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Candidate Tai Harden alleges racism by S.O.S. campaign; rumor-mongering and conflict unfold on social media

COURTESY PHOTO: SAVE OUR SCHOOLS - Signs erected by the Save Our Schools candidates were intentionally damaged last week in Newberg.

Ballots have arrived for Newberg voters as the May 18 election approaches, with the future of local school and park boards in the balance. A concerted effort by a conservative-backed political action committee — COPS PAC — to influence both nonpartisan elections has taken the form of signage throughout town and social media campaigns.

Now, a conflict has broken out between the COPS PAC's Save Our Schools campaign and their more progressive opponents in the school board races: Tai Harden and Ines Peña.

The S.O.S. campaign's preferred candidates include Trevor DeHart in Zone 1, John Read in Zone 4 and Renee Powell in Zone 5. Powell's opponent, Harden, is alleging racism on the part of the S.O.S. campaign and its supporters after her campaign signs were vandalized and replaced with Powell's signs.

A community member and supporter of Harden's volunteered to put campaign signs up throughout town in late April, and Harden says she asked permission of the property owners before erecting the signs. The property owner specifically asked Harden's campaign to remove the S.O.S. signs when she installed hers, she said, because the S.O.S. campaign allegedly did not have initial permission.COURTESY PHOTO: TAI HARDEN - Some of Tai Harden's campaign signs were removed or hidden from public view in the ramp up to the May 18 election.

The removal of the S.O.S. signs caused a firestorm on social media, where community member Rebecca Wallis — a self-described supporter of the S.O.S. candidates — accused Harden of committing theft and said the candidates should press charges. While Wallis didn't provide evidence of a crime having been committed, Harden didn't take the allegations — which she called "slander" — lightly.

"One, no crime has been committed," Harden said. "Two, you know exactly where your signs are, because I told you who went there and why they were there. Because we had been told to remove them by the property owners when we put ours up. So, to go out and start this smear campaign and allege that I'm a criminal, or that I should be prosecuted, is just ridiculous. It is rooted in racism and the stereotype that Black people are criminals."

Wallis said her criticism of Harden is "not a racial issue." But soon after the initial sign debacle, someone deliberately damaged and removed Harden's signs and either tossed them aside or placed signs for Renee Powell directly in front of hers. Powell claims it had nothing to do with her or her campaign, but only the S.O.S. campaign and its volunteers have access to the signs they paid for, unless an individual picked up a sign from one area of town and moved it elsewhere without the campaign's knowledge.

The seemingly never-ending drama with campaign signs didn't stop there, as the next day someone destroyed a handful of S.O.S. signs, along with signs purchased by the COPS PAC for their preferred candidates in park board races, near the Newberg Fred Meyer store. S.O.S. is alleging that Harden and her supporters were to blame for the destruction, a claim she denied.

"It's time for us to stay focused on our goals and not get distracted by this," Harden said. "I don't know who damaged the S.O.S. signs, but I know I didn't do it and I never told anybody to do something like that. To be honest, I wouldn't put it past (S.O.S.) or their supporters to damage their own signs to make themselves look like the victim, after what happened to me. It is a tactic that's been used time and again to shift the attention away from the real problems of racism, the idea that the perpetrators of racism are the real victims in these situations. And we know that's just not true."

Powell did not reply to repeated requests for comment on the various incidents, but she did post on social media some of her first public statements of the race so far.

"I've been attacked as well and our signs have been taken too," she wrote. "Let me be clear that neither my fellow candidates, nor myself are involved in these actions, and we do not condone them."

Powell went on to say that she has a diverse family that includes a sister who is Black, and that her family "only sees one race, the human race!"

From Harden's perspective, the intent of the S.O.S. initiative and what's been done to her signs is clear.

"I don't know Renee Powell, but her statement harkens back to the old saying, 'I can't be racist because there are Black people in my family.'" Harden said. "And the thing is, I never even accused Renee herself of being racist! The actions that were taken, specifically by Becky Wallis but also the people who tossed aside or covered up my signs, were racist. The allegations of criminality were rooted in racism. The call to vote for 'patriots' is rooted in racism, especially considering both my father and brother served in the U.S. Army, and yet nobody on their side cares to know that.

"The idea that our schools need 'saving' from people of color, specifically women of color, is rooted in racism. 'Save Our Schools' means there is some threat afoot, right? You are already positioning it as if I am a threat that needs to be neutralized. How scary is that for me and for Ines (Peña)? This is supposed to be a nonpartisan race, about doing what is best for our children and families no matter their background. But instead it has become this ugly situation where they've framed it as 'us versus them.'"

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