Tag Archives: Stephen Austin

In-Person Vote Helps Dasgupta Over Austin

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last night’s first results in MoCo’s at-large school board race had a partial count of vote-by-mail ballots. In that count, Lynne Harris had 28.3% of the vote, followed by Sunil Dasgupta (18.4%) and Stephen Austin (16.2%). Dasgupta led Austin by 1,154 votes.

This morning, in-person votes have been posted along with the early vote-by-mail votes. Jay Guan did really well on in-person votes but not enough to break into the top three overall. Meanwhile, Dasgupta added another 186 votes to his lead over Austin. The top two candidates advance to the general election.

Tens of thousands of votes remain to be counted. Final results won’t be available for a while, so keep watching!

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First School Board Results Favor Harris

By Adam Pagnucco.

The first batch of MoCo school board results released by the State Board of Elections (SBE) at approximately 11:20 PM tonight favor former county PTA president Lynne Harris.

The results below were posted by SBE minutes ago.

This is still a very early report. The number of votes cast in the at-large school board race (54,336) is roughly half the 103,555 ballots reported as received by the county’s board of elections this morning. The tally does not include in-person voting today, provisional ballots or ballots not yet received. So far, 59,627 votes have been cast for president, indicating that many ballots have not yet been counted. (Joe Biden has received 42,203 votes from MoCo Democrats for 86% of their vote and Donald Trump has received 8,142 votes from MoCo Republicans for 77% of their vote.)

Harris was endorsed by the Washington Post. Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta, currently in second place, was endorsed by the Montgomery County Education Association. Financial analyst Stephen Austin is in striking distance of Dasgupta in third place. The top two finishers in the primary advance to the general election.

Sheila Dixon, who resigned her office as Mayor of Baltimore in 2010 after being convicted by a jury of misdemeanor embezzlement, is currently leading in the city’s Democratic primary for mayor. Like MoCo’s school board race, a lot of votes remain to be counted.

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Where Are They Getting Their Money?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Recently, I posted totals raised and spent by candidates for school board in the primary. Today, let’s look at the geography of contributions in the at-large race.

The at-large race, easily the most contentious MoCo school board contest since the early 1980s, has many overtones of race and class owing to its discussion of school boundaries. In MoCo, race and class are synonymous with geography. The county has huge differences in race, language and economics between its various subdivisions. Indeed, most of the county’s wealth is concentrated in a handful of zip codes. The county has noticeable racial segregation in its schools as well as significant inequity between them.

I broke down the geography for individual contributions to five candidates – Stephen Austin, Sunil Dasgupta, Jay Guan, Lynne Harris and Dalbin Osorio. (Pavel Sukhobok, the 4th-leading fundraiser, only has 7 contributors other than himself.) For each candidate, I tabulated the number of contributors and total contributed by individuals for each major local area in the county. These figures exclude self-funding, PACs, businesses and unions.

Two areas require definitions. The first is the Downcounty Crescent, the areas in and around the Beltway that play a disproportionate part in Democratic primary voting. The Crescent includes Bethesda, Cabin John, Glen Echo, Chevy Chase, Kensington, Takoma Park and the Silver Spring zip codes of 20901 and 20910. This area trends left – with some places going far left – and is largely responsible for sending Jamie Raskin to Congress. The second is Upcounty, which I define as including Ashton, Barnesville, Boyds, Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Dickerson, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Laytonsville, Montgomery Village, Olney, Poolesville, Sandy Spring and Spencerville. This area contains a greater proportion of moderate Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters than other parts of the county.

Now let’s look at the candidates.

Stephen Austin

Almost two-thirds of Austin’s contributors and 75% of his individual funding comes from Bethesda, Potomac and North Potomac. These areas are home to some of the highest-performing high school clusters in the county. Austin is a leading critic of MCPS’s recent school boundary analysis. It makes sense that parents in these areas would be skeptical of having their kids sent to other schools.

Sunil Dasgupta

Silver Spring, the county’s largest geographic unit, accounts for 28% of Dasgupta’s contributors and 31% of his individual fundraising. The rest of his contributions are well dispersed.

Jay Guan

The vast majority of Guan’s contributors are east Asian so it makes sense that his geography would match the most heavily Asian high school clusters in the county (like Wootton, Churchill, Richard Montgomery and Clarksburg). Guan lives in Clarksburg so it’s no surprise that he is the runaway fundraising leader there.

Lynne Harris

Silver Spring is Harris’s biggest source of campaign funds – by far.

Dalbin Osorio

A huge majority of Osorio’s fundraising is coming from outside the county, with most of that coming from out of state.

Here is a summary of fundraising from four key areas in this race.

And so the contribution geography reveals the appeal of each of these candidates, at least in terms of fundraising. Austin has raised the most from Bethesda and has split Potomac with Guan. Guan has raised the most from east Asians, Rockville and Upcounty. Silver Spring and Takoma Park are going with Dasgupta and (to a lesser extent) Harris, although Dasgupta has the most geographic diversity of any candidate. Osorio needs to find more contributors who live in MoCo.

It’s a shame that the State Board of Elections won’t be releasing precinct-level data in the primary because then we could see if votes follow money. Let’s hope that we can get precinct results in the general election.

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Who Signed the Anti-Austin Letter – and Who Did Not

By Adam Pagnucco.

It’s common for elected officials to endorse candidates in school board races. What’s decidedly uncommon is for elected officials to issue anti-endorsements – in essence, telling voters NOT to vote for a candidate. But that’s what just happened minutes ago, as a collection of MoCo county officials and state lawmakers sent an open letter opposing a school board candidate to Maryland Matters.

Folks, just when you think you have seen it all – you have not!

The target of these elected officials is first-time school board candidate Stephen Austin, who is running for an open at-large seat. Austin says on his website that he is “committed to keeping kids in neighborhood schools” and has opposed MCPS’s school boundary analysis. Representatives of One Montgomery attacked him in Maryland Matters for allegedly “fomenting fear and division” over school boundaries, an accusation he has denied. A large group of elected officials are now urging voters to reject him, writing, “There are good choices to represent all perspectives in the upcoming race for Board of Education, At-Large. Stephen Austin is not one of them.”

Many elected officials have signed the letter but many have not. Here is the list of signers and non-signers.

County Officials Who Signed

County Executive Marc Elrich
Council Member Gabe Albornoz (At-Large)
Council Member Tom Hucker (D-5)
Council Member Will Jawando (At-Large)
Council Member Nancy Navarro (D-4)
Council Member Craig Rice (D-2)
Council Member Hans Riemer (At-Large)

County Officials Who Did Not Sign

Council Member Andrew Friedson (D-1)
Council Member Evan Glass (At-Large) – Note: Glass endorsed Lynne Harris.
Council Member Sidney Katz (D-3) – Note: Katz endorsed Sunil Dasgupta.

State Senators Who Signed

Senator Cheryl Kagan (D-17)
Senator Nancy King (D-39)
Senator Ben Kramer (D-19)
Senator Will Smith (D-20)

State Senators Who Did Not Sign

Senator Brian Feldman (D-15)
Senator Susan Lee (D-16)
Senator Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18)
Senator Craig Zucker (D-14)

Delegates Who Signed

Delegate Lorig Charkoudian (D-20)
Delegate Charlotte Crutchfield (D-19)
Delegate Bonnie Cullison (D-19)
Delegate Lesley Lopez (D-39)
Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14)
Delegate David Moon (D-20)
Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39)
Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-19)

Delegates Who Did Not Sign

Delegate Gabe Acevero (D-39)
Delegate Kumar Barve (D-17)
Delegate Al Carr (D-18)
Delegate Kathleen Dumais (D-15)
Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-15)
Delegate Jim Gilchrist (D-17)
Delegate Anne Kaiser (D-14)
Delegate Ariana Kelly (D-16)
Delegate Marc Korman (D-16)
Delegate Sara Love (D-16)
Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr (D-17)
Delegate Lily Qi (D-15)
Delegate Pam Queen (D-14)
Delegate Emily Shetty (D-18)
Delegate Jared Solomon (D-18)
Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20)

It’s noteworthy that not a single state legislator from Districts 15, 16 and 18 signed the letter. These districts are home to the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county and have the highest achieving high school clusters. Austin lives in Bethesda and has raised most of his campaign funds from these areas. (More to come on that tomorrow.) These facts are probably not aligned in coincidence.

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Campaign Finance Reports, School Board Primary

By Adam Pagnucco.

The second round of campaign finance reports covering contributions and expenditures in the school board race were due yesterday. They cover campaign activity through May 17 and are the last reports to be released before the June 2 primary. The table below presents cumulative totals combining the first and second reports for all candidates. Those with data marked “NA” filed affidavits stating that their campaigns did not collect or spend more than $1,000 for the reporting period.

In the at-large race, Jay Guan is the leader with $27,443 raised, followed by Sunil Dasgupta ($22,760) and Stephen Austin ($20,730). Lynne Harris, who was endorsed by the Washington Post, ranks 6th with $7,456 raised. The district races were quiet.

These are small amounts of money compared to county executive, county council and state legislative races, but Guan, Dasgupta and Austin have all done pretty well for school board candidates. Here is how their totals compare to other (relatively) well-financed school board candidacies in the primary over the last decade.

So far, the single largest expenditure by any candidate in the race is Guan’s mailing of a postcard in early May, which cost $13,861. However, the Maryland State Education Association, which has endorsed Dasgupta, sent out a glossy mailer on his behalf shortly afterwards. That mailer’s cost is not available from campaign finance records but almost certainly exceeds the cost of Guan’s mailer.

Facebook’s political ad tracker shows that Dasgupta has spent more money on Facebook ads than the rest of the at-large field combined.

So far, the most expensive Facebook ad in the race has been this one by Dasgupta which promoted some of his endorsements.

The second most expensive Facebook ad was this one by Austin attacking Harris. Austin may be calculating that if he can knock out Harris, he will enter an insider vs outsider general election against Dasgupta.

Combining his own spending with the independent expenditures of the teachers union, Dasgupta may be running the most vigorous campaign overall. Harris’s money problems are impeding her ability to publicize the Post endorsement, which should worry her supporters. Austin has done well to keep pace financially with Dasgupta despite the latter’s endorsement by multiple unions and numerous elected officials. The big question is what Austin plans to do with his $13,048 cash balance. If he had spent it on Facebook ads, he would easily have outspent Dasgupta. Either he is saving it for a last push or he is banking some money for the general election.

Following is a list of the most prominent contributors to Austin, Dasgupta, Guan and Harris.

Stephen Austin
Coalition for Better Montgomery PAC: $3,000 (Note: this contribution was criticized by One Montgomery, which earned a response from Austin.)
Alexander Bush, Chairman, Montgomery County Republican Party: $500
Pete Fosselman, Former Mayor, Town of Kensington: $100

Sunil Dasgupta
MSEA Fund for Children and Public Education: $3,500 (Note: this is the state teachers union. The county teachers union has endorsed Dasgupta.)
SEIU Local 500: $1,000 (Note: this union represents support staff in MCPS and has endorsed Dasgupta.)
Sidney Katz, Montgomery County Council Member: $250
Eric Luedtke, Delegate: $250
Jeffrey Slavin, Mayor, Town of Somerset: $250
Casey Anderson, Chair, Planning Board: $100
Aruna Miller, Former Delegate: $100
Mark Pierzchala, Council Member, City of Rockville: $100
Steve Silverman, Former Montgomery County Council Member: $100
Vaughn Stewart, Delegate: $100
Partap Verma, Planning Board Member: $100
Neil Harris, Council Member, City of Gaithersburg: $50
Dan Reed, Author, Just Up the Pike: $50
Hans Riemer, Montgomery County Council Member: $50

Jay Guan
Lily Qi, Delegate: $500

Lynne Harris
Diana Conway, President, Women’s Democratic Club: $300
Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Executive: $100
Tom Hucker, Montgomery County Council Member: $100
Jill Ortman-Fouse, Former School Board Member: $100
Al Carr, Delegate: $50

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

In addition to being one of MoCo’s nastiest races of all time, this year’s school board election is arguably the strangest ever. Consider a list of typical election activities that are hampered or altogether prohibited by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Door knocking – Fuhgeddaboutit.

In-person campaign coffees and fundraisers – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit handouts at Metro stations – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit drops – It’s not clear if this counts as essential travel. It’s also not clear if this will creep out voters.

Campaign forums – They are not possible to do in person. There are opportunities to do these online but there will be far fewer of them than in a regular cycle.

Poll coverage – Fuhgeddaboutit!!

So what’s left? No candidate currently has the money to do serious mail. Blast emails are possible, but if anyone has an email list, I’m not on it. (For the record, I have been added to TONS of political email lists!) Signs have been distributed along with the usual instances of illegal placement. Bethesda Beat is covered with school board ads. (Steve Hull wins every election!) Social media ads are cost effective and several candidates have used them, but they can’t replace all of the other campaign tools that have been knocked out by the virus. Then there is the word of mouth being circulated by supporters of one candidate or another, but to see it, you have to be connected to the partisans. The HUGE majority of voters are not in these bubbles.

Let’s remember that this is a presidential primary and all county voters with all party affiliations can vote. In the 2016 primary, 183,479 people voted in MoCo’s at-large school board race. That far exceeds the number who vote in mid-term Democratic primaries for governor, county executive and county council at-large, races which have much more financing than school board contests. The two candidates who emerged from the 2016 primary had more than 50,000 votes each. This year’s winning number could be higher if the all-mail election encourages higher turnout as it did in Rockville and also because of national factors.

Given all of these limitations, you would have to be crazy to be a campaign manager in this race!

That said, there are certain factors that could make a difference.

The Apple Ballot

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has an excellent record of getting its endorsed school board candidates through primaries. MCEA’s choice this year is Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta, who proudly puts the Apple Ballot front and center on his website. Historically, the union’s most effective tactic has been distribution of Apple Ballots at voting precincts, but that is now impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions and the state’s transition to a mostly mail election. The teachers can still use social media and they have sent at least one mailer promoting their candidate. One note of caution comes from February 2008, when an ice storm shut down MCEA’s poll coverage, resulting in a rare defeat for its candidate in a primary.

The Washington Post

Along with the Apple Ballot, the Post’s endorsement is one of the top two in school board races and has a great record of helping candidates win. At first it seemed the Post was going to sit out the primary (as it has done before), but over the weekend, the newspaper endorsed former PTA president Lynne Harris. This is a huge problem for anti-boundary analysis leader Stephen Austin, who now faces one candidate with the Apple, another one with the Post and a primary from which only two candidates will emerge. One question: with Harris’s lack of funding and the Post endorsement coming so late, will she have the time and bandwidth to capitalize on it?

Stephen Austin’s Facebook Group

Say what you will about Austin and his group, but his page is larger than any other MCPS-related site that could play a part in this election. Consider these Facebook page statistics at this writing.

Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools (Austin’s group): 8,033 members
Montgomery County Education Association: 4,006 followers
Montgomery County Council of PTAs: 1,573 followers
SEIU Local 500 (an endorser of Dasgupta): 1,154 followers
One Montgomery (favors school equity, opposes Austin): 846 followers
Sunil Dasgupta’s campaign page: 595 followers
Stephen Austin’s campaign group: 358 members
Lynne Harris’s campaign page: 275 followers
Jay Guan’s campaign page: 185 followers

None of the candidates’ pages are large enough to have any organic effect on the election though they can be used for ads. But through his “neighbors for local schools” page, Austin can reach out to roughly 8,000 people, an advantage that no other candidate has. In an election with no poll coverage by the Apple Ballot, no ground-level campaigning and no serious money for any candidate, how big of an advantage is this?

One Montgomery’s Attack Piece

The brutal One Montgomery attack piece in Maryland Matters linking Austin to Trump supporters and anti-LGBTQ activists has gotten a lot of attention on his critics’ pages. But has it really penetrated beyond the progressive circles that were unlikely to vote for Austin anyway? For this piece to be truly effective, someone has to place a four- or five-digit social media ad buy to push it out to the general public. Otherwise it will be just one more thing to argue about for the relative handful of folks inside the bubble.

The Alphabet

Don’t laugh, but in down-ballot, under-the-radar races, being near or at the top of the ballot can get a candidate a few extra points. Research of varying quality has found this to be the case in Danish local and regional elections, Vancouver local elections, California state elections, California city council and school board elections, Ohio county elections and British local council elections. Austin will be listed second on the ballot. Will that matter?

However these factors mix, there are two likely scenarios. If Dasgupta and Harris emerge from the primary, this will turn into a traditional Apple vs Post race. But if Austin breaks through to claim one of the primary spots, this will be more insider vs outsider with school boundaries front and center. Jay Guan, the fundraising leader who has mailed a postcard, may also have a chance.

There is more to an election than tactics; there is also policy at stake. Part Three will conclude with a few issues that have been overshadowed by the boundary analysis war but nevertheless warrant attention from the candidates.

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

Negative campaigning has a long and brutal history in Montgomery County but this year’s school board election is emerging as one of the most contentious contests in decades. The arguments contain echoes of the titanic school board election battles of the early 1980s, in which a conservative faction led by Marian Greenblatt was eventually toppled. Then as now, race, school boundaries, accusations of busing and the shadow of national politics mixed in a bubbling witches’ brew that no cauldron could hold. There is nothing new here. Rather, skeletons emerge from the grave to refight battles that seem as eternal as they are ancient.

The immediate impetus of the current dispute is a change made to MCPS’s facility planning policy in September 2018. Prior to the change, four factors were weighted equally in picking sites for new schools and changing school boundaries: demographic characteristics of student population, geography, stability of school assignments over time and facility utilization. The new policy was revised to contain this sentence on demographics: “Options should especially strive to create a diverse student body in each of the affected schools in alignment with Board Policy ACD, Quality Integrated Education.” Jill Ortman-Fouse, who at that time was on the school board and helped lead the effort to change the policy, justified it by saying, “Diversity matters. Let’s weight that a little bit more.” MCPS followed up by hiring a contractor to study school boundaries and implementing a redistricting in Germantown and Clarksburg that spawned a lawsuit.

Now supporters and opponents of the new facilities policy and the boundary analysis are at war. The leader of the opposition is Stephen Austin, a newcomer to MoCo politics who set up a Facebook group last winter that now has almost 8,000 members. It’s unusual in the county for such a large group to form so quickly without external organization and funding, but schools are a hot issue here for folks with all kinds of perspectives. The other side is a group of MCPS activists favoring the boundary analysis, many of whom have been active on school issues for a long time. Their spiritual leader is Ortman-Fouse, who has made diversity her signature issue both during and after her tenure on the school board. Austin is one of 13 candidates running for an at-large school board seat in a field with varying views on school boundaries. Strong feelings run high on both sides.

My personal sympathies lie with those who favor diverse schools. My upstate New York elementary school was roughly 90% white. When I moved to MoCo, I deliberately chose to live near a diverse public elementary school so that my kid could benefit from being around others with different races, cultures and life experiences. My choice paid off in a BIG way. My kid has experienced both diversity and superb academic instruction at the same time. He is much better prepared for the modern world than I was at his age. So I won’t be voting for any candidate who opposes diversity.

But there is more going on here than just that one issue.

I read the posts in Austin’s Facebook group almost every day. There are statements on there with which I disagree. There is some nastiness directed at the other side (and the press). But there are also participants who express a mixture of curiosity, concern and skepticism. Some distrust what they see as a centralized school bureaucracy that does not communicate very well. (This is one sentiment they share with some on the other side!) There are plenty of folks there who are not white. There has also been discussion of issues other than the boundary analysis. It’s a more complicated place than Austin’s opponents might admit. However, some of the blame for that goes to the moderators who have kicked out people who disagree, causing the exiles to assume the worst since they can’t view the content themselves. Inflammatory tidbits sometimes leak anyway.

I’m not all that worried about the pugilists in the ring. In politics, anyone who throws a punch should be ready to take a punch. But I do wonder about the people in Austin’s group, as well as on other social media threads, who read all of this material and say nothing. What are they thinking? I bet more than a few believe there is no point in saying anything because if they do, and if they vary from the orthodoxy of either side, they will be subject to bitter, public personal attacks. How many folks who have something to contribute will never run for school board or get involved with school issues at all for fear of being hurled into the mud?

Here is a great irony. Austin’s supporters believe that the school board does not do enough to oversee or challenge MCPS management – a view shared by some on the left. It’s a common perception that some school board members get assimilated into the system after winning office (with the notable exception of the 2015 revolt against then-Superintendent Josh Starr). Bereft of a sizeable, independent staff of analysts reporting exclusively to them, the board risks being at the mercy of a management that can control information and set tight boundaries for policy decisions. One school board member who resisted that tendency was none other than Ortman-Fouse, who never backed down from management, regularly demanded (and released) data and engaged in actual constituent service – just like elected officials are supposed to do. Put aside their ideological disagreements and Ortman-Fouse could provide a model of independent-minded school board service that even Austin and his folks could appreciate were it not for their mutual loathing.

At this point, tribal politics has taken over this race. Each tribe fears what the other one will do if it wins. Non-tribe members are barely acknowledged even though at least 99% of the county has no idea what is going on in this election. The disengagement of so many voters and the sheer oddities of present times make this a hard race to divine.

In Part Two, I’ll assess the tactical environment in what might be MoCo’s strangest election ever.

And in Part Three, I’ll talk about a few issues that have been largely undiscussed so far but collectively will determine at least as much of MCPS’s future as any boundary analysis.

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