Keven Ellis could barely believe it.
When a reporter called him Tuesday night for comment on his unexpected Republican runoff victory over State Board of Education hopeful Mary Lou Bruner, the 45-year-old Lufkin school board president asked whether it was true.
The race wasn’t even close — and it hadn’t been all night.
"I didn't want to be the one to call it,” said the chiropractor and father of three, who declined to criticize Bruner, an East Texas Tea Party activist and retired schoolteacher who drew national attention for bizarre and bigoted social media posts.
Many assumed the soft-spoken Ellis was destined for runoff defeat against Bruner, a favorite of the far right who nearly won the March GOP primary for the Northeast Texas district outright despite extensive media attention to her objectionable Facebook posts. One suggested that President Obama was once a gay prostitute to fund a drug habit, another that the Democratic Party had killed John F. Kennedy. She stood by the posts throughout the campaign.
Bruner's favor waned in recent weeks, however, culminating in an influential Tea Party group pulling its endorsement of her a week before the election over inaccurate statements she made to a group of stunned East Texas superintendents. Among those false statements: that nearly half of all public school students were enrolled in special education.
Ellis readily attributes his victory to a late-in-coming realization by voters of what Bruner stood for. Many campaign observers feared a return to tumult on the 15-member board, which has calmed down somewhat after years of raucous quarrels over how and whether to teach Texas schoolchildren about evolution, Islam and climate change.
“I will take responsibility for not getting my message out to them for the March 1 primary, but with this extra time we were able to get our message out and the voters did their homework and came through,” Ellis said.
The end result: Ellis beat Bruner by more than 18 percentage points in the 31-county district, even prevailing in Bruner’s home county.
Bruner, a 69-year-old from Mineola who worked for more than three decades in East Texas schools as a teacher, counselor and diagnostician, has not responded to phone calls seeking comment. In a Facebook post Wednesday, she tied the outcome of the race to “the Establishment’s struggle to remain in complete control.”
That "is what we are dealing with throughout all levels of government,” she wrote. “I entered the SBOE race to shine a light on some things that need to change in our public schools. Cock-roaches and politicians do not like their evil and deceptive actions exposed to the light."
She conceded to Ellis in an earlier Facebook post that thanked "all of the faithful volunteers and friends who supported my candidacy and shared my dream of Texas schools returning to the traditional knowledge and skills that made the USA the leader of the world."
In appearances with Bruner at campaign events, Ellis patiently refuted her inaccuracies and gently urged voters not to buy into her fear-inducing message, coming across as more timid than enraged.
He did express frustration during the race over being labeled the establishment candidate, contending that his endorsements by more moderate Republicans — including outgoing House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen — were more about the “clear choice” in front of them than his actual views, which he described as very conservative.
Bruner had been involved in local politics for years, he pointed out, while he was a relative newbie, getting elected to the Lufkin school board in 2012. His previous leadership experience included several non-elected positions: president of the Lufkin Host Lions Club, the Angelina County Benefit Rodeo and of Z&OO Railroad, and chairman of both the Small Business Council for the Angelina County Chamber of Commerce and the Eastview United Pentecostal Church’s building committee.
Ellis and his wife met at church in Houston, and decided to relocate to Lufkin — her hometown — when they realized they didn’t want to raise their children in a big city. Born in Houston, Ellis attended high school and a few years of college in Washington State before moving back home for chiropractic school.
Ellis first became interested in public education policymaking about a decade ago, when he served on a task force that evaluated the needs of the local school district. He decided to run for the state education board when he found out that incumbent Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, wasn't seeking re-election.
Ellis' campaign has centered around the importance of local control in public education, reforming high-stakes testing and narrowing the statewide curriculum to ease the burden on teachers and students.
“I am your champion for public education,” his campaign website declares. “We must prepare our children for a world that is rapidly changing. Everything we do must be focused on the parents, the teachers and the children in our district.”
Ellis' runoff victory virtually ensures his election to the education board — District 9 is a Republican stronghold. He will face Democrat Amanda Rudolph, a secondary education professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, in November.
Ellis doesn't see himself as a shoo-in.
“I think before we get ahead of ourselves, we do have the general election to get through,” Ellis said. “What I look forward to is to continue to get out there and meet with voters and meet with educators and meet with constituents here and make sure that their viewpoints are known."