School board races are supposed to be nonpartisan. Not the case in Humble ISD. Two weeks after the Feb. 17 filing deadline for the school board trustee election, party politics began on March 2 when the Kingwood Tea Party invited Angela Conrad and Keith Lapeze to speak.
Subsequently, the Tea Party endorsed incumbents Robert Sitton, Angela Conrad and Charles Cunningham, as well as Position 5 candidate Martina Dixon. The Kingwood Tea Party has long been a leader in the fight for school choice, leaving many in the community wondering about the party’s endorsement of candidates who have on many occasions clearly stated their opposition to vouchers and other options that would divert funds away from public schools. Founder and President Robin Lennon said, “Just because I am pro-school choice doesn’t mean I’m against public school. I’m pro-education.” Lennon said the Tea Party is very pleased with the trustees and Dr. Elizabeth Fagen, Humble ISD's superintendent. The party did not endorse Dixon during her previous school board run, but Lennon said they now endorse her as they’ve gotten to know her better. Sitton said that he did not pursue the Tea Party endorsement: “They do this every year; it is what it is. I just try to get along with everybody.” Dixon, Conrad and Cunningham had not yet commented at press time.
Kingwood Area Republican Women (KARW) past president Chris Parker said the partisan politics began long before March, and stated that Republicans began openly supporting candidates only after local Democrats started doing it first. Sitton echoed Parker’s sentiment by stating that “Humble Democrats distributed flyers weeks ago that endorsed their candidates.” Parker mentioned efforts to bring outside (of Humble) money in from Project LIFT (Local Investment in the Future of Texas) and Harris County Democrats as the driver for the Republican decision to go partisan. Project LIFT is a new program of the Texas Democratic Party that works with party leaders to recruit, train and support candidates, with special focus on winning local, nonpartisan races.
But Charlotte Reinemeyer, president of Kingwood Area Democrats (KAD), says she’s never heard of Project LIFT. Candidates Abby Whitmire said both she and Chris Herron have been endorsed by Project LIFT, but she has received no money or other benefit from the group; this is reflected in her campaign finance report. “They actually said they would help us by providing volunteers, but they haven’t,” Whitmire said. Humble Democrats gave an in-kind postcard printing donation of around $450 (Whitmire paid the postage), and she expects a $200 check from KAD in the near future. Other candidates have had similar donations. Additionally, Harris County Democrats have provided the use of their offices for phone bank use by candidates.
Lennon said that she is certain that Texas Democrats are targeting Humble ISD for a liberal progressive takeover of the board, and felt compelled to let voters know about the candidates’ LIFT endorsement on txdemocrats.org. (Herron and Whitmire disclosed the affilation in mid-February in their Tribune profiles). Lennon also said that LIFT had “planted” Whitmire and Herron here, and that they moved to Kingwood specifically to run in the May 6 race. Whitmire said nothing could be further from the truth; she and her family moved here in 2014, and she said that she became involved in school board happenings after the community uproar regarding the 2016 hiring of Fagen.
“I actually didn’t decide to run until the very last filing day,” Whitmire said. “Keith Lapeze was actually my inspiration; at one of the Fagen meetings, he encouraged community members to run.” When Whitmire discovered on the next-to-last filing day that Position 4 incumbent Cunningham was running unopposed, she threw her hat in the ring.
KARW and Kingwood Pachyderms have been criticized in the community for not inviting all candidates to speak at their forums, but Parker said club bylaws prevent them from doing so. Whitmire initially received an email invite to the April 26 KARW luncheon and accepted it, but a week later was uninvited on a phone call from Parker because of the rule. “Everything was fine and Chris was really nice about it. I completely understood and there were no issues,” Whitmire said. Several candidates did attend the luncheon, and current KARW President Dr. Janie Branham enthusiastically encouraged support of all candidates, reminded people of early voting dates, and asked for volunteers to support a 10,000 call-per-day phone campaign to get voters to the polls.
Alternatively, KAD is allowed to invite all candidates to forums. Reinemeyer said, “One of KAD's main purposes is to inform our members of candidates and issues on the ballot. For nonpartisan elections like the Humble ISD school board election, we have always invited all candidates on the ballot to come to our meetings. I have received several comments from non-KAD members thanking us for allowing them to meet all the candidates at our recent events.”
Tensions are high. Political action committees (PACs) have been formed, Facebook users have been blocked, and rumors are rampant. Parker says she became so concerned about the situation that she formed the PAC Humble ISD Supporters. Despite her KARW role with the Republican party, Parker said she formed the PAC as a private citizen because she is pro-incumbent; the PAC is not endorsing any Position 5 candidate. Parker said her extensive past service on multiple boards has taught her that "institutional memory" must be preserved. "Three out of seven board members is too many to lose, and with Engelage and Rushing also leaving, five is certainly too many,"Parker explained. The PAC is primarily funded by current school board members and representative Dan Huberty, who collectively have donated thousands of dollars. See ourtribune.com/index.php/headlines/18526-pac-raises-thousands-to-stop-humble-isd-challengers.
Although the PAC has the identical name of the closed Facebook group Humble ISD Supporters, Parker said the Facebook page has existed for years. Indeed, resident Ted Mandel was a longtime member of the forum, only to be recently blocked from the group for his views. The Facebook group is run by the Lapezes, Sarah Rushing, Bert Brocker and Parker, and the administrators have been highly criticized for blocking many like Mandel who do not share their views. Since all seven current board members belong to the site, some in the community have raised concerns about potential violations of the Open Meetings Act. Texas Association of School Boards general counsel Joy Baskin said, “Whether a Facebook page is closed or open is of little legal consequence. Privacy settings don’t matter in a legal case. What matters is a situation in which a quorum of four trustees is having a Facebook dialogue that could be construed as substitution for a meeting.” Baskin says there is also not an exemption for polling places, which is why incumbents should not cluster as a group to discuss topics.
Many have also wondered about Huberty’s unprecedented involvement in the local race. Parker says she reached out to him not as a state rep, but as a citizen of this community. Huberty has donated significant money, hosted private fundraisers at his home, and made robocalls utilizing the clout of his title. The Tribune contacted Huberty, who did not respond to an interview request.
There were rumors that police had been called to the ISD Magnolia Cove early voting location over a boundary issue on Saturday, April 29, but those rumors were unfounded. Sitton confirmed that a voter noticed some signs placed over the boundary line and alerted the election judge, who promptly had the signs and tent poles properly relocated. Reinemeyer said this is what should happen: “If a voter has any issues at the polls, the voter should first speak to the election judge. If the judge will not do anything, the voter should contact the county clerk's office. The voter can also call the Texas Secretary of State's office to file a complaint.” District spokesperson Jamie Mount confirmed that there were no incidents; Humble ISD police routinely patrol district facilities where voting is underway.
Finally, Tea Party Founder Jim Lennon has been accused of taking what some consider “creepy” pictures of nonincumbent candidates and their helpers. Robin Lennon said that her husband posts tons of Facebook pictures and was not intentionally photographing anyone in particular. “He just likes to take pictures. He does it at home and on vacation, too. Since when can we not take pictures at a public voting place?” Lennon asked.
Both parties have stepped up efforts in the last few days before the election. Democratic robocalls urge all community members to get out and vote for candidates Herron, Whitmire and Dr. Lohit Datta-Barua. Republican robocalls from Dan Huberty urge voting for incumbents Sitton, Conrad and Cunningham. Current and former trustees like Keith Lapeze and Heath Rushing are at the polls supporting incumbents, and former trustee Robert Scarfo sent an email from his Insperity corporate email address garnering support for the three incumbents. Scarfo said, “Unfortunately, the school board election, for the first time in memory, has been turned into a partisan political party affair. In my opinion, there is no place for partisan politics where the education of our children is concerned.”
Some candidates and community members alike have a distaste for how partisan the election has become. Position 5 candidate Robert Panzarella said he is from a time when these elections were “not so partisan as they are today. There were no Democrats or Republicans or Tea parties or specialized groups supporting running candidates – just people concerned about kids.”Datta-Barua said he has not openly campaigned as a Democrat or Republican, and said that Democrats just started campaigning on his behalf. Datta-Barua said he has voted both Republican and Democrat in various elections throughout his lifetime because “I vote on values, not parties. And this election is about our kids, not our parties. I retired from my professional life but I still want to be active and make a difference.” Whitmire said she knew what she was getting into. Bob Rehak has been openly critical about associating candidates with Planned Parenthood because he feels that it creates potential personal danger for those people. Lille Schechter, chair of Harris County Democrats, said, “We are coming off an incredibly politicized election that has energized the base of both parties. It is only natural that elections will continue to be divisive. We will continue to fight for progressive candidates locally who believe in our Democratic values."
May 6 can’t get here soon enough.