Reading Tea (Party) Leaves

Movement has made presence felt in several community college elections, but most experts don't see it becoming a major force in the sector.
May 24, 2011

With the election last fall of candidates the likes of Senator Rand Paul and Governor Nikki Haley, the Tea Party movement is now wielding significant influence on Capitol Hill and in a number of statehouses across the country. Recently, the movement has also been making waves at perhaps the most unsuspecting of grassroots levels: community college board elections. None of the candidates who either actively embraced the Tea Party label or had it brandished at them by their challengers appear to have won any seats this spring. But their impact on the campaigns was noticeable, politicizing what are, more often than not, sleepy and uncontested elections.

Take, for example, the contentious race earlier this month for the Board of Trustees of Montana’s Flathead Valley Community College. A group of conservative candidates mounted a surprise challenge against incumbents on the board, who they claimed were leading the college down the wrong path. Among other views, the challengers argued that the college relied too heavily on federal funding and that its faculty and staff unions should not have the right to collectively bargain for their salary or benefits.

The incumbents ended up prevailing at the polls on May 3, but those on the Flathead Valley board say the race changed the status quo there.

“We just watched the Montana Legislature wrestle with a very conservative element of the Republican Party,” said Bob Nystuen, recently re-elected board chair, drawing a comparison to his own race. “I think what’s come of this is people want more opportunities to be engaged in the political process. Rather than just going with the flow, people are becoming more engaged. The takeaway from this process, to me, is be more transparent — not that we haven’t been in the past.”

Nystuen has been on the board for 12 years. In all of that time, he said, he has never faced a challenger for re-election. Challenges were also rare, though not unheard-of, for his colleagues on the board during that time.

“We’re mindful that the status quo of the past, where races were not contested and these elections were low-profile type things, has changed,” Nystuen said. “People are just saying, 'I’d like to have my voice heard in this thing.' And it’s absolutely a good thing. Does it create conflict? Yes. But it also could create collaboration that could remove complacency in the future.”

Trustee positions in Montana are apolitical for a reason, Nystuen argued. He said his board has both self-described Republicans and Democrats but that all realize the position of trustee is fundamentally different from other public offices.

“When you walk into [the board room], you put on your Flathead Valley Community College trustee hat,” Nystuen said. “We are here doing what we can to promote the good ideals of [the community college] in the long run. I can’t remember being in board meetings where somehow a political agenda has crept into the discussion. As board chair, I don’t want to have that.”

Unwanted Political Label

The politicization of the recent race for the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees went down rather differently. In this case, the Tea Party label was not embraced by the upstart challenger. Rather, she said, it was wielded at her in an attempt to discredit and undercut her campaign.

Lydia Gutierrez, a school teacher from Long Beach, lost a spot on the board earlier this month to Scott Svonkin, a local school board member she argued was too close to the faculty union and too much of an “insider” to remedy the district’s well-documented problems with its recent mammoth construction project. Gutierrez was attacked by Svonkin and his supporters for her support of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot referendum banning gay marriage in California. But, she said, it did not stop there. She said her opposition tried to paint her as someone who supports Tea Party causes across the board.

“I’m not a Sarah Palin supporter,” Gutierrez said. “I’m not a Ron Paul supporter. I’m actually what I would call a moderate.... If I were a Tea Party candidate, then I would have gotten money and support and people would have phone banked for me. But I got none of that. That just didn’t happen. I ran this campaign myself.”

Svonkin was the union-supported candidate in the race, but Gutierrez pointed out that she, too, is an active member of her union at the K-12 level. She also said she does not support some of the views held by the conservative candidates in the Montana race. She noted that she supports the use of Pell Grants — one of the Montana candidates argued that Pell Grants were unconstitutional — and firmly believes in the right of unions to collectively bargain. Gutierrez said she believes Svonkin and his campaign tried to distract from the main issue in the race, the construction-related corruption that made headlines throughout Los Angeles in recent months.

“I think they knew I was popular with the African American and Hispanic communities, so they tried to find a way to undercut me by saying, ‘Oh, she’s pro-life’ and ‘Oh, she’s against gay marriage,’” Gutierrez said. “My value system in that regard has nothing to do with being on a community college board. It wouldn’t matter if I was a liberal or a conservative. When I’m on that board, I would manage two things: the budget and policy. And the policy is to make the college functional so that it graduates as many students as possible.”

Anti-Tax Sentiment

The influence of the Tea Party movement is not restricted to community college board races. Its influence has also been felt in recent community college bond referendums.

Last year, a Tea Party group in New Jersey questioned Warren County Community College’s plans to open a satellite campus. Half of the $7.3 million bond to buy and renovate a commercial building for the new campus was to be paid for from an existing pool of state funds; the remainder was to be paid for by leasing additional space in the renovated building to interested tenants. The plan for the new facility did not require the raising of taxes or passing along any extra costs to area residents. Still, some activists questioned the move, arguing that the college should simply expand its existing campus and that any spending on a new campus would be an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money. The project ended up moving forward, despite the critique. Still, observers in the community reckoned that this group of voters would be a strong anti-tax presence in the area for the near future.

More recently, a group of students at Clackamas Community College, in Oregon, campaigned against a $130 million bond referendum, meant to modernize buildings, on the May 17 ballot, saying it was “financially irresponsible” of the college’s board to increase spending. Students also expressed concerns that some of the institution’s officials were overpaid. Willamette Week, a local newspaper, described the campaign, including a series of contentious board meetings that held public comment periods, as being filled with “Tea Party-esque rage.” The bond referendum was eventually voted down, as anti-tax sentiment simmered in the community.

Of course, whenever community colleges place bond proposals on ballots, supporters of the measures worry about anti-tax sentiment. The difference some see with the Tea Party influence is an organized, anti-tax group that will be pushing its allies to vote — especially in the next election year.

Long-Term Influence?

Community college experts are dubious of the Tea Party movement's ability to be a sustained influence on their sector. Many community college officials contacted for this story said they were unaware of any evidence to suggest that this movement was having any significant impact on many community colleges at the local level. If anything, officials noted that the Tea Party movement was having much more influence at the state level and that it was not necessarily concerned with community college issues.

David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, said his organization has not noticed any substantial influence from the Tea Party in its membership, aside from the handful of situations that have attracted headlines.

"If anything, this just reflects that community colleges are democratic, with a lowercase d, institutions and that political currents affect the governance of our colleges," said Baime. "You always see a sort of ongoing play of who is chosen to govern colleges."

Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, noted that community colleges have long stayed above the political fray.

"Community colleges have generally had bipartisan support," Bailey wrote via e-mail. "They have a low price tag compared to four-year colleges, are situated in many legislative districts, offer opportunities to a wide spectrum of the population, and often have the support of local business. As a result they have have avoided some of the more confrontational partisan conflict, although this has not prevented ... overall cuts in funding.... It isn't surprising that the particularly strong strain of anti-tax and anti-government sentiment represented by the Tea Party would question more areas of public expenditure, even those that have enjoyed broader support in the past."


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