Posted on August 1, 2022

The Arizona Republican Primary Is Ground Zero for America’s Hysteria Over Critical Race Theory

Melissa Gira Grant, New Republic, July 28, 2022

“We’ve been called every name in the book: domestic terrorists, racists, bigots, disruptors—angry mom,” Trish Olson, a mother of three in Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a campaign ad released last December by the gubernatorial campaign for Kari Lake. A political novice who denies that Joe Biden is the lawfully elected president, Lake secured a Trump endorsement in September 2021, almost a year before the crowded GOP primary. Along with pushing Trump’s election lies, Lake also promotes a full range of conspiracy theories that have come to define American conservatism over the past few years—that schools seized on the coronavirus pandemic to usurp parental rights; that “critical race theory,” or CRT, threatens white children’s education; that teachers are “grooming” children for gender and sexual deviance.

Ever since Glenn Youngkin’s successful gubernatorial campaign in Virginia last year made running against public education seem like a winning strategy, Republicans across the country have latched on to CRT and related arguments about liberals ruining schools as their 2022 midterms game plan. And in Arizona, that moral panic has centered on Scottsdale—a district encompassing some 22,000 students in 29 K-12 schools. As the school district turned into a destination for Republican candidates in the state, a powerful political narrative became attached to a real place with real kids—one that the GOP aims to ride to victory in campaigns this fall. “To have somebody like Kari standing up with us, it helps us keep the pressure on the district,” Olson said in the ad. Another mom added: “She is a fellow mama bear.”

In 2020, a cohort of mothers began organizing through a private Facebook group, focusing in on Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) board meetings—first, to oppose school closures and masks as a Covid prevention measure, and then to oppose “critical race theory,” such as they misunderstood it. Steve Bannon would anoint such conflicts then unfolding across the country “the Tea Party to the 10th power,” proclaiming, “This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms.”

Nearly 900 school districts across the United States were targeted in similar ­anti-CRT campaigns, according to researchers at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. They found that both national right-wing figures such as Bannon and local groups like the Scottsdale moms saw the campaigns as a path to broader political power. As this strain of racist right-wing politics gained strength, liberals tended to discount it as a culture war, a ploy to retake Congress, just as Bannon proudly admitted to—even as, almost immediately, the culture war threw the counties that served as the stage into real battles.

In Scottsdale, it was Jann-Michael Greenburg, SUSD’s governing board president, who became the main character in their drama. Greenburg was a 24-year-old recent law school grad when he was elected to the school board in 2018, coming to some local prominence for demanding the board address past financial misconduct. After a May 2021 board meeting was shut down when parents refused to wear masks, Greenburg publicly pushed back on the protests over CRT and related panics unfolding in the district—“a deliberate misinformation campaign,” he told The Arizona Republic. {snip} It was amid this escalation that a group of mothers in Scottsdale propped up a scandal saying Greenburg had “targeted” them through an alleged “dossier.”

In an email Greenburg sent last August to a parent, an attached screenshot inadvertently revealed the URL for a Google Drive folder—the purported dossier. Members of the private Facebook group shared a version of the folder with the Scottsdale Independent, after which the parents, national conservatives, and Arizona Republicans running for office mounted a public campaign expressing outrage that the school board was spying on families. One of the mothers in the Facebook group, Amanda Wray, called the dossier “cyberstalking.”


{snip} Across Arizona, Republican candidates tried to draw on the conflict to portray themselves as defenders of children. {snip}

But Lake seemed to connect most closely with the Scottsdale moms. She joined them outside an SUSD board meeting in November 2021, in which members voted to remove Greenburg as president (though he kept his seat on the board). “The left and these tyrants in the school board have awoken a sleeping giant and it’s pissed off moms and dads,” Lake said. {snip}