News Commentary: Harsh Online Ad Roils School Board Race

A wide shot photo of a student demonstration at the Courthouse, with several participants prominently pictured holding signs that say, “Toxic Masculinity Kills” and “White Supremacy Kills.”

Frame grab from CAUSE Action Fund video

A wide shot photo of a student demonstration at the Courthouse, with several participants prominently pictured holding signs that say, “Toxic Masculinity Kills” and “White Supremacy Kills.”

[This story was originally published on the website of the public affairs program Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts.]

A negative social media ad, produced and posted by a key group backing Ismael Ulloa and Rose Munoz, has introduced a sudden note of bitter acrimony into a school board race that has been singularly civil.

The 90-second online spot, put up by the political arm of the Latino advocacy organization CAUSE, targets the "Save Our Schools slate," rival board contenders Mark Alvarado and Kate Ford, who are backed by an alliance of parents often referred to as SOS.

The spot conflates several race-based education issues and an infamous episode of digital threats of violence aimed at female students, combined with some inaccurate information and misleading allegations, into a mix of insinuation about SOS and innuendo about its endorsed candidates. It has been shared widely on social media by allies of CAUSE Action Fund, including the local Democratic Party, since being posted on Facebook last week.

“We’re trying to make sense of a complex race that has a lot of layers – we just wanted to connect all those dots,” Frank Rodriguez, policy and communications associate for CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy) told Newsmakers, in defending the ad.

“We never addressed Mark and Kate,” he said, but added, “I definitely see how it can be taken" as directed at them.

You can watch the ad here. A line-by-line deconstruction of it is below.

Gauging reaction. Although the ad does not mention Alvarado and Ford by name, it refers near its beginning to the “Save Our Schools slate.” Through words and images, it then associates the slate with a host of right-wing attitudes, beliefs and policy positions – racism, misogyny, white supremacy and opposition to the concerns and rights of minority students and immigrants, among them.

“Dividing our community may win an election, but it will not bring Santa Barbara and Goleta closer to our goals,” Ford said in response. “We are proud to run a positive campaign and are proud of the support we have received from across the community.”

“I don’t want to go toe-to-toe to perpetuate the divisions,” Alvarado told us. “We’ve run a good, clean race and we don’t want to go down these dark roads.”

Ulloa and Munoz, the intended beneficiaries of the ad, both said they had nothing to do with its production and posting, but bobbed and weaved when asked directly if they would condone or renounce it as a tactic in furtherance of their campaigns.

At one point, the ad references the controversial demotion of former San Marcos High School principal Ed Behrens last winter. The move, set in motion by Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, followed a brief but turbulent period at the school, which began when a group of male students made violent threats against a group of female students in an online chat room. The Independent reported that one of the boys was convicted of making a terrorist threat.

Ulloa told us that he could not state a clear opinion about the ad because it referenced Behrens, who since has sued the school district in a wrongful termination action.

"I had nothing to do with the video (script, narration, production, etc),” he said in an email. “As part of this video has to do with a personnel decision and is connected to pending litigation, I can neither condemn nor condone this video or its message.”

Munoz also equivocated.

“It could have been done in a better manner,” she said, adding that she supported CAUSE's efforts in “making sure all the voices are heard.”

“I wasn’t involved in the making of it,” she said in a telephone interview.

Save Our Schools members unsurprisingly were livid about being tarred as racists and misogynists.

“This ad is full of falsehoods and misrepresentations,” said parent Marcy Wimbish, speaking for the group. "Negative campaigning has no place in local politics.”

Alvarado and Ford both signed a “Code of Fair Campaign Practices” promise, an option for candidates when they pull their papers, according to the SOS statement, which added that, “It’s unfortunate that the other candidates didn’t do the same."

Ulloa and Munoz both said that was untrue; each said they did sign the pledge, while Ricardo Cota, Jim Grimble, Bonnie Raisin and Jill Rivera, the other candidates in the race, stated that they did as well, in response to email inquiries.

To be sure, the eight hopefuls over the past two months have discussed and debated a host of issues, including those surfaced in the video, with unfailing civility and mutual respect in the campaign for a purportedly non-partisan office.

Alvarado and Ford, however, skipped a recent forum put on by the Santa Barbara Youth Council, because CAUSE was a co-sponsor and its action fund already was distributing campaign literature boosting Ulloa and Munoz; both them attended, as did Cota.

Democrats qua Democrats. Although Ulloa and Munoz both said that CAUSE Action Fund operated independently of their campaigns in posting the ad, the video has been shared on Facebook by other of their prominent backers, including the Democratic Party of Santa Barbara County, and some of its leaders and elected officials, including Daraka Larimore-Hall, a longtime local chair who is now vice-chair of the California Democratic Party, and SBCC Trustee Jonathan Abboud.

In posting the ad, Abboud was particularly enthusiastic about attacking the SOS slate, calling them "dangerous and privileged."

"EVERYONE in southern Santa Barbara county needs to watch this video about our school board election," he wrote on his Facebook page. "A dangerous and privileged slate with a dog whistle of a name “Save Our Schools” is trying to win a majority on the board."

Rodriguez, in stating that his group did not intend to vilify Alvarado and Ford, said that, “If they get elected, we want to work with them."

One irony of the campaign controversy is that Alvarado, Ford, Ulloa and Munoz all are liberal Democrats, with few substantive differences among and between them on education policies.

A number of SOS members, including some contributors to Democratic candidates and causes, are similarly inclined.

Which makes the dissemination of the attack ad seem like an online version of the famed Democratic circular firing squad.