Monday, June 19, 2006

Candidate forum in Iola

Reader Joe Myers passes on his impressions from the Board of Ed forum in Iola last Saturday. For what it's worth, I've met Kent Runyan a couple times, and he's definitely a great guy with the perfect background for the job. I haven't had as much time to talk with Jana Shaver, but I hear good things about her across the board.

Here's what Mr. Myers says:

I grew up here, but I've been away from Southeast Kansas for many years. I don't know how gatherings like Saturday morning's candidates' forum usually draw, but perhaps 75 people showed up at Iola's Greenery Restaurant to hear 3 out of 4 candidates for the 9th district legislative seat and the three candidates for the District Nine position on the Kansas BOE. I'll address the legislative candidates in another post. Here, I'll address the three BOE candidates.

Republicans Jana Shaver, Independence, and M. Brad Patzer, Neodesha, and Democrat Charles (Kent) Runyan, Pittsburg, are is seeking the State BOE seat being vacated by Iris Van Meter of Thayer.

Patzer is Van Meter's son-in-law, though he steadfastly ran away from that connection before this secular audience. (I'd love to see how he presents his message before, say, an Assembly of God audience.) Brad looked like a bobble-head doll as the two other candidates were speaking on issues of separation of church and state and other "hot-button" issues that have dragged the Kansas BOE into the 13th Century, and when it was his turn to speak the well-crafted Right-Wing Christianist code words were in play.

There were plenty of current and retired educators in the Iola audience. Patzer obviously was on the defensive. He read the science standards as passed by the Kansas BOE. Clearly on the defensive, Patzer read the Kansas BoE's "science guidelines," each time claiming the new standards merely "inclusive," permitting the teaching of evolution.and alternatives. One member in the audience said, "but that's not 'science.'" Another opined that there might be many more dimensions in reality besides the four we perceive, and that spirituality might be one of those dimensions. Pretty esoteric stuff for small town Kansas on a Saturday morning over coffee. Patzer generally blamed "the media" for misconstruing the Board's intent. He mentioned that he'd recently talked to "a board member" (his mother in-law, no doubt) who assured him as much.

The other Republican candidate, Jana Shaver stressed her experience as a former teacher and her current role on the Independence Community College Board of Trustees. She's articulate and thoughtful and would serve the State BofE responsibly, I believe.

But clearly, the class act in this forum is the Democrat Kent Runyan. A professor at Pittsburg State, his presentation demonstrated his years of experience in public education. He stressed his years of supervising student teachers throughout the district; that he knows the individual districts and their issues. He said "No Child Left Behind" has resulted in testing kids on their ability to fill out little ovals on standardized tests, which has no relevance to one's ability to think through problems and work for a solution. (My words, not his, but that's the gist.)

The audience generally tried to divert the discussion away from "Hot Button Issues," but that seemed to work in some degree to the advantage of Patzer, which bothers me.

Runyan is personable – stories of how he "loved school so much he took 3rd Grade twice," and how, when his teenager left for college they found a sheet of paper in the kid's desk with 100 attempts to forge Runyan's signature ("I wonder how many things 'I' approved over the years…" An anecdote that worked into the Opt-In, Opt out discussion on Sex Education) - but when I talked to some of the audience after the forum I got the feeling of resentment that Runyan was the Smartest Guy in the Room.

This is Allen County, where Democrats aren't necessarily vilified, but they're certainly considered an oddity. One guy I talked with afterwards said he was impressed by Runyan but he thought, perhaps, Shaver might be better qualified to work for a consensus on the BofE; that Runyan might off-put conservatives who are likely to comprise a significant portion of the Board.

The late Steve Allen used to talk about "Dumbth." It's not ignorance, per se, or stupidity exactly. It's "Dumbth." Dumbth is what leads people to believe that Sex Education that only mentions abstinence might prevent teenage sex; that if they don't hear about it in the classroom, no kid will notice the girl in the third row in History class is hot. Dumbth makes Patzer's secular message almost seem to make a modicum of sense. (He says, "it's the primary purpose of schools to support parents; to teach kids to be good. Good spouses, good parents, good workers, and good citizens.")

Damn, that's good propaganda.

But what, exactly, is "good"?

Therein, I fear, is the undercurrent of a highly-sophisticated, carefully-refined stealth campaign by Right-Wing Evangelicals.

These people are pretty sophisticated liars.

On one level, you can't argue with a BofE candidate who says he wants "to support parents," but, as a tax-paying non-parent, I've got a dog in this fight, too. I want schools to produce doctors who believe in science, not miracles. I want employees who can do the math. I want someone who might struggle to get through high school who might still be able to change my bed pan some day. I have an interest in the education of today's kids, even if they're *not* my own.

Patzer, by softening and refining the so-called "values" issues into vague platitudes, survives secular forums like this by bobbing his head when other candidates make sense and skipping past the meat-and-potatoes reality of what the Kansas State Board of Education has been doing over the past decade or so.

In many respects, Jana Shaver reminded me of former-Senator Nancy Kassebaum; a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who recognizes that party doctrine doesn't always reflect truth and compromise and agreement might direct public policy in a way that might ultimately benefit the population as a whole. Can such a candidate survive a Republican primary in Kansas these days? I have my doubts.

If I were a betting man, I'd predict the General Election will pit Patzer against Runyan., given conventional wisdom as to who votes in Republican primaries these days.

If anyone has a video camera, take it to future candidate forums.

I'll bet all the coins and chalk in my pocket that Patzer has a profoundly different message when he's talking to Evangelical Right-Wing Republicans than what he says in front of an audience such as the one he stood before today.

I suspect this strategy is at work in other races and issues.

In front of friendly audiences candidates such as Patzer will demagogue wedge issues. In front of neutral audiences, they'll speak in carefully-crafted platitudes that sound good on the surface and pander to superficial prejudices.