I keep wondering, now that we’re past the two-year anniversary: Is America finally learning to live with COVID-19? Or perhaps more importantly, should we be? The majority of folks seem to have chucked the mask for good (not me, not in stores, FWIW) and decided the pandemic that’s killed nearly 1 million Americans is now just a benign cousin of the flu. I have no idea how this plays out. Do you?
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How young parents and teachers beat back the anti-CRT, anti-mask crowd in NH
If you follow American politics closely, then you know that 2022 is the year of the school board election. The plotline goes like this: Parents who are mad about the way schools handled the pandemic and how sensitive topics like race and gender are being taught are rising up in a national backlash, and getting into fights at school board meetings. These conflicts are the warning shots for a Republican landslide in November’s midterm election.
But in the bellwether, purple state of New Hampshire, young parents and educators — predominantly Democratic or left-leaning, albeit in non-partisan elections — grabbed a red pen and rewrote the script. Earlier this month, across rural towns in the shadow of the White Mountains or on the banks of Lake Winnipesaukee, Granite State voters rejected conservative school board candidates in favor of young, generally progressive first-time candidates — many of them parents — who don’t want to shake up the way kids are taught, but just make schools better.
“I was scared because you hear all this talk,” Nicole Hogan — a 38-year-old grad student in clinical medical health and mother of two elementary school kids — told me on Monday night, referring to running for office in such a contentious time. Yet Hogan decided to run for an open school board seat in her town of Gilford, arguing that students need more mental health attention and more parental engagement — but not parental control of the school.
On March 8, Hogan and another first-time candidate trained on running for office by 603 Forward, a group that recruits young New Hampshirites to run for local office, defeated challengers who ran on more conservative, albeit vague, platforms like “back to basics.” She said most voters “want to nurture the public education system. It’s not perfect, and there’s definitely room for improvement — so let’s roll up our sleeves and improve them.”
Hogan’s win wasn’t a fluke. In small-town elections across New Hampshire, almost all of the candidates recruited and backed by progressive or youth-oriented groups to run as “pro-public education” candidates — some 29 out of 30 — won their races. According to local reports, a teacher rode record turnout to oust an incumbent on her political right in Bedford, while newcomers defeated a slate of five conservatives in Exeter. Some said they ran in reaction to the moral panic over racism education or mask mandates.
“It got to a point where I felt like people were afraid to participate and that’s what really struck a nerve with me,” Amanda Butcher told the podcast Pod Save America. Butcher, a veteran educator defeated a candidate who’d opposed the teaching of what conservatives call “critical race theory” in the village of Londonderry.
In many ways, the New Hampshire local elections — two more rounds will take place this spring — are a laboratory for what ideas might succeed in 2022′s vital midterm elections. I’ve argued in this space that the Republican culture wars over the classroom — which in more bright-red states in the Sunbelt have led to measures like book banning or so-called “gag orders” for teachers — are ripe for a counterattack. I’ve maintained that Democrats who’ve struggled to make their traditional economic argument in a time of high inflation ought to pivot and tap into a new silent majority that sees these right-wing attacks as un-American.
In addition to the New Hampshire results, national polling data suggests that today’s politics around schools is a lot more complicated than what you’ve been reading in the media. In a New York Times op-ed headlined, “Who’s Unhappy With The Schools? The Answer Surprised Me,” Jessica Grose writes that parents’ satisfaction with public schools their own children attend has been rising steadily for two decades, according to Gallup, peaking right before the pandemic. What’s also increased, though, is unhappiness over schools from voters who don’t have kids in them.
This contradiction suggests that the revolt over public education — credited last fall with fueling the upset victory of Virginia’s GOP Rep. Glenn Youngkin — is less a reaction to what’s really happening in the classroom and more older voters responding to scare headlines about “critical race theory” that they’ve seen on Fox News. The problem, of course, is that Tucker Carlson’s army of couch potatoes — who aren’t busy raising kids and working two or three jobs to save for college — are more likely to vote in local elections or run for these offices.
Tim Peltier, who led the candidate recruitment effort for 603 Forward, said the group’s goal is to get younger people — broadly defined as under 50 — to run not just for school board positions but also for other critical local posts like supervising elections. “Running for office is not easy to do if you’re a young person raising a family,” Peltier told me — yet the lack of such political voices in one of the nation’s older states has meant that young adults in New Hampshire are struggling with soaring rents, a lack of child care, and high public-college tuition.
If the Democrats are smart (how many times must we ask this?), the party will seize on this news from the nation’s far northeastern corner and rethink their national campaign strategy before it’s too late. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there’s a mass of untapped voters who want to support public education — not tear it down — and are repulsed by measures to ban Toni Morrison novels or gag teachers from discussing civil rights history. The state that once told us to “Live Free or Die” is now telling us there’s a better path forward.
Yo, do this
Sometimes there’s a day or a week when it’s clear the world has fundamentally changed...like 9/11. Other times, you don’t see it until decades later — as was the case with a four-day, 1992 implosion in Brooklyn that’s now reexamined in Pineapple Street Media’s new podcast, Love Thy Neighbor: Four Days in Crown Heights That Changed New York, by journalist Collier Meyerson. He covered the rioting that started with a car crash and largely involved Caribbean-American immigrants and members of Orthodox Jewish sects. The mayhem arguably spelled the end for NYC’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, and ushered in both a police state and a Rudy Giuliani, both of which have nevertheless persisted.
I know that not all 11,000 newsletter subscribers have had either the time or the energy — at least not yet — to read Garrett M. Graff’s fantastic tome, Watergate: A New History, the first book we’re tackling in the new 🎉 Will Bunch Culture Club 🎉. But you can — and should — still sign up to join me and Garrett for our special online event on March 30 at 4:15 p.m. It’ll be a fun conversation about the greatest scandal in American history, and we’ll debate whether Richard Nixon gave us Donald Trump. Join us!
Ask me anything
Question: Who do you think will be the PA Dems candidate for the Senate? And do you think Lamb or Fetterman can get support in Philly? — Via @ConnieFleeger on Twitter
Answer: Connie, you’re one of a number of readers who’s grown very interested in this race in the last few days, with both the spring weather and TV ad spending heating up. I think state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta has run a fantastic statewide campaign and will eventually rise to new heights, but the failed pundit in me is thinking that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is starting to look unbeatable in the May primary. The reason Fetterman is running so many ads is because he’s raised so much money from small donors — which is because the dude is popular. In 2022, a politician’s TV persona trumps (pun intended) their positions or support from decrepit party bosses, which is all that Rep. Conor Lamb really has. Plus, does Lamb seriously think he can compete in the city that twice elected Larry Krasner running as a mini-me version of Joe Manchin? Get real.
Backstory on America shrugging off another bloody weekend
With a brutal war raging in Ukraine, violent drug cartels in Mexico, and general mayhem across Planet Earth, it is — most tragically — not that rare these days to read about a journalist getting shot and killed. But it’s not supposed to happen when that reporter is merely enjoying some late-night pizza at an outdoor restaurant in downtown Norfolk, Va. That’s how Virginian-Pilot education writer Sierra Jenkins, barely 25, died early Saturday — in a hail of bullets fired on a crowded, vibrant street by someone that she never knew. Another completely random man walking out of the restaurant, 25-year-old Devon Harris, was also slain in the crossfire of a gunfight that broke out in the street. Three others were wounded. Jenkins’ killing got some attention — she’d worked with, and captivated, fellow journalists at places like CNN and the Washington Post — yet otherwise the mass shooting might have gone unnoticed in a nation drowning in such incidents.
Before Saturday was over, 10 people had been shot and wounded, one critically, at a spring break party in Dallas. Meanwhile, in the day’s most horrific incident, an annual car show in a small Mississippi River Delta town, Dumas, Ark., that raises money for college scholarships turned bloody when — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — an apparent fight devolved into gunfire. Some 27 people, including small children, were wounded, and one of the victims died. It was the very first day of spring, and across America folks were venturing outside to seize the day. Instead, 42 Americans were struck by bullets in the three incidents. No one, apparently, was arrested. No one seems to know exactly what happened. And, as the national news continued wall-to-wall coverage of a war half a world away, no one really paid much attention. That’s unconscionable. There are now way too many guns in the United States, and whatever social impulse that once existed to not use them over stupid stuff has been erased. Some smart person needs to figure out how to get this vile toothpaste back in the tube if we want to live in a country where people can leave their homes.
Recommended Inquirer reading
With the world focused on Ukraine, I looked at the universal awe over the bravery of Russia’s anti-war protesters — including the state TV employee Marina Ovsyannikova who made it onto live television with her protest banner — and how we’ve ignored the growing movement here in the United States to restrict our own citizens’ rights to demonstrate. My Sunday column looked at the flurry of new laws — especially, but not exclusively, in red states — that would criminalize your ability to speak out against the government.
We can’t ignore the power of the news media to influence the Great American Conversation, especially when that medium is the New York Times. That’s why I felt compelled to respond to the Times’ bizarre, high-profile editorial denouncing so-called “cancel culture” and claiming a fundamental right — not to be “shamed or shunned” — that doesn’t exist. The problem is that the Times is yet again downplaying and arguably aiding the real threats, from governments looking to ban books or what teachers can say.
Remember just last week when I said that the 2022 Phillies would be hard to watch? I’m still mad that the team signed not one but two players with a troubled history with domestic violence, but — if one somehow can come to terms with that — the Phils did address the other dilemma that their lineup appeared to stink. Perhaps aware that fans were about to revolt, owner John Middleton opened his wallet to sign not one but two made-for-Philly, flat-out sluggers in Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. They may or may not win games, but man will this team score a lot of runs. If you want the best Phillies coverage, and you want it every day, there’s only one way to get it. Subscribe to The Inquirer.