2023 Election, Douglas County, Elections, Uncategorized

Silverthorn: Douglas County school board candidates rejected GOP help

As a former school board president and the current treasurer of the Douglas County Republican Party (DCGOP), I read the recent Joy Overbeck column (“The Douglas County GOP helped blow school board election”) with great interest. Would I, a party officer and participant in the party’s endorsement strategy, gain an important perspective about lessons learned and how we can improve the process for future elections and races? Unfortunately, the answer was no. Instead, I was disappointed to read misrepresentations, accusations, pejoratives, and outright falsehoods. I understand the sharp sting of election losses; raw emotions in their wake can certainly lead to bluntly expressed opinions, but do not entitle people to manufacture their own facts.

Ms. Overbeck has made much of the party’s endorsement of candidates, claiming that any support for this year’s school district tax increase was an automatic disqualifier for earning an endorsement from the DCGOP. This is false. None of this is new. (Disclosure: I myself was a school board candidate who was endorsed by the DCGOP in the same manner in 2009 and 2013.) The party has done this intermittently in school board elections for 14 years, sometimes even with Republicans competing in the same districts as happened this year, and the process was written to be straightforward. Of course, in politics, the way things go can be anything but.

It is unclear to the DCGOP officers whether the BEST slate candidates (Mr. Jones, Ms. Sumnicht, and Mr. Page) received bad campaign advice or made an affirmative choice to reject all help from the party, even after Ms. Sumnicht had earned the endorsement and a favorable vote was to take place on that of Mr. Jones. One thing that I’ve learned in politics is that it’s not for the faint of heart; any candidate “shocked and upset,” as Ms. Overbeck describes, by something as simple as being called a “liar” should consider developing a thicker skin. Not so Ms. Sumnicht, who sent a formal request to excuse herself from the endorsement, couched in generalizations and accusations that the party was sowing division after one precinct person sent an email questioning her positions.

Mr. Jones followed soon after, notifying the DCGOP that he did not want a vote of endorsement to be taken on his behalf. Even before any of this happened, BEST did not bother even to try to develop a relationship with the DCGOP. It was as if they expected support simply to fall into their laps because they weren’t supported by the teacher’s union.

DCGOP Chairman Steve Peck had spent time all throughout the campaign season attempting to broker deals to reduce the division and to encourage people to vote for conservative candidates. These efforts were rebuffed, minimized, and denigrated by people like Ms. Overbeck. In accordance with candidate wishes, BEST was not overtly promoted, and some activists opposed to the tax increases on the ballot did not support them. As the campaign season wore on, the separate campaign for the tax increase ballot measures (Invest in DCSD) allied with the teachers’ union to pass them. Guess who the union was promoting? Hint: it wasn’t BEST. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were being spent on 5A and 5B, and the BEST slate’s opponents were benefiting. This powerhouse combination turned out 16,000 more votes than in 2021 for the union’s allied campaigns—candidates and tax increases. The school board must have known when putting their tax increases on the ballot that left-leaning voters would turn out at much higher rates, but they did it anyway.

It’s extremely difficult to give an endorsement to people who refuse to allow it or outright give it back, especially when they insist that the party respect their wishes. It’s even more difficult when those campaigns choose to run on issues that turn out and raise money for their staunchest political opponents. The BEST candidates did not run a bold or even a notable campaign. Property tax increases of as much as 40% were a huge issue to voters, so much so that the DCGOP took a position vote against them earlier this year, and the campaign did nothing to assure that community that their concerns were heard and understood. Instead, members of both the Invest in DCSD and BEST campaigns spent time lecturing and alienating conservatives.

Some of our members have seen the angry post-election candidate letters and the lengthy, ad hominem screed from Ms. Overbeck—which she has been repeatedly sharing everywhere she can—and have made an observation that is true of many areas of our state in the last 20 years. Consultants convince candidates to run poor campaigns, which lose to Democrats, then they refuse to accept any of the blame and point fingers at others. They get paid anyway and if they can convince the next round of candidates that the losses aren’t the result of their campaign strategies, they will repeat this destructive cycle.

We saw the criticisms coming a mile away. The DCGOP didn’t promote candidates who outright rejected our endorsement, didn’t support positions we had formally opposed, and did not believe that anyone is entitled to support or votes, leaving the choice up to voters. For these stances, we were blamed for losses, with some BEST supporters rewriting history and attacking it with gusto.

BEST candidates and supporters forgot some basic political tenets, chief among them being that politics is about relationships. Candidates are unlikely to be successful when they do not campaign with possible supporters, then expect support anyway, and when they don’t get it, write scolding, scathing letters in an effort to drum it up—all the while continuing to espouse positions that are contrary to widely expressed concerns. To minimize opposition to tax increases, generally a core Republican principle and therefore not a surprise, as a “purity test” ignores Douglas County history and simply reinforces people’s choices to withhold support or to stay home. Many people are tired of being told that they must compromise, sacrifice their voices on deeply held principles, and support the party above all else. Who, then, represents them? Their message to us, the party leadership, is that they will vote accordingly, even if it means defeat at the ballot box.

Since Ms. Overbeck’s article was published, Douglas County School Board President Mike Peterson has announced the sale of his home, his resignation, and his imminent move out of state. (Incidentally, Ms. Overbeck has irresponsibly tried to blame the DCGOP for that too, even though he had planned this for weeks, if not months, before the election and passage of a tax increase that he won’t ever have to pay.) The DCGOP stands ready to work with the remaining board directors on this huge opportunity to reset and advance an education system responsive to parents and taxpayers.  We must find a way forward that values all voices, without the recriminations and reproach, to assess this election honestly and to chart a future where Republicans unite around important issues and achieve electoral victory.

Meghann Silverthorn is treasurer of the Douglas County Republican Party and a former elected school board member.


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