School board race targeted by outside political organizations
Drive along highways 99W or 219 in Newberg and you're likely to see numerous campaign signs promoting a trio of Newberg school board candidates as well as some vying for park and rec district board spots. The signs feature slogans such as "Save Our Schools" and "Your Parks, Your Board," along with lists of preferred candidates for the nonpartisan positions.
A state-registered political action committee publicly promoting conservative causes is behind the signs and an online effort to get out the vote for these candidates. Current and former school board members allege the PAC has ties to the Oregon Republican Party and that it aims to reshape the board with a conservative political vision in mind.
"The local Republicans are running openly organized slates in both of our nonpartisan local elections," board member Ron Mock said in an email. "This gives them an organizational and logistical advantage. But it plays differently in each election. For the school board, the three in the Republican bloc are all newcomers, each matched up head-to-head with three opponents. The Oregon GOP (is) looking for easy places to start finding potential statewide candidates."
Six candidates are vying for three spots on the school board: Zone 1 incumbent Mock versus challenger Trevor DeHart; Zone 4 challenger John Read versus incumbent Ines Peña; and Zone 5 pits newcomers Tai Harden and Renee Powell. Incumbent Bob Woodruff has withdrawn from the Zone 5 race, although his name will appear on the ballot.
On the CPRD board, 12 candidates are vying for three spots: Gayle Bizeau, Judy Brown, Jamie Johnson, Jim McMaster, Jeff Musall, Molly Olson, Doug Pugsley, Lisa Rogers (incumbent), Pat Royer, Pete Siderius (incumbent), Matthew Smith and Saundra Valentine. The three candidates who garner the most votes will earn board spots.
PAC's beginnings and connections
The Community Oriented Public Servants (COPS) PAC was founded in September 2020 by a group led by Brian Wheatley, a Newberg resident and the environmental program coordinator at the city of Tigard. Wheatley, Tualatin resident Danielle Mongar and Bandon resident Carol Russell are among those associated with the committee, according to its registration with Oregon's Secretary of State.
The COPS PAC Facebook page includes this mission statement: "The Community Oriented Public Servants (COPS) PAC is committed to providing safety and security to Yamhill County residents. Safeguarding the quality of life is achieved by efforts that come in many forms. Police, fire and emergency medical services have direct responsibility for our citizens' personal safety and property protection. Of equal consideration are the laws and ordinances unique to Yamhill County to grow and form the community envisioned by our citizens. Community Oriented Public Servants shall endeavor to carry out their duties honoring the community vision."
The organization's Facebook posts share conservative viewpoints on a range of issues, including policing, re-posting from the likes of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, Yamhill County Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer and police departments throughout the county. It also shares posts from a separate Facebook page under the same umbrella, titled "Save Our Schools Newberg."
The SOS Newberg page, which encourages followers to donate to the COPS PAC to support its efforts, promotes the candidacy of Newberg school board candidates DeHart, Read and Powell. Their logo and promotional materials are what appear on the signs popping up throughout town.
Some residents have expressed concerns about the page's transparency in Facebook comments and elsewhere, with some asking who is behind the page, only to get an unclear answer.
"The candidates will be addressing the recent questions that have been made on this page under various posts," an April 7 post from the SOS Newberg page read. "There will be opportunities for community members to submit questions and receive answers in new postings. We will also have a Zoom session and a meet-and-greet scheduled in the near future."
SOS Newberg did not respond to requests for comment made through Facebook message and email. The organization's preferred school board candidates – DeHart, Read, and Powell – also did not respond to requests for comment on SOS Newberg's origins.
Some of the school board candidates have also made direct financial contributions to the COPS PAC, which has in turn funded campaign efforts on their behalf. Powell donated $100 to COPS PAC on April 14 ($200 total) and DeHart's wife Larissa donated $400 on April 14 as well. COPS PAC had spent $900 five days earlier on campaign signs from Bridgeview Press in Cave Junction.
There is another connection to the organization in the search for local leadership in nonpartisan positions: On Feb. 11, COPS PAC endorsed Jeff Kosmicki for Newberg-Dundee police chief as the city continues its search to fill the position after the retirement of former chief Brian Casey. Seven days later, Craig Kosmicki donated $500 to the organization.
Information on COPS PAC is publicly available on the Oregon Secretary of State's website at secure.sos.state.or.us/orestar/sooDetail.do?sooRsn=90328. The upcoming election is on May 18, with more information at co.yamhill.or.us/content/current-year-elections.
Dems may also be involved in races
The possible outside political influence doesn't appear to be limited to those tilted toward the GOP, though.
Two of the trio's opponents in the school board race, Peña and Harden, are "working together as an unofficial bloc, united around the equity/racism theme," Mock said. "They are each supported by political activist networks extending throughout Oregon and beyond. I haven't seen any reference to the Democratic party, but it's all consistent with the DNC's non-(Bernie) Sanders left wing. This is also a potential prospect development move for that wing of the Dems."
Mock doesn't belong to either the Democratic or Republican party and said he deliberately avoids both blocs for a number of reasons.
"I don't want our nonpartisan local governments to be riven by the same toxic polarization we see nationally," he said. "For schools, this would leave them buffeted by the winds of national issues that have little to do with the quality of our schools. The work is hard enough when the issues are entirely local. If school board elections are driven by national partisan concerns, the idea of local control of our schools takes a serious blow. Parental appeals for this or that may fall on deaf ears if the board member sees herself as part of a national team with other priorities."
Has political gamesmanship claimed its first victim?
Mock characterized Woodruff as a casualty of the political wrangling that has already begun in the school board race.
"He did an outstanding job chairing the board through the 2017-19 period, which was so tumultuous," Mock said. "But when Tai Harden entered the race in his zone, it created the possibility that he and Tai would split their vote, paving the path for Renee Powell to win. Woodruff withdrew from the race – reluctantly and painfully. … He won't say more than he was pressured publicly and privately to withdraw."
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