Why Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’s names — and faces — are all over this fall’s Denver school board races

When a political newcomer running to represent heavily Latino southwest Denver on the Denver school board saw an election campaign mailer that pictured her face alongside those of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she felt “genuine shock.”
8 min. read

By Eric GorskiChalkbeat

Angela Cobián has spent much of her young career as a teacher and community organizer. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, the 28-year-old has advocated for justice for immigrants and spent two years teaching English language learners at a low-income northeast Denver school.

So when the political newcomer running to represent heavily Latino southwest Denver on the Denver school board saw an election campaign mailer that pictured her face alongside those of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she felt “genuine shock.”

In an interview Friday with Chalkbeat, Cobián described being left reeling by what she called “a baseless and cruel assault on my public character.”

“As a young woman of color, I can’t think of a more hypocritical, absurd and inane attack on my identity,” she said. “I have in every single way lived out what the opportunity gap is in education. I have lived out what it means to be a young teacher of color in a very white-dominant space, teaching majority students of color. … I speak English and Spanish with pride. To see someone slap a black and white picture of me next to two people who are unqualified to lead our country, who are the embodiment of white privilege in Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, is so frustrating. I feel powerless. I know what racism feels like, so this isn’t new. But I am deeply pained.”

The mailer was produced by a teachers union-funded independent expenditure committee whose registered agent, like Cobián, taught in a district-run school. Its appearance this week represents an escalation in a rhetorical war over the priorities and direction of the state’s largest school district, with Trump and DeVos cast as central characters.

Opponents of the district’s policies signaled months ago they would seek to tie candidates who support Denver Public Schools’ reforms to DeVos, a billionaire champion of school choice. Supporters of the district’s agenda were ready with their own narrative: that their candidates would stand up to the Trump administration’s immigration and education policies.

All seven current DPS board members support the district’s strategies, which include giving families a choice from among district-run schools, charter schools and “innovation schools” that have autonomy but not as much as charters. DPS rates schools through a system that heavily weights state test scores, and recommends persistently low-performing schools be closed.

Four seats are up for grabs this fall, putting control of the board in play. Three incumbents are running, and newcomer Cobián’s positions are aligned with those pro-reform board members.

The mailer juxtaposing Cobián with Trump and DeVos was paid for by Every Student Succeeds, an independent expenditure committee bankrolled by funds of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and the Aurora and Denver teachers unions.

Here’s the other side of the mailer, which Chalkbeat received from multiple readers:

As of Tuesday, the Every Student Succeeds committee had spent more than $350,000 on the southwest Denver race and board races in Aurora, Mesa County and Brighton, records show. Independent expenditure committees are barred from coordinating with candidates’ campaigns. In Denver, the committee is backing Cobián’s opponent, parent and real estate agent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán.

State records identify Every Student Succeeds’ registered agent as Susan Pinkney-Todd, who worked as a teacher at Denver’s South High School from 2012 to 2016 and is a substitute teacher this year, according to records provided by DPS. She also formerly served on the board of the Colorado Education Association. Pinkney-Todd did not respond to a phone message or email on Friday.

The committee’s registered filing agent, former Colorado Springs Democratic state Sen. John Morse, an accountant, also did not respond to requests for comment, according to state records. (The flier identifies him as registered agent).

Chalkbeat provided a spokesman for the Colorado Education Association, of which the Denver union is part, with a detailed description of the mailer, and also relayed Cobián’s comments.

In response, the spokesman provided a statement from CEA political director Karen Wick: “There is a lot of money in the Denver school board races that come from non-disclosed sources that should be looked into,” it said. The union also provided a statement from the president of the Denver teachers union, Henry Roman, which read: “The education reform agenda is everything DeVos and Trump are all about and we need to put a stop to it.”

Backers of Cobián and the three board incumbents are angrily speaking out. On Thursday, former Democratic speaker of the House Terrance Caroll called attempts to tie candidates to DeVos and Trump “patently false and defamatory.” Another union-funded independent committee mailer drew criticism this week for a false statement.

Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said in an interview Friday that Cobián and the three board members seeking reelection are fighting to protect immigrants protected through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which Trump plans to end; to support LGBT students; and to provide “real public school options for kids.” The DPS board is unanimous in its opposition to private school vouchers championed by DeVos, and members also have spoken out against proposed federal budget cuts to education.

“Personal attacks are completely unacceptable,” Walmer said. “They are desperate lies that prey on people’s worst fears of the (Trump) administration.” To align those candidates “with someone as hateful as Trump is just unbelievable,” she said.

The union-funded mailer portraying Cobián as a kindred spirit of Trump and DeVos claims that “Cobián’s campaign is funded by groups with ties to Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, not to mention funding from the Koch brothers,” billionaires who are major supporters of conservative education reform efforts.

A small donor committee of Democrats for Education Reform had given $1,000 to Cobián’s campaign as of the last public filings. Meanwhile, a DFER affiliate called Education Reform Now Advocacy has been the sole funder this cycle of independent expenditure committee Raising Colorado. As of Monday, state records show that committee had spent more than $387,000 on the Denver school board races, and had hundreds of thousands of dollars more on hand.

It’s impossible to know who funds Education Reform Advocacy because, as a 501(c)4 social welfare organization under the federal tax code, it isn’t required to disclose its donors. District critics have decried the influx of such “dark money” into local races.

An email to Education Reform Now’s New York offices was not returned Friday. Walmer on Friday rejected any ties to DeVos and Trump and said “we have never taken money from the Koch brothers, nor would we ever.”

Several Raising Colorado mailers describe the candidates who support DPS reforms as a check against the agendas of Trump and DeVos. Here is one example:

Scott Gilpin, a co-founder of Our Denver, Our Schools, which opposes DPS reforms and is backing a slate of candidates who feel similarly, dismissed such attempts.

“The current school board can try as hard as they want to distance themselves from Trump and DeVos, but their actions speak louder than their campaign fliers,” Gilpin wrote in a text message. “Their votes to close schools, privatize education and expand high-stakes standardized tests are in lock step with Trump and DeVos.”

At least one mailer from the campaign of a candidate, at-large contender Robert Speth, draws a DeVos connection — in this case linking her to board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who Speth is seeking to unseat:

Denver’s school board race is not the first to feature attempts to tie candidates to Trump and DeVos. Union-funded groups unsuccessfully tried a similar tactic in Los Angeles earlier this year in the most expensive school board election in the nation’s history. Advocates of charter schools won a majority there for the first time.

Information voters glean from endorsements and literature that lands in their mailboxes can be influential in a low-turnout, off-year election with candidates who lack party labels, said Seth Masket, a political scientist and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

“If people are trying to come up with a reason to support one candidate over another, there is a not a whole lot for them to go on without a ton of research, which most voters are not going to do,” he said. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Trump/DeVos-themed mailers will prove effective, he cautioned: Some voters might see it at an overreach.

For her part, Cobián on Friday said she wondering what the mailer tying her to two Republican figures she opposes vehemently would mean for her beyond the school board race.

“The practical side of me wonders what implications of this slander into the public record will have on my future career,” she said. “I am six years out of college and have spent those six years working public education and local politics, and I’m looking forward to a lifetime of service in organizing and social justice. Now I will wonder what the professional consequences are of these kinds of lies being in our Denver community.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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