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Here’s one Pinellas school board race that’s already turning ugly

County Republicans feud in a contest that’s supposed to be nonpartisan.
 
Three positions on the Pinellas County School Board are coming open in 2024. The race for Carol Cook's seat has become hotly contested among Republicans who'd like to see their name on the sign at school district headquarters in Largo.
Three positions on the Pinellas County School Board are coming open in 2024. The race for Carol Cook's seat has become hotly contested among Republicans who'd like to see their name on the sign at school district headquarters in Largo. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 13, 2023

Gov. Ron DeSantis targeted two Pinellas County School Board seats when he called on Floridians earlier this year to elect board members who will oppose “woke” ideology.

But it’s the seat DeSantis didn’t mention that’s causing a feud among Pinellas Republicans. They’re angling to fill the spot that incumbent Carol Cook is widely expected to leave as her sixth term expires in November 2024.

It’s another in a growing list of examples where party politics have overtaken Florida school board campaigns, which are nonpartisan by state law. In this case, the winner could become the swing vote on a divided board.

The far-right wing of the party is backing Stacy Geier, a business owner who says her views align with Moms for Liberty, a group that has gained increasing influence over state and national education policy since its founding two years ago. It supports aggressive book challenges and has opposed mental health care in schools as part of what it calls its “parental rights” agenda.

Geier faces Katie Blaxberg, who was an aide to Pinellas County Commissioner Chris Latvala when Latvala served in the state House. Latvala is supporting her candidacy. Blaxberg has taken a more expansive view of the parental rights movement, saying it’s important to increase involvement in schools and to not allow a “small, very loud minority” to “take up all the air in the room.”

Geier’s backers have waged an offensive against Blaxberg in a mostly private social media campaign that has gained wider attention as screenshots circulated. They’ve argued she needs to drop out of the race, or be pushed out by the party, because of her previous voter registration as a Democrat and ties to friends who support liberal causes.

“She’s a fake Republican who flipped her voter registration to R right before she filed,” Moms for Liberty Pinellas leader Angela Dubach said via text message. “I know school board is nonpartisan and it shouldn’t matter, but it does now, unfortunately. (Moms for Liberty) is seeing this all across the country.”

Even though the Florida Constitution has declared since 1998 that school board races must be nonpartisan, the reality is different. Local parties have long backed board candidates, just without the R and D labels.

The 2022 elections intensified party involvement. DeSantis endorsed a slate of conservative school board hopefuls. His Democratic rival, Charlie Crist, backed a separate group of candidates. Several political organizations made their own endorsements, arguing that school boards have the greatest impact on education.

Republican lawmakers have contended since 2021 that a return to partisan elections would provide added transparency for voters. The question heads to voters in November next year after the Legislature approved a referendum along strict party lines last spring. If at least 60% approve, school board races would again become officially partisan two years later.

Pinellas Republicans are acting like it’s already official.

Tidings Media, operated by local blogger David Happe, said on social media that it would not support Blaxberg — nor would Moms for Liberty, local conservative leaders or the Republican liberty caucus. “There’s too much at stake to make a mistake on this seat,” the group wrote.

Katie Blaxberg
Katie Blaxberg [ Courtesy of Katie Blaxberg ]

Blaxberg said the efforts to upend her bid feel like intimidation, with some posts showing her children’s pictures and schools, and others attacking her supporters. Some people left nasty comments on posts where her brother and a childhood friend congratulated her on entering the race, she said.

“I was not prepared for the viciousness and ugliness like I’ve seen for the past month,” Blaxberg said, adding that she has installed security cameras at her home and warned her children not to open the door amid concerns that critics might show up.

Becca Tieder, public policy director for the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board, donated $25 to Blaxberg’s campaign and calls her a friend. She said she also has come under attack by activists as Blaxberg’s “special interest weirdo sexual friend” — a reason they said to not vote for Blaxberg.

Tieder has created groups advocating against sexual violence and the use of a game called Sexversations aimed at fostering discussions on the topic.

Like Blaxberg, Tieder said she has not met any of these critics. Yet their attacks, she said, feel personal. She questioned how people promoting a candidate for school board can engage in cyberbullying when the job entails addressing student mental health.

“Are you trying to stop the problem? Or are you the problem?” Tieder said. “It’s been awful.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Chris Latvala is defending the school board candidacy of his former legislative aide, Katie Blaxberg.
Pinellas County Commissioner Chris Latvala is defending the school board candidacy of his former legislative aide, Katie Blaxberg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Latvala, who has worked on local political races for over 20 years, said he never had seen a campaign get so ugly against a candidate’s supporters. When he worked on the 2022 campaigns of school board members Stephanie Meyer and Dawn Peters, he said, people stayed away from attacks on friends and family even when their comments got heated.

Not that it was always a friendly fight. The Meyer and Peters campaigns both questioned their opponents’ religious values, trying to connect them to a St. Petersburg church that has allowed drag queens to preach.

Latvala rejected the idea that Blaxberg is a closet liberal, noting she worked closely with him in the state House to pass several conservative education measures signed into law by DeSantis. He said that some of the people criticizing Blaxberg asked him to convince her to shift to the countywide race against incumbent Laura Hine, who’s been targeted by DeSantis, raising the question of how much of the negativity is political.

Hine since has drawn a challenge from Danielle Marolf, founder of a local Christian school.

Latvala called on Geier to tamp down the tactics from some of her backers, though he also issued a handful of retorts, such as calling Happe a “moron” on Facebook. Happe declined to comment.

“A week in and your friends are terrorizing private citizens,” Latvala wrote in a message to the candidate. “This is ridiculous and you need to put a stop to it.”

Latvala said Geier blocked him on social media. Geier’s backers and others started painting Latvala as a supporter of liberals and Democrats, referring to a 4-year-old post by Orlando Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani wishing Latvala a happy birthday and calling him “friend.”

On Facebook, former commission candidate Heather Vernillo referred to Eskamani as Florida’s version of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat, saying, with friends like that “who needs enemies?”

Asked about the heated political battle brewing over the seat she’s pursuing, Geier said she knew nothing of it.

Stacy Geier
Stacy Geier [ Courtesy of Stacy Geier ]

“I am not aware of any sort of personal attacks or anything like that,” she said. “I am really focusing on just where I stand on the issues. I am not focused on what anyone else is saying or doing.”

She downplayed calls to denounce negative attacks, saying she would need to have more information before addressing the question.

“I have never run for political office before,” Geier said. “They have been nothing but kind to me.”

County GOP chairperson Adam Ross declined to get in the middle of a race between two party members.

“Obviously, we don’t like dirty primaries. We don’t like attacks,” Ross said. “We expect professionalism. That’s really all I can say.”

Brad DeCorte [Courtesy of Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association]
Brad DeCorte [Courtesy of Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association]

The third candidate in the race, retired Tarpon Springs Middle teacher Brad DeCorte, has watched with detached amusement.

“Our race is nonpartisan still. I’m registered as a Democrat. They come from two different sides of the Republican Party,” said DeCorte, who unsuccessfully sought a board seat in 2022. “I don’t think it can hurt me. I’m just going to do what I do.”

Cook, the incumbent, also is keeping an eye on the situation. Though expected to retire, she has yet to announce whether she’ll seek another four years in the District 5 seat, chosen by voters in north-central Pinellas.

Six-term Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook attends a board meeting on Tuesday in Largo. She says people involved in the race for her seat should start talking about the issues.
Six-term Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook attends a board meeting on Tuesday in Largo. She says people involved in the race for her seat should start talking about the issues. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Much depends on who’s left standing when candidates must meet the qualification deadline eight months from now. Cook said she hoped the negativity would fade so the candidates can talk about issues that matter to the majority of families. So far, Blaxberg has spoken about the need to increase parent involvement, while Geier has said her primary concerns are parental rights and student safety.

“Nowhere have I seen anyone talking about the issues that need to be dealt with once elected,” Cook said. “I think it’s because people want, as in any race, someone who will represent their point of view. What has happened is they have taken it to an extreme. I think everyone needs to grow up.”

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