The most prominent symbol of Christian conservative power on the State Board of Education, former chair Don McLeroy, lost his seat Tuesday by a razor-thin margin, and with the loss, the board likely won't be quite as much of a Christian Conservative flash point any more.
What it will be, however, is anybody’s guess.
In addition to McLeroy’s defeat, longtime member Geraldine “Tincy” Miller was defeated by a political unknown in a race almost no one had been watching.
The board's balance of power is delicate. Though it’s had ten Republicans and five Democrats serving, seven socially conservative Republicans formed a reliable voting bloc that, with the swing vote of Democratic member Rick Agosto, gave them the power to advance a socially conservative agenda.
That’s over now. Agosto did not seek re-election, and his probable replacement, Democrat Michael Soto, originally set out to challenge him and isn't likely to take the same positions Agosto took. (Republican Tony Cunningham will run against Soto in the general election, but Cunningham hasn’t filed an campaign finance report since 2006, while Soto’s last report showed him raising $14,000.)
Without Agosto, the social conservative bloc needed both McLeroy and Ken Mercer to survive the election in order to maintain its power. Both races featured incumbent social conservatives versus more mainstream Republicans. Both were expected to be close. One was, one wasn’t.
McLeroy lost by just over one thousand votes against Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist who also happens to be the son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff. McLeroy led the board in rewriting English and Science standards, and he and his allies clashed with teacher’s groups and mainstream education experts. Ratliff campaigned on a platform of de-politicizing the board, and moving away from the contentious social debates.
While Ratliff led in fundraising through most of the race, McLeroy had a narrow lead as of the last pre-election reports. He pulled further ahead with a last-minute $5,000 check from homebuilder Bob Perry, a major donor to Republicans. But Ratliff still squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote — and without a Democratic opponent, he’s all but done.
In contrast, Mercer’s race turned out not to be much of a race at all. The incumbent breezed by with 69 percent of the vote. Challenger Tim Tuggey garnered the support from heavy hitters in San Antonio’s Republican community, including automobile magnate Red McCombs and H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt. Mercer now faces Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau in the general election.
The surprise of the night came in North Texas, where veteran incumbent Miller, who has served on the board since 1984, lost to challenger George Clayton, an educator with an unorthodox platform. Clayton only spent $1,788 on the race compared to Miller’s $54,685.
The SBOE that takes office next year will be very different from the current panel. The social conservatives lost both their public face in McLeroy and their swing vote in Agosto. Conservative bloc member Cynthia Dunbar did not seek re-election, and the Republican primary in her district will go to a run-off between her preferred successor, Bryan Russell, and Marsha Farney, who ended the first round in a virtual tie.
What Clayton’s addition will mean for the board isn’t clear. His platform, according to his website, argues for ending “all punitive measures against teachers resulting from poor student performance on all district and state mandated tests” and for requiring that all curriculum proposals “be approved by a general vote of teachers in a district.”
As for his views on social issues, the traditional flashpoint for the state board, the best clues come from his interview with the Dallas Observer, in which Clayton said: "It's seems to me you can't be taught the one [evolution] without the other [creationism]. It's an impossibility to talk about evolution without mentioning creationism."