August 12, 2020

The color coded politics of education in Minneapolis

 The voters of Minneapolis have spoken, who knows what they want? 


On the face of it the historically expensive school board election Minneapolis just experienced has brought two very different candidates to the board.

The first place winner, incumbent Rebecca Gagnon, defends traditional public education orthodoxy. She received enormous support from national and local labor funders, the wealthiest white households in Minneapolis, and a motley group of disaffected people of color who routinely work against themselves.

Across the bow is former city council member Don Samuels who took second place. He having enjoyed overwhelming support from school reform funders, activists, and city parents. Unlike Gagnon, he has stubbornly advocated educational reforms that many Minneapolis liberals run from: charter schools and school choice.

How could the same electorate select these opposable candidates to the same board on the same night?

I don’t have a great answer. It’s complicated.

The third way fails

In the aftermath I predict there will be soul searching and analysis. Campaigners and geeks will consider how the winners won, and how the third place finisher, union organizer Iris Altamirano, lost. The requisite second-guessing and search for meaning in numbers will likely produce more opinion than insight.

Altamirano’s case should call into question much of the feel-good wisdom in liberal Minneapolis. Her immovably positive and inclusive campaign message sought to bridge the gulf of constituencies fractured by the polarized education wars. I’ve seen research in the past year suggesting the existence of a mythical people who live in a magic place called the “movable middle,” and these people are said to be desirous of a less caustic debate that is rational and solutions-based.

I have yet to truly see those unicorns vote in political elections. This time around Gagnon’s most useful ploy was to paint her leading opponent as a tool for the billionaire money machine. In return, Samuels best defense was highlighting Gagnon’s disingenuous positioning as a little independent mom running for school board even as national, state, and city labor titans were bankrolling her “grassroots” campaign.

The idea that people actually want middle ground in their politics conflicts with how people actually vote. Contrasts matter.

Instead of seeing Altamirano’s attempt to be a uniter of reformers and unionists as good organizing 101 (which makes sense given her background as an SEIU organizer), her attempt to be the bridge builder opened her to a stringent purity test by both the anti-reform and reform camps.

From my view she did better with one group than the other.

School reformers put money, time, and shoe leather into getting her elected even though she was far the reform lightning rod they would want her to be. That’s rare. Reformers, like other endorsing groups, usually want to know a candidate will stand tall on reform once elected.

Meanwhile, on the union side things went hella backwards for Altamirano. That camp absolutely savaged her in backrooms. It was as if her unimpeachable street credibility as a union organizer, her great American story of making it from agricultural fields to Ivy League graduation, and her value add as a Latino community member in a district that has rarely had adequate representation on the school board were immaterial. The harassment she endured at the hands of Gagnon and DFL party leaders should be a wake up call about how people of color too often have to put their color in their back pocket and suck up some humiliating and paternalistic backwinds to maintain membership.

Knowing your place

It isn’t as if this is a new problem with the DFL and labor.

MPS board director Tracine Asberry suffered the same indignities when she ran in 2012. That year the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers passed on endorsing her even though she was an educator, a dedicated MPS parent, and former MFT member. That year they supported a 26 year old corporate attorney with no kids in the district over her. When asked about their dubious decision they gave a wacky response: he was Asian and would bring diversity.

In 2010 Chanda Smith Baker encountered a hostile DFL too. Even with her direct knowledge of school administration and her work directly supporting the families with kids MPS struggles to educate, the DFL convention that year fell over themselves for Dick Mammen. His biggest claim to fame was having done a political favor for almost every political person in the Twin Cities.

The thing these women of color have in common is that they each tried to find middle ground with a heavily white constituency while navigating the tension between smiling a lot (don’t want to look angry) and maintaining self-respect and their ethnic pride. Each of them were better educated than their opponents – with more relevant experience for a school board seat – but by the laws of race were advised not to show it too much.

During the 2010 race Rebecca Gagnon made the loaded charge that Smith-Baker had no business running for school board because she had so many kids at home and a career. Gagnon contrasted her own situation by proudly announcing her husband had a great job which afforded her the privilege of running for school board. It sounded as if she thought it actually qualified her to run. Smith-Baker began hearing echoes of Gagnon’s pre-feminist sentiment from constituents and endorsing bodies who asked how she would balance home life with school board work.

In 2006 I ran for school board. I had kids. No one ever asked me how I’d manage it. In that case I guess the difference was male body parts because I don’t remember anyone questioning the home/life balance of Alberto Monserrate, the late Hussein Samatar, Tom Madden, and the never ending list of fathers who ran for school board.

It would be fair to point another way in which women of color are held to a different standard. Gagnon and most of the men (me included) running for school board have less fancy book learnin’ than the women often discounted as being “not ready” for the board. Altamirano is Ivy League. Smith-Baker has a masters degree. Asberry, a doctorate. This places them in an extreme minority for people of color, and in an elite group of Americans overall.

But school board elections in Minneapolis are pageants. It isn’t a merit-based processes meant to bring particularly skilled individuals to seats that govern a $700 million institution responsible for the lives of children.

In Asberry’s case she was told to drop the title of “doctor” in her literature because white people in Southwest Minneapolis were presumed to be “so sick of black people hiding behind their doctorates when they aren’t actual medical doctors.”

True story.

I bet any of these women could relay stories of how their handlers worked to groom them for a discriminating, mostly white, electorate.

But, maybe they didn’t all get the memo. When cornered, each of these women did the opposite of what was expected of them. They stuck to their guns and trusted their own wisdom.

When Gagnon’s team ambushed Altamirano with questions after a school board forum she answered then decisively said “that’s all I got” as they continued to badger her. When a spitting mad Rep. Jim Davnie got in Smith-Baker’s grill at the 2010 DFL convention and called her a liar because he didn’t like her answer to a question, she stood her ground even as he screamed and pointed his bony finger in her face. When the powers that be tried to get Asberry to blame poverty for poor educational outcomes, she tapped her own experience in the classroom to say black children can learn.

Their tendency toward social insolence refutes ages of racial social code and infuriates good Minneapolitans who want to “educate” people of color when we fail to see how superior their logic is for us.

How dare we not accept social training from people qualified by their absence of color to be our masters?

The more things change

This all reminds me of my run nearly 10 years ago. When I screened with the labor bosses there were probably 25 people in the room, all leaders from different bargaining groups. I remember two people of color: my campaign manager who is Hebrew, and Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of SEIU.

It was a room of mostly white haired Skandasotans with gentle smiles and hardened eyes. I remember thinking it was incomprehensible that rooms like that vet whether or not candidates are worthy of a seat on a board overseeing the education of a mostly poor, mostly non-white school district.

I’m happy to admit that things are not exactly the same any more. Back then labor dominance was complete. The unspoken but well heeded rule was one could not win without labor and DFL support. Just four years ago a newly elected Gagnon (and her colleagues) signed a letter on union letterhead to the previous board expressing complete solidarity with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. In this last election she avoided any endorsements by labor and sought to distance herself publicly from the MFT, claiming a new found independence that was more of a veil than a defensible truth.

In a short time labor endorsement in school board elections has gone from being a necessary evil to merely being an evil.

Still, in a city with a Democratic Farmer Labor party that is short on democratic types, and has never had any farmers, the rules of the game are still completely controlled by unionists who look nothing like Altamirano, Asberry, Smith-Baker, or the children served by MPS.

Though I appreciate Altamirano’s attempt at a third way forward, and I hope for that level of peacemaking to one day emerge, the reality for today is that Gagnon represents many years of deceiving racial law written in invisible ink.

Don Samuels represents the explicit writing on the wall that states the past will not be prologue. With or without labor and political parties and representation from the hegemony, we will infiltrate the dominate systems that serve our people and drive them toward relevancy.

And, those two candidates should not be treated as equivalent. One is clearly better.

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