When Daniel Gutmann won the special election for a seat on the Urbandale School Board, he did it despite significant challenges from the right.
Gutmann is an openly gay elementary school teacher, a member of the teacher’s union, a Democrat, and an outspoken supporter of progressive issues. He calls himself the perfect candidate to whip up opposition to.
He also caught the attention of Urbandale-based Moms for Liberty activists, members of a politically active conservative nonprofit that claims to advocate for parents’ rights in schools. Additionally, he ran against Steve Avis, a candidate who had the support of high-profile Iowa Republicans such as State Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Des Moines).
In November 2021, the district had to deal with a right-wing push to ban certain books from the school library and reading lists, often books with LGBTQ characters and/or characters of color as the protagonists. There was also controversy about mask mandates.
The three members who were elected in November 2021, Jason Menke, Jenny Meade, and Rachel Kent, supported mask mandates, diversity efforts, and efforts to boost pay and morale for teachers.
However, Gutmann said if he can win, anyone can.
“If a poster boy for everything that they hate about teaching and teachers and marginalized communities can win by 12 points. If I can do that, then I got to think that that other folks can tap into that same energy and that same desire to move on and really solve some of the issues,” Gutmann said.
Gutmann ran for school board in the 2021 elections and came in fourth place. When a vacancy opened in March this year, he ran again and won the July 12 election against Avis with 56% of the vote to Avis’ 44%. Avis, a certified public accountant, also ran in the 2021 school board election and came in sixth. This summer’s race was relatively low-spending, but it attracted a lot of attention.
Gutmann said he reached people by emphasizing his commitment to issues people agree on: children should be safe in schools, library materials shouldn’t be censored, and public money should support schools that are open to everyone.
As his campaign released policies, though, he noticed more people in his comment section on Facebook asking questions about unrelated issues or trying to provoke others into arguments.
“It became apparent that they were going to use some of those tactics of trolling people’s social media to try and distract them and really divide folks by rehashing all the divisions that happened during the pandemic,” he said.
On posts about preventing school shootings, these commenters would ask whether he supports masks in schools, or whether children should be able to access pornography in school.
“They kind of have these contrived like discussions,” Gutmann said. “Most folks in Urbandale were concerned with, you know, kids possibly getting gunned down in schools, these folks were just playing these nonsensical games to distract people from what we can do.”
But the campaign responded as they would to any commenter, answering questions and moving on.
“It’s hard to put emotion aside when at the end of the day, you’re a human and you’re talking to other humans and you’re worried about other humans,” said Alissa Heasley, one of the campaign staff.
“One of the most important things, I think, for us to do—which we can’t do 100%, I didn’t do 100%— but tried to put emotion aside, keep the information that we are giving factual, stick to the things that we know,” she continued.
Heasley had the task of monitoring social media for questions or issues Gutmann needed to know about. She said the goal was to answer the question as clearly as possible and then move the discussion forward.
“Sometimes you’re walking into a conversation knowing ‘I’m probably not going to get very far with this person, but I’m going to share some factual information that hopefully will spark somebody’s interest,’” she said.
And it was hard not to get dragged into negativity, especially when attacks got personal or when information and photos of Gutmann’s family were shared in a private Facebook group moderated by a member of Moms for Liberty.
In one instance, a member shared Gutmann’s aunt’s Facebook profile and pictures from his brother’s wedding, asking about Gutmann’s position on masks. The photos showed Gutmann, his son, his grandmother, and his cousins.
Gutmann said he’s OK with being in the public eye and being criticized, but for critics to share his family’s information crosses the line and potentially exposes his family to harassment. He said it’s a “crowd that really wants to intimidate people, wants people to remain divided and destructive.”
How it Worked
Gutmann said people responded really well to him and his messaging. He thinks some people are getting tired of being told to dislike each other and they are ready to move on from divisions.
“Folks are ready to really move on and find agreement and consensus where we can to make our schools better places,” he said.
He doesn’t have hard data yet, but anecdotally Gutmann says he knows he didn’t only reach Democrats, but moderate Republicans and non-partisan voters too.
“We’ve been so focused on our divisions over the last couple of years that we kind of forget that, you know, these are the same folks we sit next to at our kids’ ballgames or their band concerts,” he said. And school safety, staffing, and funding are issues everyone recognizes as being important.
As an elementary school special education teacher, Gutmann pulled on his professional experience to deal with trolls.
“A lot of what I draw on is my experience in de-escalating, deflecting situations like that,” he said. “In my classroom, I’m not going to use loaded language. I’m going to be very clear about where my boundaries are, very clear around what my expectations are for the people that I am interacting with, and conduct myself with integrity and those same traits that helped me be successful as a special education teacher, I found, to be very helpful in my interactions with those folks.”
That doesn’t mean not pushing back or letting attacks go unanswered.
“We absolutely need to confront this kind of, you know, division and the negativity and the falsehoods and hate,” Gutmann said. “But we just have to do it in a way that, you know, we’d be comfortable with our grandmother listening to the conversation or one of our favorite schoolteachers.”
“We could make clear that we were the adults, and that we were the ones focused on solving the issues facing our kids and staff,” he continued.
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