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"Non-partisan" races going political?

In the wake of the May 21 Hillsboro School Board elections, change is coming to the seven-member board.

When the final election results were tallied, Erik Seligman had ousted longtime incumbent Rebecca Lantz, while Glenn Miller moved into the seat being vacated by Carolyn Ortman.

Once Seligman and Miller are sworn in during the July school board meeting, two new voices will help to chart the course of the Hillsboro School District.VIAL

Beyond the basics of who won and who lost, however, questions are being raised about an increasing undercurrent of partisan politics in what are billed as “non-partisan” races.

Rich Vial, who came up short in his bid to unseat school board Chairwoman Janeen Sollman, said he is troubled by partisan maneuvering in races that are supposed to be non-partisan.

“I was perceived as a wolf in sheep’s clothing by folks skeptical of, quote, ‘the right wing,’ unquote,” Vial said. “I have no idea why — I didn’t take any positions that would cause people alarm. I am a registered Republican, and my sense is that some portion of the community sees that as per se negative. And that portion of the community mobilized.”MILLER

One of the “behind-the-scenes” players in this year’s school board elections was former state Rep. Shawn Lindsay, a Republican who lives in Hillsboro. LINDSAY

Lindsay served two years in the Oregon Legislature, but his bid for a second two-year term proved unsuccessful as he lost to the Democratic Party candidate, Joe Gallegos, in 2012.

Realizing he wanted to stay involved politically, Lindsay decided to help push other candidates to victory. So after his loss to Gallegos, Lindsay launched the Oregon Leadership Initiative (OLI).

Although he is a Republican, Lindsay characterized OLI as a non-partisan effort geared to “support candidates and causes that promote the principles of free enterprise, educational excellence and making Oregon an economic leader.”

When this year’s Hillsboro School District races came along, Lindsay endorsed three candidates: Miller, Seligman and Vial.

On April 27, just about a month before the school board elections, Lindsay sent out an email letter in support of Vial.

“If you are dissatisfied with large class sizes and current classroom funding, NOW is the time to help someone get elected who has the heart and the smarts to bring real change to our schools — Rich Vial,” Lindsay wrote in his endorsement.

Despite Vial’s loss to Sollman, Lindsay said he was happy with the overall outcome.

“We’re very pleased with the results of our initiative to date,” Lindsay explained. “We endorsed, supported financially, and helped Glenn Miller, Erik Seligman and Rich Vial. We shared with them our experiences with the Hillsboro School District constituency from prior campaigns and with campaign grassroots and organization. Two of the three won, even with the odds against them.”

OLI did not take an overtly partisan tone — but other political organizations did.

Vial, Miller and Seligman were actively supported by the Washington County Republican Party. Phone banks run by Republicans called to encourage people to vote for all three as a team, and mailers asked Republicans to vote for the full slate of GOP-endorsed school board candidates.

The mailer took a strong partisan stance. It referred to Washington County as a partisan battleground with statewide — even national — implications, and that may have backfired in Vial’s case,

“As Washington County goes, so goes Oregon,” read an excerpt from the GOP mailer. “Our efforts have been noticed, and we’re now in talks with Oregon and national leaders regarding significant donations ... We have a plan for bringing common sense, conservative governance to area boards. If we really want to turn Washington County Red, then we must support these candidates.”

Vial expressed regret that local school board races were being drawn into party politics.

“Partisanship has created gridlock in Washington, D.C., and nearly paralyzed Salem,” Vial explained. “Now it’s creeping down into local races. Ultimately, this doesn’t encourage folks to choose their candidates based on ability to improve our communities.”

Sollman, who was elected to a fresh four-year term, declined to comment on the entry of partisan politics into local races.

“Even though I have plenty to say in this matter, I really should refrain so I don’t start the ship off in rocky seas,” Sollman said Tuesday.

While victorious in a three-way race against Mik Sander and Jaime Rodriguez, newly-elected school board member Glenn Miller echoed Vial’s belief that school board races should not be partisan. But he pointed out that political labels can be difficult to eliminate in an election campaign.

“The school board may be non-partisan in name, and even though we don’t specifically say ‘D’ or ‘R’ or ‘independent’ next to our names, when you go into a race you still have a particular ideological bent,” Miller explained. “You can call it non-partisan, but that’s kind of a myth.”

Miller added that it’s up to individual candidates to avoid being seen as partisan.

“This is a non-partisan race,” Miller said. “Shawn Lindsay is partisan. I’m sure some of his voters voted for me, but I also believe I pulled from the full spectrum. It’s best not to be locked into a preconceived notion, because I believe very strongly we work for the kids, and that’s it. I am a results-oriented person, and my message resonated with voters.”

Lindsay said he believes OLI has helped bring needed change to Hillsboro schools.

“Each of the candidates we supported support the principles of the Oregon Leadership Initiative,” said Lindsay. “And now, the Hillsboro School District has a majority of board members who share these principles. Our schools have been struggling, and hope of better schools is on the way.”

Lindsay said his organization would strive to make a bigger impact in races to come.

“We (OLI) have great candidates and we’re readying our teams,” Lindsay explained. “We’re very confident we can get people who want a return to prosperity back in the right seats.”

Vial had heard the rumors that OLI was putting up candidates for local school boards and other positions as a way to develop a “bench” for Republicans seeking higher office, but he said that was the last thing on his mind when he sought a seat on the school board.

“Sure, there are partisan groups that have that as an objective, and probably well they should,” he said. “And if that’s an objective, I support it. But I didn’t run this race to plaster my name around the community for name recognition. I sincerely had the desire to affect Hillsboro’s schools. I still believe the Hillsboro School District can do much better than it has been doing. We need a significant change in attitude and culture.”

Miller’s apparent lack of interest in making a bid for a higher office undercuts the suggestion that OLI is using school board races to create a springboard for Oregon Republicans.

“I won’t say I won’t ever consider it, but I did this mainly because I felt I was a good fit for this position,” Miller said. “I’m focused on being a good school board member.”



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