GOP-backed candidate for schools chief says she’s a Democrat

February 12, 2021 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A candidate for Wisconsin state superintendent who is backed by Republicans and received a $15,000 donation from a national conservative mega-donor says she’s a Democrat and voted for Joe Biden.

Deborah Kerr said she has also voted for Republicans and tells GOP audiences on the campaign trail for the officially nonpartisan race that she is a “pragmatic Democrat.”

“People ask you all the time what you are,” Kerr said Friday. “I’ve decided we’ve got to be very forthcoming because the reason I started this campaign was because I wanted to see if I could bring people together from both sides of the aisle to unify around education.”

Tuesday’s primary in the race for secretary of the Department of Public Instruction will narrow the field of candidates from seven to two. The general election is April 6. Kerr is the only candidate with widespread backing from Republicans.

Kerr’s opponents say she’s being disingenuous by calling herself a Democrat, citing her support for the private school voucher program. That program is often a litmus test in the state superintendent race and a priority program for Republicans who have expanded it over the past decade.

“She can try to have it both ways, but the fact is that she’s the anti-public education candidate in this race,” said Sachin Chheda, adviser to Jill Underly, the most vocal critic of the voucher program in the race.

Underly, superintendent of Pecatonica Area School District, is supported by more than a dozen current or former Democratic state lawmakers. A liberal advocacy group that backs Democrats, A Better Wisconsin Together Political Fund, has spent more than $78,000 on digital ads to support Underly.

Sheila Briggs, an assistant state superintendent, said Kerr has advocated for issues that harm public education, citing her support for the Act 10 law passed a decade ago that ended collective bargaining for teachers. Briggs is supported by former Democratic state lawmakers Tim Cullen and Stephen Smith.

Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, who worked for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, called Kerr a “political chameleon” by claiming to be a Democrat while accepting “huge donations from Republicans.”

Troy Gunderson, the former superintendent at West Salem schools, said he was the most pragmatic Democrat in the race, citing his endorsements from Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, of La Crosse, and state Rep. Steve Doyle.

Kerr has the support of Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, a voucher supporter who donated $1,000 to her campaign. Kerr also received a $15,000 donation from Arthur Dantchik, a voucher supporter and conservative mega-donor from Pennsylvania who has given nearly $147,000 to Republican candidates in Wisconsin over the past decade, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Kerr received $2,000 from George and Susan Mitchell, longtime voucher advocates and former leaders of School Choice Wisconsin.

Republican Party chapters in La Crosse and Green counties have urged support for Kerr, saying she is the only conservative in the race.

Kerr said her campaign team includes Democrats, such as former state Rep. Jason Fields, and Republicans including well-known GOP fundraiser Mary Stitt.

When asked who the last Democrat was that she voted for, Kerr named Biden. She said she had voted for Republicans too, including the GOP district attorney in Racine County.

Conservatives have been unsuccessful in running partisan candidates for the state superintendent position. For the past 20 years, the conservative candidate in the race has been beaten by double digits. In 2017, then-incumbent state secretary Tony Evers won by 40 points. Evers was elected governor in 2018 and his successor decided against seeking a full term, creating an open race for the post.

Also on the ballot Tuesday are Joe Fenrick, a Fond du Lac High School science teacher of 15 years, who is backed by a couple of former Democratic candidates for the Legislature; and Steve Krull, a Milwaukee Public Schools principal. Krull’s spokeswoman said candidates can say what they want, but voters should pay attention to where the money comes from.


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