Who the hell is Marisa B. Perez? Recovering from Texas' Tuesday political primaries this week, we got virtually the same response from every Bexar County Democrat we asked: No idea.
Perez's race for the State Board of Education's District 3 seat proved one of Tuesday's biggest upsets, beating out well-liked, well-endorsed incumbent Michael Soto, a Trinity University English professor, by a extraordinary margin — 66.6 percent to 33.4 percent.
A quiet, easily forgotten corner of government, the SBOE's tasked with writing state curriculum standards, approving textbooks, and watching over the state's Permanent School Fund. But SBOE seats started making headlines soon after hard-right San Antonio billionaire James Leininger (“God's Sugar Daddy”) began dumping big bucks into candidates willing to
tow toe the social conservative line in the 1990s. Thus started the board's steady march to the right and the “culture war” fights that followed. Even the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute has criticized the SBOE's science standards for the shoddy teaching of evolution and called the state's revised history standards evidence of the board's “evangelical Christian-right agenda.”
Elected in 2010, Soto had gained support among teachers and education reformers alike because he'd grown into a vocal counterbalance to the board's social conservative bent, insisting on solid science and scholarship when weighing education standards and textbooks.
“Michael was one of the best State Board members we have ever worked with, period,” said Dan Quinn with the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that closely watches the SBOE for whenever hot topics like sex ed, history (conservative revisionism), or Darwin surface. “He's smart, effective, and he put education ahead of anything else.”
While Soto raised nearly $43,000 since last summer, according to campaign finance reports, Perez, by all accounts, barely campaigned and didn't raise or spend a cent. She was off the radar of most local Dems the Current contacted this week.
“I have never seen her or heard of her,” said Todd Hedley, with the Bexar County Democrats' communications committee. And Perez appears to have little online presence — no campaign website, and a Facebook page offering only that she's a social worker with the Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services who graduated from Edison High School in 2003 before attending UT Austin.
The few local Dems who've actually seen Perez point a May 14 candidate forum she attended alongside Soto (YouTube video here). Pat Galloway, a Bexar Democratic precinct chair, remembered Perez attempting file for the race at the last minute on March 9, the filing deadline. “She walked into our offices here in Bexar County, she tried to file here,” Galloway said. “We told her she had to file with the state.
She drove up to Austin at the last minute.”
The Current left multiple voicemails for Perez this week on the number listed in her filings with the state Democratic party. We'll update this post with her comments if/when she calls us back.
So how and why did Perez blow Soto out of the water?
SBOE districts are massive. District 3 spans 14 counties, from San Antonio to Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley, encompassing some 1.7 million constituents — more than double the size of a congressional district. That's a lot of turf to cover, especially for a down-ballot race.
One longtime Austin-based Democratic strategist and consultant, who asked not to be named in this story, offered a possible explanation for Perez's unexpected win.
With nearly 80 percent of Texas public school teachers being women, polling shows Latinas are some of the staunchest supporters of public ed. SBOE seats are the only races with education smack dab in the title. So for these board races anchored in Hispanic-heavy districts where candidates lack any real name recognition, women may favor the woman candidate by default, the strategist speculated.
The theory plays out across South Texas' two other SBOE races. In District 1, stretching from Laredo to El Paso, Democrat Martha Dominguez, an administrator with the El Paso school district, beat out two other candidates with 54 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff in the race without even campaigning. In District 2, which runs from Corpus Christi to the Valley, Celeste Zepeda Sanchez secured 45 percent of the vote, a full 10 points ahead of her Texas State Teachers Association-backed opponent Ruben Cortez Jr. in the three-way race, all despite her reportedly anemic campaign (the two head for a runoff July 31).
“It sticks out like a sore thumb for me,” said the Democratic strategist. “Here you've got three women who either didn't campaign or who campaigned the least in these Hispanic districts, and in each case the woman won outright or came out heavily leading in a runoff.”
On Perez's heavy win, Soto offered this: “I can only speculate that it's because her first name is Marisa and mine is Michael.”
Perez now faces hard-right social conservative David Williams of San Antonio, who went unchallenged in the GOP primary, for the SBOE seat.
As Quinn at TFN pointed out in an April blog post, Williams recently took to the Facebook page of the Family Research Council, a group identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay views, touting how in 2006 he helped shut down a a gay-straight alliance at his son's school.
“The Lord has given me a new mission, to run for the Texas State Board of Education,” he wrote. The gays-switchers over at Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays point to Williams in a 2005 article, when he was apparently living in Oklahoma, touting his “ten-step plan to deal with homosexual activism in schools.”
“I would assume David Williams has got a tough hill to climb because this is a heavily Democratic district,” Quinn said of the race. “Having said that, [Perez] is probably still going to need to campaign, at least some.”