Performative Partisanship Trumps Practical Politics in Cy-Fair ISD
Two years after three incumbent Cy-Fair ISD trustees and the community were caught off guard by hyper-partisan school board campaigns that included deceptive campaign literature sent to residents by the Conservative Republicans of Harris County, voter turnout significantly increased in the 2023 election. Unfortunately, the partisanship, lies, and campaign spending by outside political groups increased even more.
Having formed a slate, known as ALL4CFISD, of four highly qualified candidates with deep, authentic roots in the community running a professional and positive campaign, the pro-public education community of Cy-Fair was hopeful that they could defy the odds and reverse state-wide trends by defeating a slate of conservative Republicans endorsed by the county and state GOP, Senator Ted Cruz, and Texans for Educational Freedom, a group that believes “Critical Race Theory and other Marxist teachings pose an immediate risk to our schools, our kids, and our future.”
Like the GOP playbook in 2021, residents of Cy-Fair discovered that their mailboxes had been bombarded with propaganda promoting falsehoods, distortions, and solutions to non-existent problems. The tactic has been effective for the GOP in state and federal elections for years, and its deployment in school board races now flips the old saying on its head: all politics are national. Residents across Cy-Fair received partisan campaign literature misrepresenting the positions and denigrating the character of the ALL4CFISD candidates: Tonia Jaeggi, Julie Hinaman, Leslie Martone, and Frances Ramirez Romero. It simply didn’t matter that they possessed both a wealth of knowledge about the school district’s real issues and the character to serve the community with integrity.
What mattered, according to Todd LeCompte, one of the GOP candidates, was whether “you voted for Trump.” In an exchange I witnessed at Juergen’s Hall Community Center between Todd LeCompte, current Cy-Fair school board trustee Julie Hinaman, and a Cy-Fair voter, the deciding factor should be who was the “real” conservative. While Julie talked about the issues and her experience serving on the board, Todd snapped at her: “I voted for Trump. Did you?” Apparently, the school board election was just the latest “RINO” hunting expedition where far-right Republicans denounce others they deem insufficiently conservative as “Republicans in Name Only.” The message was clear and simple: vote for me because I’m a conservative, and I’m the most conservative of the conservatives. Apparently, that’s all voters needed to know.
One specific piece of propaganda paid for by Texans for Educational Freedom tied the ALL4CFISD candidates to “divisive and liberal extremist groups” that want to indoctrinate children, defund the police, and view concerned parents as domestic terrorists. TEF tied the school board candidates to known state and local Democrats like Beto O’Rourke and state representative Jon Rosenthal. Ironically, the same mailer highlighted that the GOP candidates were endorsed by state representative Tom Oliverson, whose voting record is not as supportive of public schools as Jon Rosenthal’s. So, it appears that partisanship is okay if it’s the right political party, and fighting the Culture War is more important than adequately funding public schools.
Another example of how nationalizing local elections can misrepresent the facts and confuse voters is the role of teacher’s “unions.” Texans for Educational Freedom tied the ALL4CFISD candidates to Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is the largest teachers’ union in the country and a common punching bag for conservative pundits on Fox News. The ALL4CFISD slate was proudly endorsed by the teachers of Cy-Fair AFT, which is a local affiliate of AFT. For many voters, an endorsement from professional educators is a good thing. After all, teachers are major stakeholders in the district and if the community trusts them then their endorsement should mean something to voters.
The GOP candidates claimed that one of their top priorities was “supporting teachers” but the teachers associations, from AFT to TSTA, all endorsed ALL4CFISD. Notice the word “association” in the last sentence. Contrary to what some Cy-Fair residents believe, Texas doesn’t have “unions” like the ones in Chicago and Los Angeles that they hear about on Fox News, which conservative pundits routinely attack as obstacles to public education reform and progress. The tactic of tying the ALL4CFISD candidates to Randi Weingarten and national teachers’ unions was intentional, even though the local Cy-Fair AFT has had only a positive impact on Cy-Fair ISD for years. If a Republican voter was looking to vote against the “unions” they hear about on cable news, then they came to the wrong place.
The truth is, the ALL4CFISD candidates earned the support of educators, administrators, former and current school board trustees, CFISD campus namesakes, local business-owners and civic groups, and a coalition of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. In other words, ALL4CFISD had the support of a cross-section of the Cy-Fair community in all its diversity, not the support of a single constituency with the same political and religious worldview. Having already won three seats in 2021, the GOP-endorsed candidates only needed to win one of the four seats in 2023 to gain a majority. Based on early voting totals, it appears that the GOP will win three seats. Julie Hinaman, the only incumbent, and current Vice President of the school board is the only ALL4CFISD candidate to win their race.
What does this mean for Cy-Fair ISD? Only time will tell. The fact is that the board will soon have a supermajority of trustees who campaigned as conservative Republicans claiming to be a voice for other conservative Republicans. Where does that leave the rest of the district’s residents? Do they have a voice? Believing they have a mandate for change, will the new board, now that it has the votes, pass the type of divisive policies that have landed Katy ISD and Gravepine ISD in the state and national news? Will the Cy-Fair community become even more divided as a minority faction takes control of the board? It’s hard to feel hopeful.
Perhaps the only silver lining is the fact that the new trustees do not have majority support. In 2021 and 2023, most of the candidates won with a plurality of the vote. It is still the case that a majority of voters do not prefer candidates running partisan and divisive campaigns, but as is the case with state and national elections an organized minority, even if it is extreme, can win power. As Cy-Fair’s pro-public education residents look to the future, it will be imperative to do whatever they can to consolidate their votes behind the same candidates. The fact that school board races in Cy-Fair are at-large and do not require run-offs will remain a structural advantage for minority factions. If candidates had to win a majority, like in the Houston mayoral race, then things might be different. If candidates were elected from separate districts within Cy-Fair, instead of at-large in district-wide elections, then things might be different. The ALL4CFISD candidates ran a positive campaign that the Cy-Fair community can be proud of, while the GOP-endorsed candidates ran a negative campaign that should embarrass them and their supporters.
Alas, those playing the game must figure out how to win within the current rules of the game. What that will look like in 2025 remains to be seen. In the end, all is not completely lost. If Julie Hinaman does retain her seat, then the board could have another pro-public education majority that represents the entire Cy-Fair community in two years. Scott Henry, Lucas Scanlon, and Natalie Blasingame, the trustees who brought this partisan mess to Cy-Fair in the first place, will all be up for re-election. What lessons will the district’s candidates and voters have learned from the 2021 and 2023 elections, and will they be able to successfully apply what they’ve learned in 2025? For the sake of Cy-Fair ISD’s students, I sure hope so.