Jim Schutze is one of Dallas’ most veteran and venerated journalists, and I count myself among his many readers. That’s why this week’s column in the Dallas Observer stopped me short.
He was covering our own Richardson ISD school board election and an article Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber wrote about dirty tricks in this year’s race. He specifically pointed to the case of Lake Highlands candidate Lynn Davenport and campaign consultant C.P. Henry, also a resident of Lake Highlands, who was hired by Davenport’s opponent, Dr. Kristin Kuhne.
Though anonymous commenters or social media users with fake profiles called Davenport every kind of vicious name from kid-hater to racist, Davenport stayed in the race. The neighborhood activist and community volunteer, who gives most of her time seeking to find jobs for the unemployed, lost the election.
Schutze’s point – and here’s what we need to talk about – is that personal attacks are just part of running for the school board. Here’s his quote:
“Lieber, who was a consumer watchdog at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before the News, seems sublimely unaware that what he’s talking about is called politics. The perils he describes — ostracism, rumors, personal attacks — are the price of admission for political activity. If you can’t pay that price, if you can’t stand up to it and prevail against it, then you need to stay out of politics — which, by the way, sounds like a great place for Lieber.”
The May election is over – long over – and there’s no need to rehash the results. Dr. Kuhne is as fine a trustee as citizens could ask for and she won fair and square. I can’t agree, though, that running for public office is a submission to “ostracism, rumors and personal attacks.”
Lake Highlands – we can do better.
Lieber mentioned that someone hacked Davenport’s campaign website to direct visitors to pornography, but other jabs have been more hurtful. When she threw a Halloween party with a Big Tex theme, a few attendees dressed as “burned Big Tex” – complete with blackened faces. Online pics showed up of Davenport and her “racist” friends. Another photo, of Davenport at a Republican fundraiser, was used to call her a “right-wing, pro-voucher wackadoodle.” (She has testified against vouchers in Austin, championing public education.) And then there was the thread about the “danger” of electing her because she attends Watermark Community Church.
Many of these attacks are difficult to document. Most are removed by the posters after they have done their damage.
I recently had coffee with a school board member (off-the-record, so I won’t use the name) whose face lit up speaking about working on behalf of RISD schoolchildren. The task, it was clear, was pure joy. When I asked if this member intends to run again, I heard words like fear and dread. Not fear of losing or serving, just fear of the ugly campaign.
I don’t know which campaign consultants use dirty tricks and which don’t. I do know that Advocate routinely finds commenters who use misleading names to leave multiple messages, especially at election time. (Their single IP address is their giveaway). Sometimes all their comments lean in the same direction to lend credence to their position or candidate. Other times their messages conflict, stirring up fiery skirmishes. Advocate tries to remove comments which are false or misleading, but hired consultants often sell their clients (and earn hefty fees) by scouring social media sites, boosting candidate profiles and searching for chinks in the armor of opponents.
Over the past ten years as a contributor for Advocate Media, I’ve covered school board and city council meetings, and I’ve asked people active in the arena if they ever plan to run. The number one reason good folks say no? They won’t subject their family to the ugliness of campaigning.
And we, citizens of Lake Highlands, are the losers.