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Elections

Parents rights candidates showing strong in Harford school board races

With the first-day’s tally of mail-in ballots Thursday, candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty, a national conservative political action group focused on parental rights in schools, are in the lead for two of the six seats up for grabs on the Harford Board of Education.

Previous early voting and Election Day totals had four of the conservative group’s candidates in the lead, but mail-in ballots, which tend to trend Democratic, flipped the lead in districts B and E.

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“There are thousands of mail-in and provisional ballots yet to be counted,” said Zack Frink, communications director of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee. “The committee is waiting until all ballots are counted until taking a course of action.”

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Moms For Liberty was founded in January 2021 by two Republican women in Florida who previously served on their local school boards. The organization now has more than 70,000 members in 33 states, including a chapter in Harford County. Its members claim they will organize, educate and empower parents to defend their parental rights, and they have focused on putting like-minded candidates on local school boards where its 165 chapters are.

The group, powered by supporters such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has called for book bans, classroom censorship and bans on teaching about slavery, race, racism and gender identity, according to several civil rights organizations including GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the NAACP. Their members have been vocal at school board meetings across the country, including Harford County.

“All endorsed Moms of Liberty candidates have the goal of putting students first and listening to parents’ concerns while protecting the fundamental rights of parents when it comes to the education and upbringing of their children,” Tina Descovich, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said in a phone interview on Thursday.

“Our moms advocate for age-appropriate material and to get pornographic or obscene material out of school libraries,” Desovich said. “We are not against any book being on Amazon or the bookstore or even a public library. But, [in] a public school library, a lot of [Moms for Liberty] chapters have had concerns about specific books that are obscene or pornographic.”

Desovich said the candidates they endorse must fill out a questionnaire to make sure the candidates espouse the same values. They use a standard questionnaire for all chapters, but each chapter can add questions based on local issues, she said.

“We want to know that they understand where their rights come from, and the government doesn’t give you or take away your rights,” Desovich said. “We want them to commit to understanding that parental rights are fundamental and to prioritize that over demands of teachers unions and school districts.

Civl rights and gender-equity groups, however, say Moms for Liberty’s framing of parental rights is a thinly veiled disguise for racism and gender bias.

“The doctrine of parental rights as this group espouses them is just dressed-up bigotry,” said Vicki Jones, president of the NAACP of Harford County. “It is sad that so many people in our county decided to support this regressive viewpoint, and we can only hope that they did not in fact research the reality of what the group and its candidates stand for. Our children all deserve an equal opportunity to be supported in an educational system that helps them to thrive; one based on sound educational principles, not personal beliefs.”

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Moms for Liberty claims to be a grassroots organization, but its founders and founding chapter have strong ties to high-ranking elected officials, think tanks and national anti-LGBTQ groups including the Heritage Foundation, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Here is a quick breakdown of the races that are close as of Thursday:

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Wade Sewell has now taken a slim lead over Dennis Barry, who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty, in the District B race. With the first day of canvassing concluded, Sewell has 6,266 votes to Barry’s 6,130 votes.

Carol Bruce has pulled into the lead in District E with 5,696 votes. Tanya Tyo, who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty and was leading before Thursday’s count, now has 5,503 votes.

Carol Mueller is in the lead to keep her District C seat, with 7,367 votes. Kayla Mariskanish, who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty, trails with 6,410 votes.

Diane Alvarez, who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty, is in the lead to represent District F with 6,482 votes. Sharon Jacobs is close behind with 5,670 votes.

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The other two school board races have a large margin between the leader and runner up.

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Denise Perry is in the lead to represent District A on the Board of Education with 5,839 votes. Stephen Puopolo is behind with 3,040 votes.

Melissa Hahn, who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty, is in the lead to represent District D with 11,043 votes. Ariane Kelly, who was running to retain her seat on the board, is far behind with 4,436 votes.

“The NAACP and all of the county will remain vigilant in monitoring the course the Board of Education takes, and will continue to educate the county on the function and impact the board has on our children’s education,” Jones said. “Moms for Liberty won their seats by fear mongering and intimidation that they demonstrated at board meetings all year long. Now it’s time to see how, and what, they deliver for Harford County families.”

Although some residents are concerned about a takeover by the conservative group, Harford County Public Schools will be welcoming whoever is chosen as a board member with open arms, school officials said.

“While we wait for final election results, Harford County Public Schools looks forward to welcoming and supporting all new board members,” said Jillian Lader, HCPS manager of communications. “The process to familiarize board members with board policies, [Maryland State Department of Education] guiding principles, legislative rulings, and instructional and operational practices in HCPS takes time and we look forward to working with each board member during this process.”


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