Contempt for Voters

by Dan Quinn

So what’s with the dishonest campaign to remove from office a State Board of Education member who had the gall to challenge — successfully — the re-election of a prominent member of the state board’s far-right faction in 2010? Just another example of the far right’s contempt for Texas voters.

We’re talking about Thomas Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant who defeated Don “Somebody’s Gotta Stand Up to Experts” McLeroy in last year’s GOP primary for the District 9 state board seat. McLeroy, a College Station dentist and self-identified “young Earth creationist,” had served as Gov. Rick Perry’s state board chairman from 2007 to 2009 and led efforts to dumb down instruction on evolution in public school science classes.

Ratliff’s victory over McLeroy infuriated other far-right board members and their supporters. But because voters clearly preferred a common-sense approach to education over McLeroy’s repeated efforts to promote his own personal beliefs in public schools, Ratliff’s critics have adopted a legal strategy to get him thrown off the board. They claim Texas law forbids Ratliff from serving on the board because he is a registered lobbyist. But that prohibition applies only to lobbyists who are paid to work on business related to the board’s operations. Ratliff has pointed out repeatedly that he does not.

In January, to settle the matter, Ratliff asked then-Chairwoman Gail Lowe — a member of the state board’s far-right faction — to seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general on his eligibility to serve on the board. Ratliff also asked the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether he was breaking the law.

Last week Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office released an official opinion on the matter. That followed a finding from the Public Integrity Unit last March. Neither document says what the board’s far-right members wanted to hear.

The AG’s opinion last week affirmed that “a registered lobbyist who has been paid to lobby the legislative or executive branch on a matter relating to Board business is ineligible to serve on the Board.” But Abbott also wrote that whether a specific board member was ineligible under the law “is a fact question that is inappropriate to an attorney general opinion.”

The Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit, which has the authority to investigate and — if necessary — prosecute state officials, does address fact questions. And in March that office cleared Ratliff: “We have determined that it does not appear that any crime has been committed over which our office would have jurisdiction and venue.”

But right-wingers on and off the board are ignoring or in some cases distorting what those findings said. Donna “Jeffrey Dahmer Believed in Evolution” Garner, a right-wing gadfly allied with the board’s creationist faction, blasted out an email to activists claiming that Abbott said Ratliff was ineligible to serve on the board. That was a lie. Garner also called on the Legislature to impeach Ratliff. Well, good luck with that. Legislators know that doing so would clearly be seen as simply a political effort to overturn the will of voters in District 9. Moreover, the Legislature is not scheduled to be in session again until 2012 — after the next election.

Far-right board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont Buna, who doesn’t even live in the district he represents, threatened that the board might seek legal counsel to pursue a case against Ratliff. Oh, that’s just swell. The board has dragged the educational reputation of Texas through the mud over the past five years (at least), and now Bradley wants to waste taxpayer dollars in pursuit of a political vendetta.

Look, voters rejected the political games and extremism promoted by McLeroy, Bradley and Garner in the 2010 Republican primary. Let that sink in for a minute — that happened in the Republican primary. But now that their ability to push personal and political agendas in our kids’ public schools has been limited, the board’s far-right members want the Legislature and the courts to overturn the will of the voters. Their contempt for those voters and their lust for power couldn’t be clearer.