Does Ken Mercer Support the Smear Campaign Against a Fellow Texas Education Board Member?

by Dan Quinn

Does Texas State Board of Education member Ken Mercer, a San Antonio Republican, think one of his fellow Republicans on the board “has no integrity”? Does he think his fellow Republican has “disdain for the law,” is ineligible to serve on the board, and is using his position to enrich his business clients? If he doesn’t believe those things, then he should repudiate — immediately and publicly — one of his supporters who has been leveling those charges.

Donna “Jeffery Dahmer Believed in Evolution” Garner, a right-wing gadfly from the Waco area, has been making those charges in emails supporting Mercer’s bid to be vice chair of the state board. Board members will elect a vice chair and a secretary at the first meeting of their new term on January 30. Garner’s emails urge right-wing activists to contact their board members to elect Mercer over Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who defeated arch-creationist Don McLeroy of College Station in the GOP primary in 2010.

The vice chair, secretary and chair Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, make up the state board’s executive committee. Those three officers will assign board members to the board’s standing committees: Instruction (dealing with curriculum matters), Finance/Permanent School Fund, and School Initiatives (which deals with charter schools). Garner seems to think that the vote for vice chair could be critical in helping the board’s far-right faction control the board’s business over the next two years. From a Garner email (“IF YOU CARE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF TEX. PUBLIC SCHOOL CHILDREN – ACTION NOW”) on Sunday:

“If Thomas Ratliff, who has demonstrated that he has no integrity and is on the Board illegally, is chosen as the Vice Chair and one more left leaner is chosen as the Secretary, then all will be lost.”

Garner argues that Ratliff’s day job — he lobbies at the Texas Legislature — makes him ineligible to serve on the state board:

“On 8.12.11, the Texas Attorney General’s Office ruled that Thomas Ratliff’s presence on the SBOE is not legal because of his being a registered lobbyist.”

That’s a lie. In 2011, Gail Lowe – then serving as board chair – asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (at Ratliff’s request) for a formal opinion on whether Ratliff was eligible to serve on the board. Abbott’s formal opinion in August of that year 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.” Ratliff has explained numerous times that he does not lobby for clients on matters related to the state board. And in his formal opinion, Abbott wrote that whether a specific board member was ineligible under the law “is a fact question that is inappropriate to an attorney general opinion.” So Abbott most certainly did not say Ratliff’s presence on the SBOE is illegal.

Moreover, the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, which has the authority to investigate and — if necessary — prosecute state officials, does address fact questions. And in March 2011, that office cleared Ratliff of the charge that he was serving illegally on the board: “We have determined that it does not appear that any crime has been committed over which our office would have jurisdiction and venue.”

That’s not good enough for Garner. (We all know how extremists deal with inconvenient facts. Look at “birthers,” for example.) She continues to charge that Ratliff is using his position on the board and as a lobbyist to enrich Microsoft and two other unnamed clients of his. She offers no evidence to substantiate the smear.

So we ask again: does Mercer agree with Garner’s smears that Ratliff “has no integrity,” “has disdain for the law,” is “on the board illegally,” and is using his position to enrich his business clients? If he does agree, then he should stop hiding behind Garner’s reckless and offensive emails, say so publicly, and produce the evidence to support the claims. If he doesn’t agree, then Mercer should repudiate Garner and her sleazy support for his bid to become vice chair.

But what is this smear campaign really all about? Power and revenge. The vote for vice chair and secretary will provide an early indication of the board’s ideological balance of power over the next two years. After last year’s elections, the new board will have 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats. But the real division for years now has been ideological, not partisan. Mercer is part of the board’s far-right faction, a group of creationists (all Republicans) who reject evolution and separation of church and state and have worked to politicize curriculum standards in science, social studies and other subjects. Ratliff has emerged as a leader of the board’s traditional conservatives and moderates (from both parties). Right-wingers detest Ratliff (a small-government, pro-local control Republican) because he defeated McLeroy in 2010.

We think it’s also fair to say that the hostility of the board’s far-right members toward Ratliff has been apparent in the board’s public meetings over the past two years. Some of them have made Ratliff’s eligibility to serve on the board an issue at previous meetings. One even suggested that the board might seek legal counsel to pursue a case against Ratliff, whom voters have elected to his seat twice now. All of that and the current smear campaign simply confirm our belief that the board’s right-wingers and their allies have little but contempt for voters who don’t share their extremist politics.


Texas Freedom Network

It took years to convince the @TXSBOE to create a Mexican American studies course for the state's public schools. It's great to see school districts offering it to students.