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Candidate With History Of Racist, Sexist Tweets Makes Runoff Race For Texas Education Board Seat

Robert Morrow held a sign of then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 Texas Tribune Festival.
Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune
Robert Morrow held a sign of then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 Texas Tribune Festival.

Leaders of his own party may disavow him, but more than 54,000 central Texas Republican voters embraced Robert Morrow on Tuesday, sending the man with a profanity-laced record of sexist, racist and conspiracy-laden tweets into a runoff for a seat on the body that decides what Texas children are taught in the classroom.

He had no money, no endorsements and no campaign to speak of. What press attention he received would usually be considered fatal for a political candidate. Yet Morrow won around 40% of the vote for the District 5 seat on the State Board of Education, which stretches between San Antonio and Austin. He will face Lani Popp, a Northside ISD speech language pathologist, in a May 26 runoff.

If he wins that, he will advance to November’s general election against Texas State University English professor Rebecca Bell-Metereau, who easily won the Democratic nomination.

Even Morrow, a self-described performance artist who was ousted after a brief stint as chair of the Travis County Republican Party, said he was surprised at the outcome. He doubts he will go any further: "My odds of winning the runoff are 1 in 1,000," he said.

But something propelled him. Maybe it was being the only male name on the ballot. Maybe people recognized the name without remembering the details. Maybe some confused him with actor Rob Morrow.

"Does he have a base we don’t know about?" asked Ken Mercer, the retiring board member who had endorsed Popp to succeed him. "God help us, if it’s just a good ballot name, what do we do about it?"

No matter how he got there, Morrow is one step closer to winning a seat on the 15-member board, responsible for adopting textbooks and determining what millions of Texas children learn.

Texas Republicans and public education advocates are terrified that Morrow will make it all the way. After years as a dysfunctional circus, plagued by nationally mocked debates on racist history textbooks and creationist biology standards, the board has settled down in recent years. With more evenhanded leadership and knowledgeable members, the board is widely considered much more competent at making decisions about education policy.

"Morrow on the board could turn the board back into a laughingstock because of the distraction he would create," said David Anderson, an education lobbyist.

But no one yet has a clear plan for how to stop him.

As the results became clearer Tuesday night, Matt Mackowiak, the Travis County Republican chairman, tweeted that he would “light myself on fire” if Morrow won May's runoff. (To which Morrow responded, when asked by The Texas Tribune, "Matt Mackowiak, you're already on fire, and I'm holding the kerosene and matches.")

Mackowiak said Wednesday morning that his statement was “tongue in cheek” but that the party would be reaching out to statewide and local Republicans as well as education advocates to block Morrow. In January, the county GOP released an anti-endorsement of Morrow due to his "history of misogynist and vulgar language" and attacks on Republicans such as Trump and former Gov. Rick Perry. The party also robo-called Republican voters across Travis County, warning them not to vote for him. Morrow still got more than 40% of the Republican primary vote in Travis County.

"My hope is that people will be fearful of an unhinged embarrassment getting into a serious office and will step up and try to help this other candidate," Mackowiak said. But he stopped short of promising that the party would back the Democrat in November if Morrow wins the runoff. "That's an unprecedented situation. My job is to make sure we don't get to that point."

But the race so far has defied conventional wisdom. Morrow raised no money, while his opponents raised and spent thousands. Popp, his runoff opponent, had the support of incumbent Mercer, a Republican on the board since 2007. Inga Cotton, founder of nonprofit San Antonio Charter Moms, received key financial support from the Texas Charter Schools Now political action committee, which allowed her to advertise across the enormous district. She finished third.

That was a disappointment for Starlee Coleman, who is on the board of that PAC, which made contributions worth more than $200,000 to Cotton's campaign, excited about her commitment to expanding high-quality charter schools. Before last night, Coleman was sure everyone agreed Morrow was a "toxic cuckoo bird" who shouldn't be in charge of textbooks or curriculum. Coleman said she isn't yet sure whether the PAC will contribute to Popp in the runoff and wants to judge whether she will support the expansion of privately managed charter schools.

The problem, Coleman said, is that people do not know what the State Board of Education does. But she dismissed the idea that Morrow could win the general election, especially since the district is considered likely to flip Democratic in November.

"I'm a well-known local activist who is fervently anti-establishment," Morrow said Wednesday morning. "A lot of people appreciate that. Maybe not a majority, but many do."

Popp is trying to stay positive after Tuesday's shocking results. She has already received messages of support from other Republicans in the district, including some county officials who are considering publicly disavowing Morrow. But she said she would stop short of running a "hugely negative" campaign, so as not to set a bad example for students.

Keven Ellis, the State Board of Education chair, knows firsthand the position that Popp is in going into this runoff. In 2016, he went into a runoff 17 points down in East Texas' District 9 against Mary Lou Bruner, who gained national attention for claims that former President Barack Obama was once a gay prostitute. He ended the May election 18 points ahead of Bruner, after superintendents and teachers banded together to rally against her, worried she would be a poor representative for the district's education interests. And Bruner lost a key endorsement from an influential Tea Party group at the last minute.

Ellis is hoping the same coalition will rally around Popp this spring. "Ideally you get Lani to come through in the primary so there's not a worst-case scenario in November," he said.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Disclosure: Texas State University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Aliyya Swaby started as the Texas Tribune's public education reporter in October 2016. She came to the Tribune from the hyperlocal nonprofit New Haven Independent, where she covered education, zoning and transit for two years. After graduating from Yale University in 2013, she spent a year freelance reporting in Panama on social issues affecting black Panamanian communities. A native New Yorker, Aliyya misses public transportation but is thrilled by the lack of snow.
The Texas Tribune is nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization.