As the swing vote on the State Board of Education, Republican Pat Hardy of Fort Worth has built a reputation for helping strike a balance among the board's liberal, moderate Republican and social conservative camps.
"The swing voter is the most powerful person in the whole show. That is a badge of honor,” said Hardy, a former teacher who was first elected to the District 11 post in 2002.
But in one of the most closely watched primaries this year, Hardy faces two challengers who tout themselves as more conservative. Of the seven seats on the board that are on the ballot, political watchers say the District 11 race could determine whether the board returns to the divisive culture wars of the past.
District 11, one of the board's 15 districts, includes Parker County and parts of Tarrant and Dallas counties.
Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, said three questions follow the board: "What will students learn on sexual education? What will they learn on the teaching of evolution? What will they learn in their social studies classrooms?"
And the board often draws scrutiny when it selects textbooks for Texas public schools, said Quinn, whose Austin-based organization monitors education rights issues.
“What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks, and the state board has a big influence when it comes to that,” Quinn said.
This primary season, Hardy is in a three-way political fight with two opponents positioning themselves as true red conservatives: Cheryl Surber, a Fort Worth business developer who describes herself as "a lifelong" conservative, and Feyi Obamehinti, a Keller educator, consultant and home-school mother, seek the GOP nomination.
The winner of that race faces the winner of the Democratic primary in November — either Carla Morton, a Fort Worth resident and pediatric neuropsychologist, or Celeste Light.
While the District 11 race is not high on either primary ballot, education allies said it tests the political climate of the current progressive movement and the political muscle of teacher voters.
"I don't want people to forget about this race because they are thinking about other things," said Erin Atwood, assistant professor at TCU's College of Education.
The GOP contest
Hardy, 69 — who has earned a reputation for listening to all sides, especially teachers — has been endorsed by the United Educators Association.
“She has not generally been part the right radical faction that has been part of the board,” Quinn said. “It would not be fair to describe her as a moderate Republican. She is very conservative. To her credit she listens to teachers and scholars who come before the board."
But in this GOP primary, the campaigns lean from conservative to very conservative. Her opponents are working to convince voters they are more in tune with GOP issues.
“When it comes to education, the issue is not Democrat or Republican, it is what is best for the student,” Hardy said, explaining that she opposes vouchers, now often called school choice, which is a litmus test for many GOP voters. She also doesn't have Tea Party support.
Surber, a special education advocate who raised a special needs child, points to her conservative stances listed on the website ivoterguide. Surber, who also describes herself as a constitutionalist, said she would not be a swing vote.
"I want to return to the Judeo-Christain values of our Founders & Framers," Surber said in a statement. "(I) want to have the phrases, e.g. 'Love your neighbor as yourself' and 'Do unto other as you would have them do unto you,' put up on school walls, to teach students, teachers and administrators honor and respect for themselves and others."
Obamehinti, 49, said, "My faith in God is the foundation of my conservative values. My values are what guide my decision-making. My values are not hidden."
Her endorsements include one from the NE Tarrant Tea Party.
"Pat Hardy does not represent the conservative values of her district. She is often in the position to be the swing vote on the Board, yet more often than not she votes with the liberals," said Julie McCarty president of NE Tarrant Tea Party. "We need to be better represented and have a stronger voice. We're talking about the shaping our children, so this election should be top priority. Voters need to be aware that there are concerns with how we're being represented."
The Democratic primary
Morton, 45, a mother of two children in the Fort Worth school district, is a self-described pro-science candidate. She is running against Light, who could not be reached for comment.
Morton said how science is taught and how dyslexia is handled by Texas schools are among reasons she decided to run. She was also motivated by a grassroots energy in a progressive movement that has fueled some Democratic campaigns this year.
"A lot of us were not approached by the Democratic Party to run," Morton said. "We just said, 'There is a need.'"
Morton added that she told herself: "I‘m tired of arguing with random people on Facebook.”
“I am worried, especially in Texas, about the way in which science has been taught," Morton said, adding that education is a topic voters want to talk about but that few appear to pay attention to the board's work with curriculum and textbook selection.
Morton said she is counting on a new wave of voters to turn out in November and show that Texas is more purple than people believe.
“I feel like I have a good idea of what is going to happen in the Democratic Party. There are going to be a whole lot of people who are new voters,” Morton said.