Has the community soured on UnifiEd? PAC yet to endorse school board candidates

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UnifiEd Executive Director Jonas Barriere will lead new education PAC for UnifiEd Action.
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UnifiEd Executive Director Jonas Barriere will lead new education PAC for UnifiEd Action.

A day before early voting begins in the Hamilton County general election, the UnifiEd Action PAC has not publicly endorsed candidates in school board races.

Board of Education candidates, including four incumbents, were invited to interview with board members of the political action committee affiliated with the nonprofit education advocacy organization launched in 2014 and executive director Jonas Barriere.

UnifiEd did endorse 10 candidates in the May primary, including incumbent county Mayor Jim Coppinger and nine candidates in Hamilton County Commission races.

Some school board candidates say they asked the organization not to publicly endorse them.

"I welcomed their support, I welcomed views from any side of the aisle but I told them I wasn't in favor of a public endorsement of any kind or taking money from the PAC or having volunteers work [for me]," said Tucker McClendon, a District 8 school board candidate.

The community may have soured on UnifiEd after school board members Joe Smith and Rhonda Thurman denounced UnifiEd's Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) Project report in May. Their news releases spurred community debates on segregation, busing and the intentions of some organizations most involved in education here.

Ann Pierre, the District 5 candidate, said she was unsure if she would have accepted an endorsement.

"It's a conflicting decision you have to make, because it might help you on the one hand, but hurt you on the other hand," Pierre said. "I prefer to say out of it. Ill go and let the voters decide. The office belongs to the voters, it doesn't belong to a PAC."

Pierre did acknowledge that she had not heard from the PAC since her interview.

District 3 school board member Smith said he interviewed with the PAC but told them he did not want their endorsement.

"I made it very clear to them that I didn't want their endorsement," Smith said. "I also recommended to them not to get involved with the school board race."

Barriere declined to say if Smith did in fact turn down an endorsement, stating that he had agreed on keeping those conversations private. Barriere did confirm that all but one of the 10 school board candidates for seats in Districts 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 sat down with the group.

David Testerman, the incumbent campaigning for re-election in District 8, declined to interview.

The PAC has only provided financial or in-kind support to one school board candidate so far - about $200 in "in-kind expenditures" for Miracle Hurley, Smith's opponent, but it has spent more than $29,000 on county commission and mayor races since April 22. That includes more than $4,400 in contributions to David Sharpe's campaign for the District 6 county commissioner seat and almost $5,000 for Coppinger's mayoral race.

"UnifiEd Action PAC is actively engaged in the local elections for County Mayor and commissioners and school board members," Barriere said in a statement. "For the UnifiEd Action PAC, we are sharing with our community supporters a recommendation on those who we feel are supportive of access to a quality education for all Hamilton County students."

Barriere would not confirm whether the organization would publicly endorse candidates before the Aug. 2 election. Some candidates feel the organization's silence has been even more revealing.

"I believe UnifiEd has made it apparent that the community is uneasy about their presence, otherwise they would have already made their endorsements public," said Michael Henry, District 6 candidate. Henry said that the PAC told him that his opponent, Jenny Hill, would receive the endorsement.

Hill said she does not anticipate a public endorsement.

"I think that the UnifiEd PAC decided not to endorse school board candidates because it was distracting from the conversation," Hill said. "When the two school board members put that press release out, it changed the conversation," Hill said.

D'Andre Anderson, current board chairman Steve Highlander's opponent for the District 9 seat, said his connection to UnifiEd has actually been a stumbling block for his campaign.

"It's no secret that I worked for them in high school and a lot of my visions align with their visions," Anderson said. According to Anderson, he was told by Barriere that UnifiEd Action PAC would not endorse him, and was taken by surprise.

"It makes me mad, because I get the slander associated with UnifiEd, but not the benefits," Anderson added. "It's the only negative thing people say about me, that I am associated with UnifiEd."

Highlander said that during his PAC interview, they had discussed what resources and support he would need if he was endorsed.

He said he "would have to wait and see if there were any strings attached," before deciding whether to accept campaign contributions.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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