Update: Late Thursday evening, the political committee responsible for the ad apologized.
In an increasingly expensive and heated campaign for open seats on the Denver school board, two candidates are decrying new political mailers they say erase their Latina identities and misrepresent their positions on school closure.
The mailers were sent by an independent political committee funded by the Denver and Colorado teachers unions.
“When [the Denver Classroom Teachers Association] whitens candidates’ faces and puts our names — or what they have decided our names are — next to blatant lies and misrepresentations, they are lacking the very integrity we hope our students are learning,” candidates Alexis Menocal Harrigan and Diana Romero Campbell said in a joint statement.
The mailer identifies Menocal Harrigan as “Alexis Harrigan” and Romero Campbell as “Diana Campbell,” omitting their Latino surnames — a tactic the candidates say is particularly despicable given that more than half of Denver’s 93,000 students are Latino.
Menocal Harrigan, who is running for an at-large seat on the board, called the tactic racist. “When you take away my parents’ name that is so much part of my identity — Menocal — you are taking away the lived experience of my parents and the generations before me who came in search of a better education,” she said.
Romero Campbell, who is running for a seat in southeast Denver, said she was “extremely hurt and offended by the mailer,” calling it an “obvious personal attack.”
The executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Lawrence Garcia, referred questions about the mailer to the independent expenditure committee that paid for it, called Students Deserve Better.
“We do not coordinate with any IEC,” he said in an email.
A Denver Public Schools teacher who identified himself only as Aaron provided a statement on behalf of Students Deserve Better. Chalkbeat later confirmed that the statement came from Aaron Lowenkron, a math teacher at East High.
“Please don’t be distracted and distract voters from the false outrage on candidate names,” he wrote. “They are trying to distract you and voters about names/pictures because they cannot dispute the fact they are supported by Republican donors … are against teachers, and part of the DPS team that caused the teacher strike. They want to close neighborhood schools and continue the proliferation of unaccountable charter schools in Denver.”
Plus, he added, “we believed that Alexis Menocal Harrigan only wanted to be known as ‘Alexis’ based on her own branding and all her campaign materials.”
With regard to the mailer, Menocal Harrigan pointed out that it isn’t the first time a committee funded by the Denver teachers union has attacked a Latina candidate.
In 2017, a different union-funded committee sent a mailer tying candidate Angela Cobián to President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Cobián is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, and she said she deeply disagrees with Trump on immigration and education.
“To see someone slap a black-and-white picture of me next to two people who are unqualified to lead our country, who are the embodiment of white privilege in Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, is so frustrating,” Cobián told Chalkbeat in 2017.
Cobián won her election.
“DCTA is up to their same tactics that they have time and time again used to incite fear in communities of color and to whitewash women of color,” Menocal Harrigan said.
Both she and Romero Campbell are former Denver students who now have children who attend Denver schools. Both work for education-related nonprofit organizations.
“To this group, I ask: if you can’t respect my name as a DPS grad, as a DPS mother, and as a DPS school board candidate, how do you respect the many diverse identities of students and families in DPS?” Romero Campbell wrote in a separate statement.
Menocal Harrigan added that the union “picked the wrong two Latinas to mess with this cycle.”
Nine candidates are running for three open seats on the Denver school board. The election is Nov. 5. Campaign finance reports show that spending in the races by both candidates and outside groups has topped $1.3 million. The mailer is one of the first attack ads.
The mailer features black-and-white photographs of Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and candidate Tony Curcio, who is running for a seat representing northwest Denver, under a banner that says, “The School Shutdown Squad.”
The mailer claims that Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio want to close neighborhood schools, send tax dollars to “unaccountable, out-of-state companies,” and are part of an effort to to put unlicensed teachers in Denver classrooms.
It cites several Chalkbeat stories as its sources for that information.
Chalkbeat never reported that Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio “want to close our neighborhood schools.” All three have said school closure should be a last resort, and a decision made alongside parents, teachers, and students. That’s in contrast to union-backed candidates who have said they would not close schools under any circumstances.
Chalkbeat also never reported that Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio will send tax dollars to out-of-state companies or support having unlicensed teachers.
In its statement, Students Deserve Better cited the three candidates’ support for charter schools as the base for those claims. Chalkbeat has reported that the candidates support charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.
Teachers unions oppose charter schools because they say charters siphon students and funding from traditional schools. About a quarter of Denver’s more than 200 schools are charter schools, and they serve more than 20,000 Denver students.
“Unfortunately, some charter schools are run by out-of-state companies, including KIPP,” Students Deserve Better said in its statement.
The KIPP charter network operates six schools in Denver. Founded in Texas, KIPP is a non-profit national charter network with local governance boards.
Students Deserve Better also criticized charter schools for hiring unlicensed teachers. Charter schools can get a waiver from a state law that requires teachers to be licensed.
Other claims on the mailers are true — or at least partly so. The three candidates have gotten campaign contributions from wealthy donors who have also given money to the Republican Party. And they are indeed supported by some current Denver school board members.
The mailer claims those current board members are responsible for a teacher strike earlier this year. Denver school board members did not negotiate with the teachers union directly. That role was played by district officials and the superintendent, whom the school board oversees.
Independent expenditure committees such as Students Deserve Better are prohibited from coordinating with candidates directly.
Menocal Harrigan’s opponent, Tay Anderson, who has the support of the teachers union, decried the mailer.
“I unequivocally condemn the whitewashing of two of the Latina candidates running for school board,” Anderson wrote in a statement. “As a black man running for office, I know all too well what it’s like to be the target of racist rhetoric and actions, and I will not stand by when I see it happening to fellow candidates of color, regardless of our stance on policy.”
Candidate Brad Laurvick, who is running in northwest Denver against Curcio, also condemned the tactic.
“To erase someone’s Latinx identity disrespects them, the Latinx community, and does not demonstrate the kind of discourse our community and this election deserve,” Laurvick wrote. “As a candidate, it is illegal for me to coordinate with any independent expenditure [committee], but any mailer that erases cultural identity in such a disrespectful way does not reflect my values.”
Candidate Scott Baldermann, who is running against Romero Campbell, issued a short statement.
“Diana is right to be offended by this bizarre and sloppy mail piece,” he wrote. “I do not need or want any independent expenditure committee spending money on my behalf.”
A statement signed by nearly 20 elected officials of color, including state Sens. Julie Gonzales, Robert Rodriguez and Dominick Moreno, state Reps. Alex Valdez, Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, and James Coleman, school board members Cobián and Lisa Flores, and Denver City Council members Jamie Torres, Amanda Sandoval, and Candi CdeBaca, called the mailer “painful.”
The elected officials said the state and local teachers unions should apologize and look at the decision-making process that led to the mailer being produced.
“The most harmful aspect of this mailer is that it is not reflective of the inclusive values that so many educators hold, but by providing the funds that allowed this mailer to go out, both CEA and DCTA have undermined the work of so many educators to ensure equity and fair opportunities for all,” the statement said.
Update: This article has been updated to include a statement from a coalition of elected officials of color, and a statement from candidate Scott Baldermann.
Update, Friday, Oct. 25: This story has been updated with the full name of Aaron Lowenkron, who spoke on behalf of Students Deserve Better.