Revisiting My School Board Race
A year ago, I was in the midst of a campaign to bring sanity to the "Little City" of Falls Church, Virginia. What I learned then still holds true.
On the eve of the annual Falls Church Run for the Schools, a fun run benefiting the local educational foundation, I find myself reminiscing about what I was doing a year ago. As a lead sponsor of this charity event (and all others on the local fall calendar)—or rather, Shapiro for Falls Church was—I was preparing my starting-line speech. In the midst of a high-profile campaign for school board, I was running myself ragged to respond to what I perceived as dissatisfaction with certain aspects of local governance.
I didn’t win—or perhaps I won in that now I don’t have to serve on school board—but I’m glad I ran. This way there’s no doubt that I gave my all both to advance ideas I care about and to help kids in the community (including my own).
When combined with my job transition soon after the November election, and then the cancellation campaign that I’ve written about previously in this newsletter, it’s been quite a year both personally and professionally. One friend reminded me that, with Rosh Hashanah approaching, it’s been quite the Jewish year!
I’m so glad that during these coming High Holidays, I’m not dealing with what I was last year at this time. But when I think about lessons learned from the school board campaign in particular, I’m not sure there’s anything left to be said beyond what I already wrote in my feature in the Washington Examiner magazine last December.
There have been interesting twists and turns since then, including skirmishes with Superintendent Peter Noonan, who went on frolic-and-detour in an effort at massive resistance to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s demasking order. But for the most part, what I wrote nearly a year ago still pretty much covers it. My oldest son had a wonderful kindergarten year and is now with a great first-grade teacher who’s supported by talented educators and tremendous resources. And my next-door neighbor, now the chairwoman of the school board, still goes out of her way to avoid talking to me (though her husband is very nice).
My Facebook group of concerned parents is vigilant about the incursion of critical race theory and other illiberal fads. Noonan is now gaslighting Falls Church residents about the meaning of new gender-identity-related guidance from the state department of education, but things are going well in this place where limousine liberals opposed to school choice move to get their kids into some of the best schools in the country.
Watch this space for any new developments on that front, but in the meantime, here’s a reprint of that Examiner piece, interspersed with personal photos from the campaign. —IS
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About a year ago [December 2020], when schools were still closed in northern Virginia and parents were fretting about learning loss, the school board in my small town of Falls Church voted to change the names of Thomas Jefferson Elementary and George Mason High. That decision, and the board’s abdication of responsibility over pandemic policy—deferring repeatedly to the superintendent, who kept moving the goal posts on reopening—eventually led to my running for a seat this fall.
I lost, but the experience taught me about the practicalities of campaigns, the vagaries of politics, and the limits of local governance. It’s vital to be the change you want to see in your little neck of the woods, but often, institutional factors are such that higher-level reform is essential even to residents of the second-richest “county” in the country . (Falls Church is an “independent city” of fewer than 15,000 people , a bedroom community of lawyers, lobbyists, and other professionals that’s the nation’s smallest county-equivalent municipality.)
What possessed me to run for office? Local governments do all sorts of silly things, and being on the school board is perhaps the most thankless (and essentially uncompensated) job around. Plus, Falls Church has the best public schools in the state. Indeed, my wife Kristin and I moved here in 2014 to give the children we hoped to have the best educational opportunities possible without having to pay more for grade school than we did for law school.
Well, six years after we bought into this great school district, our oldest son was set to start kindergarten, so we were about to have some serious skin in the game. The pandemic arrived just in time for this increased sensitivity to school governance, and then the board paid a consulting company to conduct a survey on whether slave ownership disqualified Jefferson and Mason from educational monikers.
More than two-thirds of respondents supported keeping the names . We dodged a bullet, I thought. Canceling the founders was apparently a bridge too far even for the limousine liberals who populate our fair burg (which voted 81% for Joe Biden ). And yet the board voted unanimously to rename.
Regardless of the merits of the issue—Mason tried to end the slave trade!—how could elected officials be so oblivious?
It turned out that the nomenclature brouhaha was the tip of the iceberg. There had been discontent brewing among parents about the lack of school board response to all sorts of things. Renaming closed schools against the supermajoritarian weight of public opinion added insult to injury. To give you an idea of how much the board had lost the community’s confidence, no incumbents whose terms are up this year (two of whom were appointed to fill seats left open by resignation) stood for election.
Early in the new year , Kristin and I were invited to join a Facebook group of parents trying to reopen the schools. The group created bright yellow yard signs that sprouted up before the snow had melted, leading the superintendent to complain about “noisy parents.” As election season approached, I dearly hoped that someone would step up to challenge the status quo.
But then, I was encouraged to do it myself. Apparently, I was one of the more “clean and articulate” rabble-rousers and, as Rabbi Hillel said, if not now, when? If not me, who? Never mind that I was only the third-best option in my own household; Kristin was busy being treasurer and then president of our sons’ preschool, while my mother-in-law, a former elementary school principal, explained that she had retired for a reason. So, I filed my declaration of candidacy and began collecting signatures, of which I needed 125 to get on the ballot.
Through that process, I got to know the two other “reform” candidates, a “basketball mom” and healthcare professional who had helped start the dissident parents group and an economist who had gotten under the superintendent’s skin by pelting him with data showing that we were less COVID-racked than plenty of poorer districts whose schools had been open the whole year. Initially, there were six other candidates, but then two dropped out after realizing that there would be real competition for the four open seats in this nonpartisan race.
Around the time I submitted my signatures, which were due the first week of June, I attended to the nuts and bolts of setting up a campaign. Having filed numerous campaign-finance briefs in the Supreme Court and volunteered on federal races, I thought I knew what I was doing. Still, it took me several attempts to open a bank account—the Citibank branch where I do my personal banking looked at me like I was asking for something that had never been done—and I would end up amending my statement of organization to iron out some kinks. At least the periodic campaign finance reports were easy; as long as you diligently log all donations and expenditures, the Virginia Department of Elections’s online Committee Tracking System (“Comet”) works really well.
Then, like most candidates for local office, I formally launched my campaign with a Wall Street Journal op-ed, noting that my run was motivated by the disconnect between the school board and the citizenry it purported to represent.
The piece unleashed a firestorm.
First, my next-door neighbor, who’s vice-chair of the school board (though not up for reelection) canceled coffee with me. Then, the only local media, the weekly Falls Church News-Press, ran a “news” story that could be characterized as “Local Man Writes Op-ed Critical of School Board.” It tied my independent run to efforts by national conservative groups to take over school boards, a bizarre apparent threat against the board phoned in after the name change, and the use of the “open the schools” issue by “pro-Trumpers.” The paper twisted my highlighting Falls Church’s particular issues and calling for local civic engagement into an attempt to position my race as part of some national conspiracy.
Doubly ironic is that the paper’s editor, Nicholas Benton, is a former Lyndon LaRouche acolyte who brings his fast-and-loose approach to everything from local politics to (I kid you not) a multipart series on Vladimir Putin’s subversion of American democracy. As my campaign gained traction, I rose in his alarmist pen from “high-level operative” of the “right-wing” Cato Institute to “top-level operative,” before being demoted to “prominent staffer” in a final preelection column—which assailed Cato for, among other things, “plant[ing] its libertarian bias on every issue, including on civil liberties and foreign interventions.”
Coverage consisted almost entirely of sophomoric smears about Trumpist conspiracies and Koch brother machinations. The News-Press even ran an unprecedented early endorsement the week of Labor Day, after advising voters not to vote early. That editorial was actually a rant about Jan. 6, alleged efforts to restrict voting rights (see my “ The Voter Suppression Lie ” in these pages last April), and the Texas abortion law, concluding with a list of candidates for no particular reason. It was really a disendorsement of me specifically because, among other things, I oppose a federal right to education (which, OK, I agree with a decades-old and well-settled Supreme Court ruling).
In one case, the News-Press ran a letter to the editor associating me with positions taken in various Cato publications over the years—one from when I was in high school—that are neither from my policy department nor on topics that fall within the school board’s purview. The sole example of my own work the author raised involves a Supreme Court case in which I defended teachers’ First Amendment rights, which one would think would be reassuring in this context.
Although the News-Press allowed me to respond to several of the attacks, it didn’t print anything from my supporters. Instead, late in the game, it ran two letters raising questions about my funding and insinuating that I’m beholden to shadowy outside groups. I’m still not sure how I was supposed to implement the various agendas of dozens of $100 donors (my median contribution).
Indeed, I’m proud that I raised over $32,000, which is more than triple the previous local record, from 161 individuals, more than half of whom are in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area. I was blown away by the financial support my campaign received, far outstripping my initial $10,000 budget. Unlike the other candidates, who were mostly self-funding (except one who took big union money), Kristin and I decided that we would save our own money for our boys’ college funds.
And then, a funny thing happened—all sorts of donations rolled in: $20, $100, $250, even $1,000. Many longtime friends chipped in, though six of the eight people who gave more than $500 were local, and I received plenty of donations nationwide after my Wall Street Journal piece and National Review profile, and especially when I posted my campaign website link on social media. Amusingly, my largest corporate donation (that’s legal in Virginia) was for $5, presumably because a small-business owner forgot to switch to his personal Venmo account.
But the biggest surprise was the financial support from Falls Church voters. Many neighbors I didn’t know before the campaign gave money, including after I stopped actively fundraising. I liked to joke that given the donations and requests for yard signs after every News-Press attack, I needed to list editor Benton as an in-kind contributor on my finance reports.
It became clear early on that I wasn’t really running against my ostensible opponents but against the well-heeled and -connected locals who didn’t want anyone rocking their boat. The sort of folks who aren’t particularly woke but who pay off that crowd to assuage their liberal guilt, who put those insufferable “In This House We Believe” signs in their capacious yards and take out ads in the News-Press thanking the superintendent and his staff for their diligent management of the pandemic. The people who preach “Falls Church Nice” but spread malicious rumors behind your back.
That’s fine; I was well aware that politics ain’t beanbag. Indeed, the whole reason I was in the race was because the community had expressed a desire for a diversity of opinion and experience, and to have all constituents represented. That includes nonparents—voters without children in our public schools outnumber those who do—who pay higher property tax rates than elsewhere in northern Virginia to get the small-town feel that our nationally reputed public schools maintain.
Moreover, I had both put in the work and used my war chest strategically. I did well in the forums hosted by the League of Women Voters and “Citizens for a Better City,” the quintessential establishment group, and many voters told me that my candidate statements and questionnaire answers were more nuanced than others’.
I sent three rounds of mailers and ran ads in the News-Press, which is unheard of, but also sponsored all three of the Falls Church Education Foundation benefits: the Run for the Schools, Little City Golf Scramble, and Home and Garden Tour (which also featured my house). I also finagled a sponsorship of the children's entertainment stage at the municipal fall festival. And I spent many Saturday mornings canvassing at our regionally renowned farmers market and knocked on 1,000 doors, about a fifth of all residences.
It’s those personal interactions that I enjoyed the most, and that enabled me to learn about a host of bread-and-butter issues that don’t come up in culture-war debates. For example, Falls Church City Public Schools do well by their gifted and special-needs children, but sometimes, those “in the middle,” who would be academic stars elsewhere, get lost in the shuffle. I also got some colorful earfuls that didn’t do much for my faith in democracy—and I don’t mean expletives or even people who rejected my candidacy.
“Someone told me you’re the only one running who’s not a communist. Is that true?” “I don’t want to disparage any other candidate”—I never did the entire race—“but I can assure you I’m about as far away from communist as you can get.”
“Shapiro is Spanish, right? I voted for you because we need diversity.”
“Already voted. I think for you. Just checked the first four.” (I was indeed listed first on the ballot, because under current local rules, candidates appear in the order they submit their paperwork.)
Two voters agreed to vote for me when I pointed out that they had three school board candidates’ signs in their yards but had room for one more on their ballots. One said he’d vote for me because I look like someone he went to high school with.
Much of what I heard is that parents wanted their concerns to be taken seriously rather than just sloughed off. That, of course, echoed a theme that ultimately did in Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. Except in Falls Church, where he still got 77%, despite a plethora of Glenn Youngkin signs. Perhaps people were just less shy about showing their support for Youngkin than for Donald Trump the year before.
Many voters thanked me for running and said they thought my campaign was exactly what Falls Church needed. One man pulled his car over while I was walking precincts to shake my hand. Another on Election Day wished me luck but said I didn’t need it.
Alas, my support was apparently a mile deep but somewhat less than that wide—or perhaps everyone who didn’t go out of his or her way to express support affirmatively voted against me. I finished sixth, getting 2,058 votes out of a total 20,349 cast on turnout that approached 70% of registered voters, with each voter having the option to vote for up to four candidates. The top candidate, a Democratic labor fundraiser, got 3,721, while the fourth and final one elected got 3,408, after which there’s a big gap. Essentially, the establishment beat the reformers.
To tell the truth, it was a surprising result. There was no polling in this small race, but the consensus among us candidates was that I would be elected (likely placing third). With my high name ID and intensity of support in a “change” election, I was looking strong given the unusual game theory in which the milquetoast quad would split more of their vote than the insurgent trio.
As we know now, it was not to be, even if I assuredly changed the tenor of the campaign, turning an otherwise sleepy race into something competitive and offering a choice, not an echo. The result also put paid to the notion that money is the most important thing in politics, or that we need to limit campaign contributions (Virginia has none) to ensure clean elections.
Do I regret the run? I don’t feel bad about losing—there’s nothing I really could’ve done differently—but I do regret not being there for my family for several months. Even when I was physically present, I was often mentally absent, thinking about political strategery or writing my next microtargeted Facebook ad, or burning the candle’s other end on my day job. That’s time in my young sons’ lives I’ll never get back, a rift I’m now working diligently to repair.
I also lament what the election result says about politics and policy in Falls Church. We have “first world problems,” to be sure, but the trajectories aren’t good. Even when we get past the masking of students and other hygiene theater—why don’t liberals want to follow Europe on school-related COVID policy?—the influx of critical race theory will almost surely overwhelm our schools’ rigor and sow further divisions. It’s sad.
But at least Kristin and I have the resources to make another choice for our children. Some area private schools are worse than FCCPS academically or culturally, but some are better, and a few are affordable on two professional salaries. Or we could take our talents to South Beach and move to the Free State of Florida.
That kind of educational freedom simply isn’t there for most families. It’s funny: One of the things I was assailed for was my secret agenda to privatize schools, as if that’s something the school board can do, and yet virtually all the parents in town exercised school choice in moving to Falls Church.
This was my first time running for office and will almost certainly be my last. Perhaps my key takeaway is that the pandemic accelerated a process whereby people are reevaluating priorities and questioning decision-makers. I don’t necessarily recommend running for school board, but there’s a lot that those of us unhappy about the direction of local governance can do.