One more chapter came to a close in Fairfield, Iowa’s long-running controversy over transgender bathrooms, this one perhaps the last. A large number of conservative candidates running for the Fairfield School Board in response to the district following state and national policy on transgender bathroom use were routed on Tuesday night. Four candidates who defended the town’s LGBTQ community and the policy won the four at-large seats, aided by unprecedented voter turnout for the local race.
Debate over the issue has roiled the Southeast Iowa town of 10,200 people since early last year. A May 2016 bullying incident where a transgender high school student’s car was vandalized, which occurred around the time that new national guidelines on transgender bathroom usage were announced, kicked off several contentious weeks at the high school. Students on both sides of the issues wore shirts and armbands to display their opinion, leading to some conflicts.
During that summer parents and community members – some organized by a local conservative church – petitioned the school board to change its stance on allowing students to use the bathroom that aligned with their gender identity (an Iowa law on the matter had already been in effect for about a decade). The board eventually voted 4-2 to keep the policy in place, and conservative activists vowed to challenge school board members in the 2017 elections in the hopes of replacing the superintendent and reversing the decision.
That led to the incredibly crowded field of candidates for the September 12 election, with 13 contenders for three at-large seats and two people competing for another at-large seat to replace a board member who had resigned. Not everyone who got in the race did so solely for the transgender rights issue, and debate in the campaign also touched on the usual topics of teacher pay, transportation costs, rural school closures and collective bargaining changes.
But voting blocs emerged throughout the course of the campaign, with local progressives lining up behind Frank Broz, Debi Plum, Kelly Scott and Christi Welsh. Plum and Welsh highlighted their connections with the Women’s March on their online posts, pitching themselves as the “1st step in the fight for change.” Conservatives backed incumbent board member Jennifer Anderson and challengers James Elliot, Virgil Symmonds and Madonna Smithburg.
In the end all those backed by the progressive bloc won. Board member Anderson was endorsed by the local teachers association and came the closest to winning, but she cast one of the two votes to reverse the district’s transgender bathroom policy, which appeared to ultimately cost her her seat.
The election saw extremely high turnout that more than doubled past years’ voter participation. People were still lined up outside the courthouse to vote as polls closed on election night. As of Tuesday night, 2,118 ballots voters were cast in the Fairfield School Board election, marking a turnout of 21.5% of registered voters (a few provisional and absentee ballots may yet come in). That compares to 463 total ballots cast in the 2015 school board race, 978 in 2013 and 912 in 2011.
The winners all got boosts from strong early vote and absentee ballot numbers, with about 50% of each of their vote totals coming in early. Most of the candidates who lost only got between 29% and 37% of their final vote numbers through early voting. Democrats in the area had been well-prepped with a recent, massive early vote effort run by the House Democrats and Phil Miller’s campaign in the August special election.
Supporters of the winning candidates at first feared that high turnout had meant that conservative church groups had effectively organized their members to vote in large enough numbers. Instead, it was reflective of the community rallying around LGBTQ students in the face of the criticism (and perhaps some just wanted to move past the controversy already).
The electoral rejection of anti-transgender politicians was the second in as many months for the Fairfield area. Former school board president Phil Miller ran in the Iowa House special election to replace Curt Hanson, who passed away in June. Republicans ran constant TV ads attacking Miller for his vote to keep the bathroom policy in place, trying to stoke fears about transgender youth. The strategy backfired badly, and Miller handily defeated his Republican opponent.
A special election will be held soon to replace Miller, and could feature several of the same candidates who competed in this past race.
by Pat Rynard