AISD Run-off Running Downhill Fast
On the campaign trail
The run-off race between Democrat Tamala Barksdale and Republican Julie Cowan to fill the Austin Independent School District board's at-large Place 9 seat comes to an end Saturday, June 12. Yet a race that is officially districtwide and nonpartisan has become riddled with accusations of localized voting blocs and party politics.
The race's vitriolic nature became clear during the June 2 broadcast of A Neighborly Conversation on KOOP 91.7FM, when Cowan accused the Chronicle, the Austin-American Statesman (which endorsed George W. Bush for president), and teacher and staff union Education Austin of endorsing Barksdale because she's a Democrat. She blamed "people who are working for [Barksdale] and their connection with the city government," and in mail pieces she has attacked her opponent for her connection to "Austin politicians who want to maintain the status quo."
Barksdale has picked up every major media and political endorsement, including Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, plus the backing of the three challengers who failed to get through to the second round of the election and outgoing Place 9 incumbent Karen Dulaney Smith. As a director of marketing for EnviroMedia Social Marketing, Barksdale works with school districts around the state, and she worked with AISD on the Austin Ad Fed Shadow Day mentoring initiative.
Cowan, on the other hand, has served as PTA president at Doss Elementary and Murchison Middle schools, PTSA president at Anderson High, and as a member of several districtwide committees. Both candidates have publicly supported balancing neighborhood schools with magnet academies while opposing school vouchers or using public money for charter schools. However, Cowan has said she is more open to discussion of controversial issues like organized prayer in school, intelligent design, and historic property-tax exemptions. While her experience with district politics and policy-building is greater than Barksdale's, these positions, combined with a record of voting in GOP primaries, have led to Cowan being portrayed as too closely connected with the wealthier and more conservative elements of West Austin's population.
The two candidates do agree that many groups in Austin believe their voices are ignored by the district – although they may differ on precisely which groups. During the KOOP broadcast, Barksdale said, "There are some people who prey on identity politics or the politics of different parts of town to achieve some political goal." After the interview, she said she was "very sad to see that's how [Cowan] has gone, by taking a slam at me and city leaders." By contrast, she said, "I'm very proud that, in my campaign, I haven't taken a negative approach."
However, Barksdale supporters have been circulating e-mails from certain Cowan supporters casting her as an advocate specifically for schools in affluent areas. The e-mails read, "Our schools don't get much attention – or money – as the current board's focus is on the low/under-performing schools." The Democratic blog Burnt Orange Report headlined the e-mails as, "Julie Cowan Supporters Aim for Class Warfare in AISD Runoff." Distancing herself from this strategy of highlighting what Cowan's "supporters said or [her] paid person said," Barksdale said she was concentrating on Cowan's public statements and that she was "embarrassed for [Cowan] that a supporter of hers was touting her candidacy that way." As for the unsanctioned campaigning undertaken by supporters in both camps, she said, "You can't help what your supporters do." Still, Barksdale herself has distributed the controversial e-mails to her supporters. On June 3 – two days before the posting at Burnt Orange Report – she forwarded them to a small number of activists, with the subject line, "Is this outreach?" In her introduction, she wrote, "The tone of these e-mails sent out by Julie's friend/supports is very much – me/mine/ours/us-them – a class warfare sort of thing."
The background has put some progressives in the uncomfortable position of supporting Barksdale's candidacy while regretting the negative campaigning. Mark Yznaga, who served with Cowan on the 2008 Bond Advisory Committee, supports Barksdale in the run-off and was one of the recipients of the June 3 e-mail. He criticized Cowan for not distancing herself from the campaigning on her behalf by conservative supporters and home-schooling advocates but called the class warfare rhetoric "really bizarre." However, he said he understood why the race had become so heated: After eight days of early voting, turnout stood at 0.96%, meaning the tiniest twitch in the race can have a massive impact on the result. He added, "With the turnout what it is, virtually anything can happen."