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How a local school board race is becoming a statewide education affair

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Local school board races rarely get much media coverage beyond a handful of newspaper articles and maybe a shared story on the local television news.

But now, a brewing intra-party fight and the messy, high stakes struggle over the state’s most troubled school system is threatening to turn one Montgomery school board contest into one of the state’s most watched races this cycle.

Running for Montgomery Board of Education District 2 in the Republican Primary are retired Air Force Col. Ted Lowry and longtime education commentator Larry Lee.

Lowry has never run for office before, though one of his sons is a political operative on Capitol Hill. He said he feels compelled as a longtime Montgomery resident to step up to help fix the myriad problems at Montgomery Public Schools.

Lee is well-known in the political arena and throughout the education community for his regular columns about the school funding and governance issues. He has run for office several times before – three times for Congress and once for State Senate – and each time as a Democrat.

Lee’s decision to now run as a Republican has drawn the ire of some party faithful.

Former State Rep. Perry Hooper, Jr., who most recently chaired the Trump campaign in Alabama, has written Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Latham and the Executive Committee drawing their attention to Lee’s Democratic past. In an exhaustive memo first reported by YellowHammer News, Hooper points to Lee’s previous runs for office, campaign contributions and writings against conservative positions as evidence that he is not a true Republican.

However, perhaps most damning from a party perspective is Hooper’s revelation that Lee voted in the Democratic primary during last year’s special election for the U.S. Senate. For a Republican, that would be odd to say the least.

“I would submit to you that if he voted in the Democratic Primary for this race, he may have never voted in a Republican primary,” Hooper wrote.

Hooper is now officially appealing the local Montgomery County GOP’s decision to allow Lee on the ballot.

Lee declined to say whether he has voted in a Republican primary before. He did say he remembered supporting Hooper’s father, Perry Hooper, Sr., when he ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in 1968. He also generally defended his party affiliation change by saying many Alabama Democrats have switched parties over the years, specifically pointing to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby and State Sen. Gerald Dial.

It’s true that many Alabama politicians traded in their Democrat labels for Republican ones, mostly during the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s. But 2017? And after the primary?

The ALGOP will ultimately decide the ballot access question internally later this month. But Hooper also plans to make an issue of Lee’s relationship with and work for the Alabama Education Association, or AEA.

AEA is the state’s teachers and school workers union that was the dominating force in Alabama politics for decades. The organization has been somewhat withdrawn politically in recent years, focusing more on policy issues and professional development.

The stigma of being associated with AEA isn’t what it used to be in Republican politics. In fact, many Republican candidates for the state legislature have accepted donations from AEA’s PAC this cycle, according to campaign finance reports.

However, AEA recently re-entered the fray in a big way by suing to block the state’s intervention and turnaround plans for Montgomery Public Schools. When announcing that as many as 200 teachers and 400 support staff will be laid off due to a lack of resources, Interim State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson put the blame squarely on AEA and its “delaying tactics” blocking the turnaround plan. The organization is also suing to block the opening of Montgomery’s first public charter school.

AEA leadership says they are doing right by their membership and students, and that the political risks of getting so publicly involved in the Montgomery mess come secondary to the organization’s mission.

“AEA doesn’t make decisions based on the ebb and flow of politics,” President Sherry Tucker said. “We have to do what’s right for educators and the students they serve. If we do that, the politics will take care of itself  – there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing.”

Still, asserting itself to block the Montgomery intervention is probably AEA’s most overt political overture in years, and it comes with political risks for the organization and for Lee.

Lee has done contract work for AEA in the past. Hooper says Lee “parrots AEA policy positions” in his weekly columns.

That might not have mattered as much while AEA was politically dormant, but it could now that the group has reemerged right in the middle of the Montgomery Public Schools mess. And observers far beyond Montgomery will be watching to see how Republican voters respond to a candidate with a Democratic history and ties to the teachers’ union.

Lee said the political infighting is a “sideshow” that distracts from the goal of helping schools.

“I will be glad to put my track record of working for better schools in Alabama up against any other candidate running for the school board,” Lee said. “And after all, I thought that is what running for a school board seat is all about–not some political sideshow.”

For his part, Lowry is loathe to get involved in the political spat. He had no comment on his opponent’s party affiliation over the years other than to say he has been voting Republican since 1968.

“In the Air Force, I specialized in fixing broken systems. That’s what we have here, a broken system. We can fix it, but it will take following a plan. That’s what I’m offering: a plan to fix the system and the expertise and experience to implement it.”

The election will take place on June 5.

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