Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein | (Screenshot from the New York Times YouTube video “Meet the Billionaire Couple Trying to Reshape the Republican Party”)
The right-wing challengers in a recall election against four members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board have drawn more than $50,000 in donations — including from one of Wisconsin’s most high profile Republican donors, Richard Uihlein.
The recall election, which was launched because of the challenger’s opposition to the school district’s COVID-19 policies and teaching about the harms of racism, has drawn national attention and far more money than most school board races in the state.
The race includes a candidate who works on the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch and recall organizers have been aided by right-wing law firm the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. The challengers have also spent nearly $6,000 to hire attorney Lane Ruhland, a former lawyer for Donald Trump who worked to get Kanye West on the presidential ballot in 2020.
Campaign finance reports released this week show the four challengers have a network of committees working to raise money. There are eight committees working on behalf of the challengers, with a recall committee against each incumbent and a campaign committee for each challenging candidate.
The recall committees are able to draw in more cash as they aren’t subject to the same donations limits.
The recall challengers have collectively raised more than $58,000. The incumbents were exempt from filing reports for their personal campaign committees but a separate committee, called the Coalition to Support MTSD, has raised more than $27,000.
The challengers’ money comes from large and small donations from within Wisconsin and across the country, while the money donated to support the incumbents mostly comes from Mequon or Thiensville residents making small dollar donations.
Uihlein, an Illinois resident who is heavily involved in Wisconsin politics and contributed millions to a group that helped organize the insurrection in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, donated $1,500 to each of the four recall committees for a total of $6,000.
Challenger Cheryle Rebholz has been the most successful fundraiser among the recall candidates. A former member of the school board, Rebholz has raised $9,710 for her personal campaign account and the recall committee against her opponent Wendy Francour has raised $16,033.
Rebholz received a $550 donation, the maximum allowable amount, from Nancy and Stephen Einhorn. The Einhorns were major donors to the recall campaign of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The treasurer for the recall committee against Francour is Scarlett Johnson, another challenger and one of the most outspoken and visible members of the campaign. Johnson is a member of Kleefisch’s campaign team and has been criticized for past tweets about transgenderism and white supremacy.
Johnson’s personal campaign committee raised $5,795 and the committee against her opponent, Chris Schultz, has raised $3,909.
Another one of the challengers, Kris Kittrell, is running against incumbent Akram Khan. Kittrell’s campaign committee has raised $8,966 and the committee against Khan has raised $3,423.
Challenger Charles Lorenz has raised $6,818 for his personal committee and the committee against his opponent, Erik Hollander, has raised $3,393.
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Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, says this kind of money is unheard of in often sleepy school board races across the state.
“Usually candidates pull in so little that they don’t even meet the threshold for filing a report,” she says. “Literature to pass out at doors, postcards, stamps, yard signs. That’s usually about it. In larger districts, we see more of a need to run a bigger campaign to reach more voters, but even then we very rarely see the sort of outside money or PAC support we’re seeing in MTSD right now. The national interest and fiscal support seem in the service of a very explicit agenda to undermine trust in our public schools and insert partisanship into school board governance.”
For all the money flowing into the election just days away, most of it has so far gone unspent. The few expenditures have gone toward yard signs, postcards and online advertisements — though some of the challengers’ Facebook ads were provided as in-kind donations.
Those ads frequently feature criticisms of the district’s performance or response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them also go after the substance of what is taught in the district’s schools. One of the ads, which remains active according to Facebook’s ad library, highlights a piece of text containing sexual content from a book in the MTSD curriculum — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The book, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, is about a Native American 14-year-old who moves off his reservation to go to an all-white school. The book has been banned in a number of school districts across the country.
The Mequon-Thiensville School Board recall election is set to be held Nov. 2.
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