It was draft night in Murrieta. But the picks weren’t athletes.
Instead, 412 Church Temecula Valley on March 2 hosted an “endorsement draft” of conservative Christians who plan to run against school board members in Lake Elsinore, Menifee, Murrieta and Temecula this November.
The kickoff rally, which featured a hype video set to the “NFL on Fox” theme music, was the opening salvo of a new offensive in southwest Riverside County’s culture wars, where past battles include the removal of a nude woman’s portrait from the city-run Old Town Temecula theater and protests against a proposal to build a mosque in Temecula.
It’s part of a national trend that’s turned public schools into political battlefields over COVID-19 mandates, LGBTQ acceptance and what children should learn about race.
Front and center in the campaign to shake up local school boards is 412 Pastor Tim Thompson and the recently formed Inland Empire Family PAC.
“Systemically, they have been removing us out of our children’s lives, taking over control and trying to replace parents with the state,” Thompson, whose church has about 1,000 adult members, said at the rally.
Critics argue that what Thompson and his allies really want is a theocracy that marginalizes non-Christians and the LGBTQ community and ignores racism’s role in U.S. history. Targeted school board members said they must represent a diverse community and follow the law.
“It’s extremely offensive because public schools are for every child,” said Julie Geary, a member of the progressive group Temecula Unity and a Val Verde Unified School District teacher.
At the rally, Thompson, who at times spoke from a cross-adorned podium, said: “I’ve been saying that the government-ran school system is Satan’s playground. We need to change what’s happening there.”
“When this nation was founded, the church was the public square. All roads led to the church,” he said. “Everyone got together at church to discuss the things that were happening in their community and to find out what their pastor had to say about those issues. We’re taking back that public square.”
The push to put conservatives on school boards crests a wave of anger over policies enacted to stop COVID-19’s spread, especially California’s now-rescinded student mask requirement.
Locally and nationwide, the mandate backlash fueled heated confrontations at public meetings between COVID-skeptical parents and school board members. School boards were often the only outlet for people to publicly vent their frustration, said John Rogers, a UCLA education professor.
School board have long been a target of the Christian right.
“I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” conservative Christian leader Ralph Reed said in 1996.
Conservative pressure on school boards has ebbed and flowed for decades, Rogers said. In Orange County, conservatives in the 1960s fought against sex education, and in recent years, they pressured school boards not to adopt academic standards known as Common Core, he said.
Following George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, a broader effort has emerged, fueled in part by national conservative groups, to challenge local school boards that try to address racial diversity, equity and inclusion, Rogers said.
“School districts, more than any time in recent history, became lightning rods for political activism,” he said.
In November, Republican Glenn Youngkin scored an upset win in Virginia’s governor race on a platform of supporting parents’ rights and opposing school mask mandates and critical race theory. Thompson draws inspiration from Youngkin’s win in a blue state, saying “parental rights is the issue that’s gonna win elections.”
Southwest Riverside County could be fertile ground for a conservative school board takeover. While California and Riverside County as a whole have more Democratic than GOP voters, Republicans hold a voter registration edge in Murrieta, Temecula and Menifee.
The county in September was California’s largest to support the failed recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. And the GOP is expected to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s unpopularity this election cycle.
That said, conservative candidate slates don’t always succeed. In 2018, three conservative Christian pastors who ran as a team for the Corona City Council came up short.
Conservative Christians once controlled a majority of seats on the Chino Valley Unified School District board and waded into fights over transgender students using bathrooms and students participating in sports based on their gender identity rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.
When the board went beyond starting meetings with an invocation prayer to mid-meeting prayers, Bible discussions of up to 12 minutes and urging meeting attendees to “find Jesus,” it was sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The board’s balance of power shifted in the 2018 election, with church members now in the minority. They’re still there and in November proposed restricting transgender students’ access to bathrooms and locker rooms based on gender listed in their student records, in violation of state law.
Thompson, who said his group is focusing first on its own backyard, is active on social media, including YouTube.
His “Our Watch” online videos have featured interviews with Riverside County leaders such as Sheriff Chad Bianco, District Attorney Mike Hestrin and Supervisor Jeff Hewitt. Republican Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene of Georgia spoke at 412 Church after her visit to Riverside last summer with fellow conservative firebrand and Florida GOP Congress Member Matt Gaetz.
Thompson said he tried working with school board members and flew to Sacramento to speak with lawmakers about his concerns. But he said he only found finger pointing.
“It became abundantly clear we had to replace the school boards,” he said.
Thompson denied wanting to install a theocracy. School boards, he said, are supposed to reflect the community’s values and represent the people to government, not the other way around.
“We want what’s best for our community and we believe there’s more of us than there are of the other side,” said Thompson, who grew up in Murrieta.
Caitlin Jones, who plans to run for a Temecula Valley Unified School District board seat, was among the endorsed candidates interviewed at the rally.
“I stand on the word of God,” said Jones, who added that she will run “to keep education what it should be — education, not indoctrination.”
Thompson also interviewed Joseph Komrosky, who plans to seek a Temecula Valley school board seat to “fight for the parents and the kids.”
Komrosky later added: “When teachers at Temecula can tell kids if you’re a boy and you feel like dressing like a girl, if you’re a girl, you can dress like a boy — I saw an instance of that with my own eyes in our community and I don’t want my son to be affected by it.”
Courtney Cooper, a nurse who plans to run for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District board, said her middle school-age children have been subjected to critical race theory and “LGBTQ influence and I’m tired of it.”
“ … I’m not against anyone in their sexual preference,” Cooper said. “This is America. You’re free to do what you want. However, it goes against my values and beliefs as a Christian.”
On its website, the Inland Empire Family PAC lists “Transgenderism Encouraged” and “Forced LGBTQ+ Acceptance” under the category “The Problem in Schools.”
Conservatives, as “part of a broader narrative filled with hate,” are spreading misinformation about LGBTQ people to turn out their base, said Tony Hoang, executive director of the LGBTQ civil rights group Equality California.
“They’re using the so-called parents rights movement to demagogue the most vulnerable in our community,” Hoang said.
Thompson and PAC-backed candidates also blasted critical race theory, a term for a graduate-level course of study that’s used by conservatives to attack a range of K-12 instruction about race. The doctrine teaches White children to feel ashamed and that people should be judged by their color, they said.
“We need to teach history as it is,” Thompson said. “Slavery does not exist anymore in our state. It is against the law. Talking to the kids, we need to talk in terms of that. It’s historical. It’s not current. This is to make certain groups of people feel like they’re oppressed. It’s just not true in 2022.”
Thompson and his allies want to silence any talk in schools about racism, said Corey Jackson, Riverside NAACP political action chair and a Riverside County Board of Education trustee.
“Sometimes the truth hurts and the truth is that racism is the foundation of this country and it continues to operate in our community and in our various systems of government,” added Jackson, a Black Democratic candidate for an Inland Assembly seat.
Teaching about racism’s role in U.S. history isn’t intended to shame White children, he said, adding that “it’s meant to make sure they’re aware of how the world operates and affects others.”
Established in September, the Inland Empire Family PAC raised almost $11,000 last year and had about $3,300 in the bank as of Dec. 31, records show.
PAC chairperson John Andrews told rally-goers the PAC strictly vetted endorsed candidates.
None of the eight endorsed candidates attend 412 Church, Thompson said. Screenings continue and the plan is to have a candidate for every open school seat on those four boards in November.
Endorsed candidates will get access to a political consultant, marketing and website help and volunteers to knock on doors, staff phone banks and work at fundraisers, Andrews said.
“We’re trying to give our people everything they need to beat every weak school board member in the Temecula Valley,” he said.
A planned April PAC fundraiser is being headlined by Bianco and Katie Hopkins, a British media personality denounced for past comments about immigrants and Islam.
Alleged weakness and cowardice is a theme in the group’s attacks against targeted school board members.
“We have very, very weak people leading our kids and I’m completely fed up with it,” said Cooper, the Murrieta Valley board candidate.
Temecula Valley school board President Adam Skumawitz said in an email that it’s “disheartening to hear about this tactic utilizing divisive language in an attempt to intimidate other candidates and dismantle a public school system that has proudly and consistently ranked near the top of California schools.”
“I think the vast majority of our TVUSD families would agree that this sort of rhetoric and name calling is not welcome on our campuses, much less from our schools’ leadership,” he wrote.
Barbara Brosch, another Temecula Valley board member, said via email that the district doesn’t teach critical race theory and parents have long had the option of taking their children out of sex education classes.
“(I’m a) coward, spineless (and) weak because I follow the law?” she said. “This continues to be disheartening, and I would be lying if I did not say this has personally affected me, especially coming from a pastor.”
Many of the PAC’s grievances are rooted in state law that local school boards can’t change, Lake Elsinore Unified School District Trustee Chris McDonald said.
“Any curriculum that we adopt is required to go for public review and comment before it’s put in place,” he said. “I don’t believe we are teaching a lot of things they are commenting on.”
Murrieta Valley school board President Kris Thomasian said in an email that she “proudly” represents all in the district.”
“ … Contrary to blatant disinformation, our schools are working hard and doing wonderful work on behalf of students,” she said.
Geary, of Temecula Unity, said she’ll work to keep the PAC’s candidates off school boards.
“Churches should be about love, kindness, helping the poor, helping the sick, feeding the homeless (and) helping their community, not driving a wedge through it,” she said.
Here are those endorsed by the Inland Empire Family PAC for southwest Riverside County school boards:
Caitlin Jones, Temecula Valley Unified School District board, Trustee Area 1
Danny Gonzalez, Temecula Valley school board, Trustee Area 2
Jen Wiersma, Temecula Valley school board, Trustee Area 3
Joseph Komrosky, Temecula Valley school board, Trustee Area 4
Todd Donohue, Lake Elsinore Unified School District board, Trustee Area 1
Michelle Smith, Lake Elsinore school board, Trustee Area 5
Nick Pardue, Murrieta Valley Unified School District Trustee Area 1
Courtney Cooper, Murrieta Valley school board, Trustee Area 2
Staff Writer Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: A photo caption with this story has been updated to correct an error. Matthew Dobler is a political consultant.