In Rochester, national grievances spill into school board, mayoral races

A panel speaks to people in a room
Candidates for Rochester school board position 6 debated during a forum organized by the League of Women Voters at the Rochester Public Library on July 14.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

At a crowded school board candidate forum last week, first-time candidate Elena Niehoff warned voters of what she believes to be a socialist agenda in schools.

“I would like to warn you, my dear fellow Americans,” she said. “The socialism agenda never worked.”

Niehoff, who grew up in Ukraine, then under the Soviet Union's control, said the concern is near to her heart. She believes parents have less say in what’s being taught in school and the district's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A person holding a microphone speaks
Candidate Elena Niehoff answers a question during the forum with other candidates for Rochester school board position 6 on July 14.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

"There are no parental rights in a socialist country,” Niehoff said. “The children belong to the state."

Niehoff is among first-time candidates running for school board this year, and she's one of four members of a conservative bloc running together with the hopes of securing a majority on the board.

As in many places, Rochester's once-sleepy school board meetings became contentious forums during the pandemic. Niehoff was among those who routinely showed up last year to protest the school's masking requirements and express concerns over critical race theory, which she said is influencing school policies and curriculum.

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"The late House Speaker, Tip O'Neill was famous for saying that all politics is local. But that just really isn't true in most cases today,” said University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson.

Pearson said echoes of national, partisan hot-button issues can be heard in many campaigns this year — even in local races where candidates aren’t party endorsed.

“As partisan polarization and partisan coordination among candidates has increased since then, politics really has become nationalized,” she said.

‘Minneapolization’ of Rochester

In Rochester, there are more than a dozen first-time candidates running for local offices — mayor, city council and school board.

One city council candidate is Daniel Sepeda, who did not respond to inquiries about his campaign but talked about his experience at the Jan. 6th insurrection to the local media.

Sepeda said he didn't breach the U.S. Capitol that day, but continues to question the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Claims that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump are false.

Britt Noser is also a conservative first-time candidate running for mayor, motivated to run because he's concerned about the city's future.

Two years ago, he couldn't have imagined running for office, Noser said. The events of the last two years have changed that.

“It is kind of out of frustration of how the city is being run, (and) more generally the way some things in our country are going culturally. I felt like it wasn't representative of the history in Rochester that I knew,” Noser said.

Specifically, Noser said he’s concerned about what he calls the "Minneapolization" of the city: An overemphasis on green initiatives such as bike lanes and mass transit, but also what he believes is the threat of crime, civil unrest and disrespect of the police.

“‘Minneapolization’ — and it’s been very successful on the campaign trail — it's very visceral,” he said. “With one word, people know exactly what you mean.”

Debate over ‘critical race theory’

The school board races have generated a lot of attention, too. Niehoff and her fellow candidates share concerns about violence in schools and budgetary issues.

But they're also in lock-step over concerns that “critical race theory” or CRT is being used to influence students and policies.

CRT is an academic concept used to study racism embedded in systems and policies. 

But the phrase has also become a conservative catch-all term and a rallying cry to describe concerns that white children are being taught to be ashamed of the color of their skin to make up for generations of racism.

The district says it doesn't teach the concept, but school board candidate John Whelan contends the CRT has influenced the school’s equity policies and curriculum.

“The Rochester Public Schools or any public school system is in the business of education. They're not in the business of social engineering, and political activism,” Whelan said. 

A person holds a microphone and speaks
Incumbent Cathy Nathan answers a question during the forum.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

School board incumbent Cathy Nathan said the bloc's focus on CRT is misguided and risks the well-being of students with diverse backgrounds.

Voting for members of the bloc would “distract our educators from the work they want to do to plan culturally responsive teaching and curriculum, and dismantle the equity policy that empowers all students to learn about and express their own history, cultures and identities,” Nathan said.

Liberal headwinds

Nathan, who is facing off against Niehoff and one other candidate in the primary, said there’s always been interest in what the school board is doing. But attention to recent meetings — and by extension in the 2022 races — is unusual this election cycle.

"I think about parents who have kids in K-12, and all of the factors that they've had to think about with COVID decisions about masking or not masking vaccination, the school safety issues ... being a parent of a child you're trying to protect can cause a lot of anxiety,” she said.

Whether conservative candidates in local races will be successful this year is a different question.

Running as a bloc is an emerging trend, but to limited success, said Minnesota School Boards Association Executive Director Kirk Schneidawind.

"I think that there is some risk with that, too, because everybody among those bloc members need to be … consistent on a number of issues,” he said. 

Republicans — and those who tout conservative ideas on the campaign trail — are running in a favorable environment in part because of timing, said Pearson.

"In midterm elections, the party of the president is disadvantaged at every level of office, even though the president is not actually on the ballot. Added to that for Republicans, President Biden's approval ratings are low," she said.

Locally, conservatives may have trouble at the ballot, though; Rochester is increasingly liberal, with Olmsted County favoring President Joe Biden in 2020.