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Lewd Tweets, The N-Word And Just Plain Weirdness: A Wild-Card Candidate Rattles Education Board Race

State Board of Education candidate Robert Morrow is known for wearing a jester's hat.
Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune
State Board of Education candidate Robert Morrow is known for wearing a jester's hat.

With his history of sexist, racist rhetoric and incomprehensible, conspiracy-laden rants, Robert Morrow has become one of the most unifying political figures in Texas.

Almost no one — Democrat or Republican, wealthy or poor, old or young — wants to see him elected to the State Board of Education, the 15-member body that decides what millions of public school children learn. Yet according to political pollsters, Morrow's chances in this March's Republican primary can't be ruled out.

"The probability is probably pretty low that he comes out of this, but it's not zero," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Morrow is known for wearing a jester's hat, and his top campaign issue is "to impeach, convict and remove Donald Trump and throw his sorry ass in prison." He faces two other Republicans in the District 5 primary. The district picks up communities along the Interstate 35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin and stretches out into the Hill Country. Incumbent Ken Mercer, a Republican who held the seat for 14 years, decided not to run for reelection.

Seven other seats on the 15-member board are also in play this year, including those held by three other Republicans who decided not to run again. Four incumbents are fighting to keep their seats, including three Republicans and one Democrat.

The primaries offer little drama. Four districts — 1, 8, 9 and 15 — have no contested primaries. District 5, where Morrow is running, has drawn the largest field of candidates, with two Democrats and three Republicans vying for their party's nominations. Districts 6 and 10 have multiple Democrats running to take on unchallenged Republicans, and in District 14, two Republicans and one Democrat are running.

Democrats make up a third of the board and could ultimately pick up at least two more seats, including Mercer's, in November, slightly shifting the power dynamic. Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican and former board chair, is also stepping down from District 6, which stretches from west Houston to the northwestern edge of Harris County.

Even with two more Democrats, the board's political dynamic is likely to remain predictably conservative, according to David Anderson, an education lobbyist. "It probably doesn't change the board that much because the board's strength right now is you have a strong middle ... and the agenda they're driving is not radical by any means," he said.

The same could not be said several years ago, when board meetings easily drew comparisons to circus acts, garnering national attention for dramatic debates about racist ethnic studies textbook proposals, abstinence-focused sex education standards and creationist biology standards.

Although ideological differences among the board members remain, the public displays of dysfunction have largely dissipated. Onlookers and board members from both parties attribute that to stronger leadership and the election of more people knowledgeable about public education.

"Short of an extremist being elected, we're an incredibly strong board," said board member Georgina Pérez, an El Paso Democrat who is likely to keep her seat in November.

It's possible that extremist could be Morrow. In 2016, he unexpectedly won the race for chairperson of the Travis County Republican party, with more than 56% of the vote, likely because voters simply did not know anything about him. He was forced to give up the position when he filed to run for president as a write-in candidate that year.

The District 5 seat is widely considered one of those most likely to flip to Democratic in November for the first time since it was redrawn in 2011, as suburban communities lining I-35 begin to trend blue. Whoever wins the Republican primary could easily end up losing later this year.

Despite opposition from his own party, the indefatigable Morrow is pressing on with his campaign.

Asked how Trump's impeachment was related to the State Board of Education, Morrow responded that he could "make any issue my No. 1 issue if I want to. .. I don't have to play by the rules of other people in the Republican Party." In the summer of 2016, his "Trump is a Child Rapist" sign got him kicked out of a rally for then-candidate Trump. Morrow's Twitter feed is full of videos of scantily clad women, conspiracy theories and rants against Trump.

The Travis County GOP put out a statement last month opposing Morrow's candidacy because of his "history of misogynist and vulgar language," as well as his "outrageous and slanderous allegations" against "Trump, members of the Bush family, and Governor Rick Perry."

Mercer, the District 5 incumbent, has endorsed Lani Popp, a speech language pathologist in Northside Independent School District who has been an educator for almost three decades. Mercer's record is conservative and has included arguments for teaching American exceptionalism in history courses and abstinence as the main form of contraception in health lessons. Popp has been spending her time and money canvassing the enormous district, promising to ensure more historically and scientifically accurate textbooks and to support teachers and parents of students with special needs.

Mercer is vehemently opposed to seeing Morrow take his seat. "I'm not sure we orbit the same planet," he said, calling Morrow's rhetoric "anti-woman" and "pretty bizarre." He worries Morrow's name will be a draw for Republican voters who don't know his reputation.

In 2016, Mercer narrowly beat his Democratic opponent, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a Texas State University English and film professor; she is facing former North East ISD school board President Letti Bresnahan in the Democratic primary this March.

Inga Cotton, a parent activist and founder of San Antonio Charter Moms, faces Morrow and Popp in the Republican primary. She wants to help high-quality charter schools expand in Texas and to improve the curriculum to ensure all public education students, including those with disabilities, have the resources they need. "Hopefully at least Lani or me will make it to a runoff," Cotton said. "I mean, I hope I just win."

Morrow does have some education-related positions: He is against privately managed charter schools, opposes state vouchers for private education and wants to cut public education spending. He also has at least one strong opinion on what to include in state-approved textbooks: "I will tell everyone that Lyndon Johnson murdered John Kennedy, and it should be in all our textbooks."

Even he knows he's unlikely to win in November, convinced that the seat is almost certainly going to be won by a Democrat. "Anybody worried about me being in the SBOE, well it's less than 1 out of 1,000," he said.

And that's a true relief for many closely watching the primary unfold. Former Republican board member Thomas Ratliff was not alone in his simple summation of the race: "Anybody but Robert Morrow will be fine."


From The Texas Tribune

Disclosure: Texas State University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Aliyya Swaby started as the Texas Tribune's public education reporter in October 2016. She came to the Tribune from the hyperlocal nonprofit New Haven Independent, where she covered education, zoning and transit for two years. After graduating from Yale University in 2013, she spent a year freelance reporting in Panama on social issues affecting black Panamanian communities. A native New Yorker, Aliyya misses public transportation but is thrilled by the lack of snow.
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