Can these Dems break the loony bloc?

Lorenzo Sadun and Judy Jennings
Lorenzo Sadun and Judy Jennings (Photo by Lee Nichols)

Bill Maher only meant it as a joke: "[Gov. Rick Perry] appointed a creationist to head the Texas State Board of Education, which is shocking – Texas has a board of education?"

Sadly, however, the host of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher could easily have been quoting many actual Texans, who are unaware that yes, Texas has a State Board of Education – and an elected one, to boot. The religious right has used the SBOE's low profile to run stealth candidates over the past several years, banking on the assumption that moderate Republicans would vote a straight ticket without realizing just whom they were choosing for the board. The result has been a seven-strong religious-right bloc on the 15-member board, which has semisuccessfully fought to push creationism in science classrooms and is now pushing a similar agenda in social studies curricula.

Last week, two Austin Democrats – former Texas Education Agency employee Judy Jen­nings and UT math professor Lorenzo Sadun – detailed how they plan to take out one of that bloc: District 10's Cynthia Dunbar of Richmond. (Another Austinite, Democratic activist Susan Shelton, told the Chronicle in January that she "definitely" planned to run, but has since backed out.)

At the monthly Central Texas Democratic Forum, moderator Chuck Herring set the tone by reciting numerous quotations from Dunbar's recent book, One Nation Under God, which includes such gems as describing the public education system as a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion." (Despite the SBOE's mission of setting policy for public schools, Dunbar home-schools her own kids.) She also wrote an editorial warning of martial law under Obama.

District 10 includes northern Travis County, but rural and suburban Houston voters outnumber liberal Austinites, presenting a challenge for Dems: "If it's an active race where we can show it's a choice between a very viable Democrat – and I consider both Judy and me to be viable Democrats – against a total loony, a lot of moderate Republicans and independents are going to say, 'Dunbar doesn't represent me,'" said Sadun.

"We have to have the funds and the exposure to target those people who may be devout religious believers, but who believe that that's a personal matter and that education should be politics-free," said Jennings.

When Woodie Jones, chief justice of Texas' 3rd Court of Appeals, asked if the candidates were prepared to run a negative campaign to draw attention to Dunbar, Sadun replied: "Absolutely. You have to." He then clarified: "It's not personal. I'm not going to attack her over the details of her divorce. But her views are fair game. ... The fact that we have an atrocious incumbent is three-quarters of the race." Added Jennings, "With somebody like Cynthia Dunbar, you don't have to make anything up."

Voters wanting to learn more about the race and candidates can attend a forum on Saturday, Oct. 3, 11:45am-1:15pm at Yarborough Branch Library, 2200 Hancock. Organ­izer John Keohane says Jennings and Sadun will attend; Dunbar has been invited but has not yet committed, and a Republican challenger, Rebecca Osborne, has declined to attend but may send a representative.

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State Board of Education, Judy Jennings, Lorenzo Sadun, Cynthia Dunbar, elections

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