
Local media mostly shut out
Henton has not responded to The Bulletin’s repeated requests for comment. Fellow candidate Jon Haffner — the only one of the board candidates who has not directly talked about race, but did mention a need to ”de-politicize our schools” on his campaign website — has also not spoken with The Bulletin.
Lopez-Dauenhauer has only responded to The Bulletin through email. Imel has briefly spoken on the phone with The Bulletin, but has also conducted all interviews through email.
All four candidates also did not participate in the League of Women Voters of Deschutes County and City Club of Central Oregon’s nonpartisan candidate forum — something that shocked the leaders of those organizations.
The four Democrat-endorsed school board candidates — Carrie McPherson Douglass, Marcus LeGrand, Janet Sarai Llerandi and Shirley Olson — participated in the nonpartisan forum and conducted phone interviews with The Bulletin.
Current board member Shimiko Montgomery said she was concerned about the conservative slate’s comparative reluctance to speak with local media or participate in nonpartisan forums.
“What I am surprised about is the lack of transparency and willingness to engage with the public by four of the candidates,” Montgomery wrote in an email.
Phil Henderson, chair of the Deschutes County Republicans, said neither he nor the party told the four candidates — all endorsed by the Republicans — to avoid speaking with local media. He declined to comment on the topic beyond that.
“They are running their own campaign,” Henderson said.
Jason Burge, chair of the Deschutes County Democrats, said he thought the candidates’ lack of participation in the forum, or unwillingness to do phone interviews with The Bulletin, was a red flag.
“The desire to only respond with written statements makes me wonder, who’s responding, and who we’re actually hearing from,” he said. “How much of the content is really from the candidates … and how much is scripted from somebody else?”
Evan Crawford, an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego who specializes in local and school board politics, told The Bulletin the slate’s communications behavior is likely an intentional campaign strategy.
In low-turnout elections in more liberal areas like Bend, it’s a common move for right-leaning candidates, he said.
“If you’re a conservative slate of candidates running in what’s perceived to be a majority Democratic district, you’re not incentivized to show your very Republican perspectives,” Crawford said. “I’m not surprised they wouldn’t participate in the League of Women Voters forum.”
Crawford added that appearances on conservative media like Fox News and “The Lars Larson Show” are a way to draw out the local conservative vote in a nonpartisan election, while keeping others unaware of their political views.
In a written statement sent to The Bulletin, Llerandi said she believes this school board election is being used as a test by outside special interests who “want to push an alt-right agenda on our schools.”
“These are nonpartisan races, so they think they can make inroads,” she wrote in an email. “So you see them lying to rank and file voters about who they really are and what they’re about, and then giving a wink to their base with implicit bigotry.”
Claims of ‘doxxing’
On Wednesday, Lopez-Dauenhauer filed a formal complaint with Bend-La Pine Schools, stating that McPherson Douglass — the only incumbent running for school board — had “doxxed” her by posting Lopez-Dauenhauer’s home address, the value of her large house, and a Google Maps screen shot of her home on Facebook. That Facebook post has since been deleted, but Lopez-Dauenhauer included a screen shot.
When asked to comment, Lopez-Dauenhauer did not respond.
Henderson said he did not approve of McPherson Douglass’ post — which also pointed out Lopez-Dauenhauer’s wealth — even if the information was publicly available.
“Where somebody lives doesn’t mean they’d be a bad candidate,” Henderson said. “It seems like a low blow.”
McPherson Douglass said the purpose of posting this information, and emphasizing Lopez-Dauenhauer’s wealth, was not to say that wealthy people can’t run for school board. But rather, that Lopez-Dauenhauer was trying to buy her way onto the board.
“Her decision to shirk voters, while using her money to fund attack ads … is trying to buy an election without engaging with voters,” McPherson Douglass said.
A person named Dennis Dauenhauer — who is listed as “candidate and immediate family” and as having the same address as Lopez-Dauenhauer — gave Lopez-Dauenhauer’s campaign more than $27,600 of in-kind contributions, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. All other contributions combined to her campaign, as of Friday, total slightly less than $8,250.
Dennis Dauenhauer also contributed $1,000 each to Haffner and Imel’s campaigns, although he was not the largest donor for either. He did not contribute to Henton’s campaign.
In total, McPherson Douglass has raised about $13,700 in cash and in-kind contributions in the 2021 election cycle — mainly comprised of many smaller donations — compared to a $35,850 contribution total for Lopez-Dauenhauer, as of Friday.
Montgomery, who was elected to the school board in 2019, told The Bulletin that the numerous instances of slander and demeaning rhetoric should not be a part of an election meant to focus on children.
“My heart is just very heavy as I watch these races unfold,” she wrote in an email. “Our children deserve leaders who embody kindness, empathy, and decency toward others.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version misstated the name of a union that donated to Carrie McPherson Douglass’ campaign in 2017, and misreported the total amount raised by McPherson Douglass in 2021. The Bulletin regrets the errors.