Final-hour union-backed Denver school board mailers evoke Trump, DeVos, and teacher strike

In the final days before Denver’s high-stakes school board election, a union-backed political committee has unleashed negative campaign mailers leveraging pro-teacher sentiment from this year’s strike and linking an opponent to President Trump and his education secretary. 

The mail pieces are the latest from Students Deserve Better, an independent expenditure committee funded by the Denver and Colorado teachers unions. These mailers repeat claims about charter schools, Republican donors, and school closure that have appeared in previous attack ads from the union-backed committee. Some of these claims are accurate, while others mischaracterize the candidates’ positions and Chalkbeat reporting.  

Even in the social media age, campaign mailers remain a favored strategy for grabbing voters’ attention in what are generally low-turnout off-year elections. This is the latest in a series of Chalkbeat stories examining what’s landing in voter mailboxes before Tuesday’s election. 

The Denver school board election is a big money affair. More than $1.5 million had been spent in the Denver school board election as of late October, with the majority of that money coming from independent committees. Groups associated with education reform have spent more than $770,000 to date, while groups affiliated with the teachers union have spent almost $400,000. 

Most of the mailers from pro-reform groups have been positive, touting the candidates they have endorsed — Alexis Menocal Harrigan, Diana Romero Campbell, and Tony Curcio. But not all of them. According to last-minute campaign finance filings, at least one more negative mailer is coming from this side before the Nov. 5 election.

While the strike is providing new campaign fodder this year, Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are making return appearances in union-funded mailers. 

Pictures of the two Republicans — easy targets in heavily Democratic Denver — appeared two years ago in a mailer alongside one of candidate Angela Cobián. Cobián, who is Latina, denounced it as “baseless and cruel assault” on a young woman of color. She won the election.

We’ve seen only one mailer so far this year evoking DeVos and Trump: a Students Deserve Better mailer this week juxtaposing a photo of DeVos with one of Curcio, a parent running to represent northwest Denver. He has the endorsement of outgoing incumbent Lisa Flores. 

According to available campaign finance filings, the union-affiliated committee does not appear to be planning similar mailers linking Menocal Harrigan and Romero Campbell specifically to DeVos or Trump — though other mailers, including one featuring a prominent elephant, have attacked the candidates for receiving money from Republican donors.

The mailer targeting Curcio claims he wants to bring Trump, DeVos, and Republican ideas to Denver schools — sounding many of the themes from other union-backed mailers about Republican donations and the strike’s circumstances, and citing Curcio’s support for charter schools.

Curcio on Saturday told Chalkbeat he expected to be linked to DeVos at some point, calling it consistent with what he described as irresponsible tactics from the union-funded committee.

“I was endorsed by Obama’s former education secretary Arne Duncan, not anyone in the Trump administration,” Curcio said. “I can’t wait till Betsy DeVos is gone. I am super-excited for 2020 when we have a new president who is going to get rid of Betsy DeVos and who can put someone else, someone with actual experience in a classroom.” 

Curcio said that he does not support private school vouchers or for-profit charter schools — in contrast with DeVos — but does support school choice because the community does.

Union officials have said they do not coordinate with Students Deserve Better. Representatives of Students Deserve Better did not respond to an email Saturday. A teacher representing the committee, Aaron Lowenkron, who teaches math at East High School, has defended previous mailers’ content.

It should come as no surprise that messages framed around February’s three-day teachers strike would surface in the race. “Flip the board” became a rally and picket-line slogan for opponents of the brand of education reform that has won Denver national attention.

Strike-themed mailers from union-backed candidates have struck positive notes, with endorsements and photos featuring teachers clad in red T-shirts familiar from the strike.

Campaign mailer from Students Deserve Better, a union-funded independent expenditure committee.

The mailers from Students Deserve Better — which as an independent expenditure committee is barred from coordinating with candidate campaigns — take a different tone: “Can you really tell your kids you voted against their teachers?” reads one side of the mailer over a black-and-white photo from the picket lines. It goes on to say certain candidates are supported by “the same team that caused the teacher strike.”

None of the three candidates targeted by the piece — Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio — are incumbents. All three are supported by some current Denver school board members who were in office at the time of the strike. School board members did not negotiate directly with the teachers union during the strike.

One notable detail in the mailer: It uses Menocal Harrigan and Romero Campbell’s full names. Students Deserve Better faced accusations of racism for a mid-October mailer that omitted their Hispanic surnames. Speaking for the group, Lowenkron apologized soon after and promised that it would not do it again in future yet-to-be-produced mailers.

Another mailer about school closure policy uses stark imagery. It shows a dilapidated school building under an orange-red sky under the call, “Save Our Neighborhood Schools.” It repeats claims that Menocal Harrigan, Romero Campbell, and Curcio “want to close our neighborhood schools.” 

All three have said school closure should be a last resort, and a decision made alongside parents, teachers, and students. That’s in contrast to the teachers union-backed candidates who have said they would not close schools under any circumstances. 

Union-endorsed candidates have not been heavily targeted by negative mailers, but they have not been immune. One, from an independent committee tied to Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group, claims at-large candidate Tay Anderson “led a radical protest where an American flag was torn down and desecrated, then shrugged the incident off on social media.” Anderson was at the protest but not part of the small group that took down the flag. Anderson, who is black, framed the mailer as an attempt to portray him as angry.

And Facebook ads and mailers from a political committee connected to the national education reform group Stand for Children said Anderson blamed Denver students and parents for causing pollution by exercising school choice, a claim he refutes

Campaign finance filings indicate at least one more negative ad, this one targeting Scott Baldermann, the union-endorsed candidate in the District 1 race, is on its way from Students for Education Reform.